Michael Cannon (2014) Articles of Faith

I admit to googling Michael Cannon to see if I knew him. He comes from the West of Scotland and has had a wide variety of jobs (snap), wasn’t very good at school (snap), has written a couple of novels (well I’ve kinda) and they’ve been published. Snap out of it. I don’t know the lucky bastard, but I have read his book.

What attracted me to Articles of Faith wasn’t the author but the subject. The narrative setting in my hometown Clydebank, a place I often use as a backdrop for my stories. It’s written in the present tense, which is perhaps surprising as it opens before the Second World War with launching of a ship on the Clyde, ‘thirty thousand tons of blunt keel and angular superstructure’. The war is finished, the need for secrecy gone, why not name the ship? (RMS Queen Elizabeth). Similarly, the setting of tenement life is sketched in broad strokes. Deborah Neavis is standing, ‘in the pose of a letter K’ with her son Michael balance on her hip. ‘Her block is one of a number, like clay furrows, the red sandstone drinking in the light’.  This is good descriptive prose. Good scene setting, but suffers from repetition and the sharp image of the pose of a letter K is repeated twice and loses its lustre.

The author uses an omniscient narrator which flits in and out of the heads of several of the main protagonists and their families that live near the yard and on the Clyde. It’s a poor working-class district and something of a Catholic ghetto. Again I’d have liked the author to be more specific. There was a loosely linked blocks of tenement houses and model-lodgings for working men centring around Dumbarton Road and the Whitecrook area known as the Bisley. Why not just say that? Similarly, the first Parish priest, Father Delaney, whom the reader is introduced to in the opening pages, lives in an unspecified church house with his housekeeper, Mrs Quigley. Why not use the available backdrop of Our Holy Redeemers’ church and school? Father Delaney is, by his own admission, not particularly good man. In contrast, Deborah’s husband Stephen is portrayed as the stalwart salt-of-the earth protagonist seen in, for example, William McIlvanney’s Docherty. Parachuted into this setting is the saintly Polish Jacek Tomaszewkski, who has a doctorate in maths. He is the only male teacher in the local (unspecified) primary school, (apart from the headmaster, of course, who is always male and never a Pole). Jacek sees everything, even that Clydebank is not adequately prepared for the German bombing raids, which will come (he like the narrator has omniscient powers) and, he also warns Father Paolo, that replaced the old Parish priest, about the only teacher in the school that worries him, the spinster Miss Herne.

‘Some in the staff room are stupid and at least one is bigoted. But Miss Herne in her way is neither. She’s not biased towards any one person or group. Her discrimination is almost total. And she’s far more dangerous than any of them.’

Jacek is not the only stranger in the ghetto’s midst. Far stranger flowers are the beauty and the beast twins of Georgina (Gig) and Campbell Renton. The latter is ugly, even in streets were ugliness is usually not worth remarking upon, but has brute strength and no little intelligence. It is Gig, however, that Miss Herne covets as an acolyte. A glowing pubescent beauty in a dung heap is a rare thing, especially as the children’s father Alan is a Protestant and a loathsome thing that seeks three things, his fags, his booze and an opportunistic fuck and is quite willing to use his children as markers to get what he wants.

bisley clydebankComparisons must be made between Miss Herne and Jean Brodie in her prime. Muriel Spark, however, attained no little grace, and classic status almost immediately, upon realise of her Magnum opus. Michael Cannon will have to wait a bit longer.