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Book Review: A Better Hole by Robin Campbell

18 Feb 2024 5 minute read
A Better Hole is written and published by Robin Campbell

Jon Gower

If you’re a reader of a certain age you’ll be able to pretty much surf into this novel, carried along on a great wave of nostalgia.

Set in Cleddau Dock – a barely concealed Pembroke Dock – it chronicles the schooldays and after-school adventures of a gang of friends in the late 1950s. So there are dens being built and secret gang rituals; games being played such as British Bulldogs, Splits and marbles and ventures into the countryside to collect wild birds’ eggs or smoke illicit Woodbines.

There are rafts to build and guys to make before Bonfire Night and wheels to put on the go-cart. And if all of this has worked up a thirst you can slake it with some Corona pop, which can taste positively ambrosial in memory.

In this A Better Hole has much in common with some of the work of the Rhondda writer Gwyn Thomas whose stories, such as ‘Thy Need’ similarly detail the lives of friends Sylvanus, Verdun and Elwyn in the fictional village of Meadow Prospect.

It also shares much with the fiction of Llanelli author William Glynne-Jones, too, as he also mapped out the territories of childhood, its endless games and sunlit play.

Campbell’s own ode to past times is set in a changing Pembrokeshire. Oil refinery stacks are beginning to punctuate the west Wales skyline and German Panzers are rolling heavily onto the tank range at Castlemartin.

And so too are the lives of the likes of Gareth, Hywel, Leonard and Jenny set to change as the eleven-plus results decide which secondary schools they will attend. It pokes gently fun at the place they inhabit, not least its lack of real news.

Even someone not drowning is enough to claim some column inches in the local paper, or even the headlines:

It hit the front page of the Cleddau Chronicle, of course, a near drowning being as good as near murder in these here parts, where the disappearance of a cat was known to have filled two pages of copy. As ever, the accuracy of the story wasn’t a requirement and the number of witnesses exceeded the population by several hundred.

That small population is quickly sketched into being in this lively novel, with bright vignettes of folk such as Mr Skone the station master, who claimed to have shrapnel in his thigh from fighting the Japanese in Burma.

Gareth Mathias, the book’s narrator, cheerfully offers his brother Dave’s corrective that Skone, in truth ‘would have been too old to have fought in the war, and that any bullet was more likely to have been fired by Mrs Skone, his wife of forty years.’

We also encounter butcher Geraint Bowen, with a face like boiled ham and a pig’s snout for a nose, whose eyesight is failing to the extent that people are betting on the likelihood of his cutting off his own thumb by Christmas. And then there’s shoe-shop owner Algernon Whitehall, who weighs ‘no more than a paper bag’ and is a solid ‘pillock of the community.’

They are all conjured into being in a book which recalls what the author described as the ‘good old days; when ‘people left their front doors open, so that when you came home at 4pm, you’d find the burglar making himself a cup of tea.’

You’ll have gleaned that there’s an awful lot of humour in play in A Better Hole. The annual Halloween apple-bobbing competition, held in someone’s backyard, is derided as ‘the community saliva-sharing ceremony’ while the Eisteddfod choir competition ends like the ‘cessation of hostilities between piano and choristers while the folk dance ‘resembles an aerial form of tag wrestling.’

You can see how apt is the comparison with Gwyn Thomas, who enjoys conjuring up the past and the closeness of communities even as he has a bit of fun describing them both.

The tone of the book gets steadily darker as it progresses. A mother is hospitalized with a series stroke and subsequently dies while bleak memories of the horrors of the Second World War resurface.

So, among the youthful gang battles of Cleddau Dock and the early dawns of sexual awakening as boy meets girl and sometimes kiss, there is the harsh reality of what happened on the beaches of Anzio or out in the trenches.

The war is, after all not a distant memory but a livid, vivid wound for many a returned combatant and the meaning of the book’s title ultimately becomes clear when we learn about foxholes – ‘better holes’ or dugouts – where a soldier might be safe on the real field of battle, in the wars adults fight.

A Better Hole by Robin Campbell is available here.

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