The Coward

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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.