The Cone-Gatherers

I remember still the first time I was handed a copy of The Cone Gatherers, by Robin Jenkins. It remains with me to this day and also serves as an example of my remarkable youthful laziness.

English classes in High School were a place to annoy our friends, rather than read books. When our teacher, Mr. Hershaw, handed out The Cone-Gatherers and asked us to write a detailed report on it, I plopped the book in my schoolbag and forgot about it, until the day before the deadline when I read the synopsis on the back of the book, the first few pages and wrote a fumbling account of what the book was about.

To not receive severe detention (in Scotland we got what was called a Punishment Exercise – a long written Bart Simpson type thing) was profound. Instead Mr. Hershaw decided to get his fat red pen and write something like “YOU DID NOT READ THE BOOK OBVS” all over it. Taking me aside after class, he didn’t chastise or make a mockery of me. Instead he asked where my book was (in my bag) and asked me to read it this time, and re-submit my report by the end of the week.

Thankful to not have to sit after school and write the same sentence perpetually for an hour or explain a severe dressing down to my Mum, and with his encouragement as inspiration, that night I went home and read the book cover to cover.

The story written in 1955, set in WWII Scotland, revolves around 3 central characters – 2 brothers called Neil and Callum who gather cones for seed to replenish forests, and the estate’s game-keeper called Duror. The game-keeper has an unfathomable and obsessive hatred for the brothers, but in particular Callum, who was born physically and mentally impaired. Duror’s repulsion stems from his own situation where the girl he fell in love with has, through illness, morphed in to a grotesquely obese wife. She lies in her bed day in, day out, with his opinionated and spiteful mother-in-law looking after her. The brothers are brilliant at their job, but as the unquenchable thirst to rid his world of Callum reaches its zenith, as well as his own deepening despair preventing him from surfacing for air, Duror knows there can be only one resolution. As supporting cast we have estate owner Lady Runcie-Campbell and her children, of which her youngest son takes a shine to Callum and resents Duror for his treatment and clear hatred of the brothers. There’s also the brothers’ Employer; a jovial but mouthy doctor and some other staff who bring a bit of lightness and relief to an otherwise dark and troubling story.

The book covers a multitude of themes and symbolisms including good and evil, sacrifice and the many facets thereof, and a whole host of religious parallels i.e. the garden of eden et al. I’m not a religious person so fail to connect a lot of these but it’s written in such a elegant way that you don’t need the background.

It is by far my favourite book. I must have read 20 times now and is beautifully written by Jenkins. I love everything about it; that it’s set in Scotland; that the book deals with important issues so profoundly. It’s just a sublime book from start to end. I want to make this into a film and have thought long and hard how I would; I might not have the skills to do it justice but I have the burning desire to see it on the big screen. If only I knew some Scottish actors…

I implore anyone to pick this up and read it – there’s also a fore-word from Paul Giamatti, one of my favourite thespians, in the Kindle edition which is similarly wonderful.

I wish I could transport myself back to English class and properly discuss it with Mr. Hershaw – I bet I would have a bit more to contribute this time around. As time passes though, the only thing I can do is read it again and again, and be absorbed by it again and again. Each time I do my love for it is renewed afresh, and I think about it for weeks after. Now my little girl is here, when it’s time, I will introduce it to her. It deals with such important issues that I can discuss with her – unconditional love, fear, hate, regret, sacrifice for others and strength in the face of absurdity. What’s not to love about that?