Frail and disillusioned, Bill Rowe languishes in a prison cell. As the Luftwaffe pass overhead, he relives his journey from a basement in Gateshead to a tribunal in London tasked with examining and judging that most private and intimate of things: conscience. But will he die a coward or will he find the strength to confront his past?
REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS
Synopsis: Frail and disillusioned, Bill Rowe languishes in a prison cell. As the Luftwaffe pass overhead, he relives his journey from a basement in Gateshead to a tribunal in London tasked with examining and judging that most private and intimate of things: conscience. But will he die a coward or will he find the strength to confront his past?
Critique: A finely crafted and impressively original novel, "The Coward: Conscience On Trial" showcases the truly extraordinary storytelling talents of author Tom Wall. A fully absorbing and deftly entertaining novel from beginning to end, "The Coward: Conscience On Trial" is very highly recommended for community library General Fiction collections. For personal reading lists it should be noted that "The Coward: Conscience On Trial" is also available in a Kindle edition ($7.99).
Paul T. Vogel
~ Paul T. Vogel, Midwest Book review
Bill Rowe is a young man from Gateshead currently incarcerated in Durham Prison for refusing to answer his call-up for World War II. It is clear that he is very ill and his delirium takes the form of flashbacks of his life, his family and especially his relations with his father. We see his introduction into the Independent Labour Party and the developing reasons for his stand as a conscientious objector.
This is a beautifully written book where characters are real and their dialogue is natural and believable. Bill is neither a hero nor a villain, just a boy growing up with poverty and the struggles of life. It is also a commentary on the differences between the upper class and the working man.
I can recommend this book as a really good read, but it is not perfect. I came across half a dozen or so typographical errors which need to be corrected and for me the ending came too soon leaving a lot of questions unanswered. The cover, depicting bombers flying over Newcastle, is attractive and eye catching but maybe the title is rather abrupt – something a little more intriguing could be of benefit, one which would have done justice to what otherwise is an excellent book. ~ Helen Hollick, Indie reviews
Tom Wall’s debut novel tells the story of a young man, Bill Rowe, who refuses to serve in the Second World War and is imprisoned for his conscientious objection.
The narrative moves back and forth between his memories and his life in prison, interspersed with perspectives from other characters.
Bill was born at the end of the First World War in the industrial north east of England. His father was deeply scarred by his experience of that war, became an alcoholic and had been unable to find decent work during the depression of the 1930s.
Bill’s mother could have been a talented pianist but her poor circumstances thwarted any prospects she might have had. She married and ended up struggling to bring up her two children in grinding poverty.
Bill had to go to work as soon as he was old enough. He instinctively sticks up for other workers but doesn’t trust the union officials.
He had made friends with a boy at school whose family were political, and came across books and ideas in their house. He began to form ideas about how society works. In the lead up to the war he is already forming the view that it is not his war.
His friend’s father, Tom, is in the Independent Labour Party. He had been a soldier in the First World War and could not reconcile himself with killing men he had more in common with than his own officers.
Tom had said that “British capitalists talk a great deal about patriotism but it is always instructive to look at what they have been doing rather than what they are saying”.
He pointed out that five years before the Second World War “Britain, France and Poland were supplying Germany with the raw materials and finance to rearm”.
When Bill is called up for the Second World War he refuses to fight and ends up at two tribunals, the first in Newcastle and the second in London, where he explains why he is a conscientious objector.
He refuses to go for an army medical as instructed and ends up in prison.
This moving novel tackles a subject that has been little talked about. Bill would have been seen by many in the past as a traitor.
Against all the odds, Bill was a hero taking the hard road when he could have just gone along with the general tide of opinion.
This is a sad tale well told which convincingly outlines the grinding life and lost chances of many working class people in the north east.
~ Socialist Review, http://socialistreview.org.uk/404/coward
It’s not often you read any book these days in which the Independent Labour Party plays a leading role, let alone a fictional one. But the ILP and all its between-the-wars ruminations is central to the tale of Bill Rowe, the main character in Tom Wall’s debut novel, The Coward: Conscience on trial, published by Roundfire Books at the end of July.
Coward coverWall is a freelance journalist based in north London, but his novel is set on Tyneside in the turbulent years leading up to the Second World War. It was inspired by Wall’s grandfather, Bill Robinson, an ILP member in Newcastle who refused to join up in 1939, choosing to farm instead of fight as he toed the ILPs anti-war line.
The Coward opens with the fictional Bill languishing in a cell in Durham Prison, where he’s been incarcerated after a series of tribunals rejected his explicitly political arguments for conscientious objection.
Bill is in a bad way, suffering from tuberculosis and the violent beatings of his fellow prisoners to whom he is a traitor and a coward. As he lies fighting for his life, Rowe retraces his life’s journey from a poverty-stricken upbringing in a Gateshead basement to union activism at work on the docks and political awakening under the warming influence of a friendly ILP family.
Through his eyes and experiences we witness the personal aftermath of World War One embodied in the shrivelled figure of his drunken, violent and unemployed father; the horrors of the means test and all it meant for families like the Rowes, including Bill’s chronically ill sister, Peggy; and the arguments, betrayals and misdirections of the 1930s left, of the ILP in particular.
The young Rowe becomes an ILPer himself, selling the New Leader around the mining villages of the Durham coalfield, and grows increasingly close to the Weaver family of schoolfriend Len and his sister, Florence.
All this is played out against the background of Ramsay MacDonald’s disastrous decision to form a national coalition government with the Tories, the ILP’s similarly misguided move to disaffiliate from the Labour Party, and the gradual build-up to war with Germany.
Echoes of today
Many of Bill’s encounters echo with chimes of our own austere times and the dilemmas facing today’s left as it tries to oppose the harsh measures of a similarly punitive government while grappling with the fall-out from a damaged Labour Party of dwindling influence.
When Labour loses its Gateshead parliamentary seat, Bill learns that his stuttering dad has voted for the National Liberals. “I-I-I’ve been Labour all me life, son. But this shower, they’ve bankrupted the country. At least the Tories and Liberals know how to handle m-m-money.” Sound familiar?
Later, Thomas Weaver, Len’s father, is arguing in favour of the ILP’s disaffiliation with his wife, Lizzie. “The cuts made families destitute,” he says. “You saw it in your classrooms. I saw it on the streets. Then when things got worse because mothers couldn’t buy anything but margarine and sheep brains, they proposed more cuts. Then MacDonald …”
“What can we do by ourselves?” she asks in reply. “We are better in a mass party fighting for socialism than outside it, pure but alone… The ILP’s mission is to convert the Labour Party to socialism. Have we failed? Or given up?”
Bill decides it is Labour that has failed and given up, and sticks with the ILP as it votes to go it alone. But his growing commitment to the ILP cause, especially its opposition to war with Hitler, leads to rejection and estrangement from his family, ejection from his squalid flat by his patriotic landlady, and dejection as his secretive relationship with Florence founders on his failure to appreciate her broader view of the world.
Eventually, he is sent to prison as a CO after his claims of political conscience are turned down by a London appeals tribunal. This is where we found him at the start of the novel, and where we leave him at the end as he struggles to confront his past and mend broken relationships.
The plight of First World War COs is well known, as is the ILP’s role in opposing that conflict. But as Wall points, many men and women also refused to fight in World War Two, a war now almost universally regarded as ‘good’.
Wall puts questions of conscience, commitment and dissent up-front and centre-view in his first novel, but never in a way that obscures the personal story, the human costs and consequences of the politics of the day.
Bill Rowe is ‘the coward’ of the book’s title, but his resistance to his own circumstances and the mainstream opinions of the world around him is an act of courage. In telling his tale, Wall has painted a vivid portrait of the times, and a poignant parable of our own. ~ Independent Labour Party, http://www.independentlabour.org.uk/main/2015/07/22/reading-the-past/
"Wall’s inspiring novel of an incredibly brave man's resistance during the Second World War resounds powerfully with our times. Scarred by wars, means-testing, broken promises and poverty, The Coward tells the story of Bill Rowe’s political awakening in 1930s Britain and his courageous stand against the so-called People’s War. Beautifully told, The Coward speaks of a world hideously deformed by the rich in wars fought by the poor. Even the loneliest resistance of the novels hero transforms the story into an exceptionally vital and vivid parable for today." ~ Leo Zeilig, author of Eddie the Kid
"The themes of The Coward remain as pertinent today as they were 70 years ago. It remains just as difficult to find the path of conscience when we are faced with wars that are little more than the squabbles of rich men."
~ Milan Rai, Peace News co-editor and author