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An Unexpected Gift

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A friend of mine likes to send me souvenirs from his travels. We share a love of odd postcards, and occasionally I find in my letterbox a picture of a curiously empty parking lot or an industrial unit on the outskirts of a town. We also have a mutual affection for Turkish coffee and the subtle variations in the way in which it’s roasted and served in different parts of the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East, so my post sometimes carries the strong, aromatic scent of a new discovery, though the rich, cardamom-flavoured variety he once sent me from a Palestinian shop in Jerusalem remains unsurpassed to this day. So when a slim padded envelope arrived from him last year I was expecting something similar – a memento from the road. Instead the envelope contained a gift that sent me on a journey.

I’m continually amazed by how many remarkable writers can pass you by, even when you think you read a lot. My friend had sent me a copy of The Cone-Gatherers (1955) by Robin Jenkins. I’d never heard of him, but I later discovered that in his long life (1912–2005) he’d written thirty novels and two short-story collections. His books have also appeared on the school syllabus in his native Scotland, and the Robin Jenkins Award was established to recognize exceptional works of environmental literature. But I didn’t know any of this when I sat down to read the book.

The Cone-Gatherers is set on a Scottish estate beside a sea loch during the Second World War. While her husband is away fighting, Lady Runcie-Campbell is in sole charge of the estate, and she has grudgingly allowed two brothers to work in her woodland following an appeal by a forestry officer on the grounds of patriotism. The two brothers, Calum and Neil, have been given the job of harvesting the cones of the trees for seed, and it is in the woods of this extensive estate – actually in the trees themselves – that we first meet them. Calum is 31, a hunchback a

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A friend of mine likes to send me souvenirs from his travels. We share a love of odd postcards, and occasionally I find in my letterbox a picture of a curiously empty parking lot or an industrial unit on the outskirts of a town. We also have a mutual affection for Turkish coffee and the subtle variations in the way in which it’s roasted and served in different parts of the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East, so my post sometimes carries the strong, aromatic scent of a new discovery, though the rich, cardamom-flavoured variety he once sent me from a Palestinian shop in Jerusalem remains unsurpassed to this day. So when a slim padded envelope arrived from him last year I was expecting something similar – a memento from the road. Instead the envelope contained a gift that sent me on a journey.

I’m continually amazed by how many remarkable writers can pass you by, even when you think you read a lot. My friend had sent me a copy of The Cone-Gatherers (1955) by Robin Jenkins. I’d never heard of him, but I later discovered that in his long life (1912–2005) he’d written thirty novels and two short-story collections. His books have also appeared on the school syllabus in his native Scotland, and the Robin Jenkins Award was established to recognize exceptional works of environmental literature. But I didn’t know any of this when I sat down to read the book. The Cone-Gatherers is set on a Scottish estate beside a sea loch during the Second World War. While her husband is away fighting, Lady Runcie-Campbell is in sole charge of the estate, and she has grudgingly allowed two brothers to work in her woodland following an appeal by a forestry officer on the grounds of patriotism. The two brothers, Calum and Neil, have been given the job of harvesting the cones of the trees for seed, and it is in the woods of this extensive estate – actually in the trees themselves – that we first meet them. Calum is 31, a hunchback and simple-minded, but also as ‘indigenous as squirrel or bird’. In the book’s dreamlike opening, chaffinches flutter about him while he works at the top of a larch, nearer to the sky than the ground. He’s a man who releases rabbits from the gamekeeper’s snares and who feels an instinctive connection with the sentient and suffering world around him. Calum’s older brother, Neil, is both troubled and delighted by this compassionate innocence, knowing how exposed and vulnerable it leaves them in a world at war and with little time for sentiment. Duror, the gamekeeper of the estate, repelled by Calum’s physical deformity and his tender empathy with animals, vows to destroy the brothers for polluting the ‘sanctuary’ of his woods. His dark malevolence is a constant, troubling presence for the two brothers, a shadow of the not-so-distant conflict. The brothers are outsiders on the estate in more ways than one. Sent to harvest cones on their own, they’ve had to leave behind their familiar community of fellow foresters. During their stay they are housed in a dingy, leaking shack, while the palatial stone manor of the landowners is clearly visible from high in the trees where they work. Since their mother died soon after Calum’s birth and they never knew their father, Neil has become his younger brother’s devoted guardian – a role which has prevented him from marrying or enlisting in the army. So they have joined the ranks of the men on the home front – the elderly, the young, the ill and the unwilling. Robin Jenkins was himself a conscientious objector during the war, and was sent to work for the Forestry Commission in Argyll. His wartime experiences there helped shape a novel that is both moving and richly symbolic, a portrait of two siblings on their own in the world, making the most of what little they’ve been given. At the core of the book is a searing portrayal of social injustice. Although I was born in England, I moved to Canada with my parents when I was young and grew up without an inkling of the class system they had left behind. But years later, when I eventually returned, I was startled to see how thoroughly class still permeated British society. The corrupted consequences of entitlement by birth are personified by Lady Runcie-Campbell when she observes: ‘These cone-gatherers, for instance. Obviously, in any way you like to look at it, they are our inferiors; they would be the first to admit it themselves; it is self-evident . . . The maintenance of society on a civilized basis depends on us.’ In his spare time, Calum carves rabbits and squirrels from pieces of wood. He doesn’t question his position in life, longing only to be free with the birds in the trees. It is Neil who carries the anguish and burden of their humiliation. ‘Aren’t the kennels at the house bigger than our hut?’ he asks his brother. ‘We’re human beings just like them. We need space to live and breathe in.’ As tensions begin to rise on the estate, and the gamekeeper’s violent, brooding menace grows, the brothers use a free Saturday afternoon to leave the estate and travel into town where another side of their lives is revealed. There they are warmly welcomed by everyone they meet, receiving the largest portions of fish and chips at the café and extra rations from beneath the counter at the grocer’s. While a war is being fought on the continent, and on the estate a class conflict is unfolding which will affect the future of everyone caught up in it, Jenkins celebrates such small moments of empathy and connection in the fleeting human lives he sketches. This luminous tenderness at the heart of the novel is captivating. When I first read The Cone-Gatherers it was the story of the brothers that lingered with me long after the book’s extraordinary last scene. But rereading it recently, I found another strand of the story that now stays with me. Roderick, the heir to the estate, has been raised as a man of ‘education, breeding, and discernment’ and groomed in all the duties expected of a future baronet. Yet he seeks friendship with the brothers and repudiates the social conventions of his caste. He is the questioning moral centre of this deeply compassionate novel, a boy who instinctively sees the connection between the war being fought overseas and the inherited patterns of injustice being perpetuated on the land that will one day be his. Unlike his mother he admires the hard-working brothers and wants to be at home in the tree-tops beside them, labouring to gather cones for the sake of future green woods and sharing a world in which finches land wondrously in his hands. Books enter our lives in myriad ways – through reviews and by word of mouth, by accident or serendipity, through remembered conversations or browsing in libraries and bookshops. And then there are those gifts that arrive unannounced. These are the books I especially treasure – those by an author I might never have discovered, that reveal a deeply felt world I would never otherwise have known.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 47 © Julian Hoffman 2015


About the contributor

Julian Hoffman lives in a village in the mountains of northern Greece and is the author of The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World.

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