A hilarious take on village politics at their very worst.
A Tunnel is Only a Hole on its Side – James Minter
James Minter was born in Oxfordshire, from whence he is said to draw much inspiration for his writing. Prior to writing fiction, Minter spent 35 years in the IT industry working on specialist literature, including training manuals. In 2009 Minter turned his mind to writing fiction, the experience of which he soon fell in love with. Five years on and he has become an award-winning author. His first book, The Hole Opportunity,was published in 2011 and formed the beginning of The Hole Trilogy. The book went on to be the Bronze Winner for Adult Fiction at the Wishing Shelf Book Awards in 2013. Minter’s second book, The Unexpected Consequences of Iron Overload, was published the following year, taking a humorous look at the medical condition Haemochromatosis and written to help raise awareness of the condition, from which Minter himself suffers. The second book in The Hole Trilogy, A Tunnel is Only a Hole on its Side, was published in 2013.
The Hole Trilogy follows the lives of the citizens of the small town of Harpsden. In A Tunnel is Only a Hole on its Side, Minter takes a look at the reaction of the town’s citizens when faced with the idea of change. Harpsden is in dire need of a bypass – the roads are so clogged that the traffic backs up right to the high street, making accessing Waitrose an absolute nightmare. When a letter arrives from the council to announce a proposed new bypass, which threatens to cut through the local golf course, the citizens of Harpsden are driven to distraction. The club’s members, including the captain Major Woods, are horrified by the proposal and take it upon themselves to redesign the route. Major Woods takes the opportunity to reignite a feud he has with ‘hole farmer’ Colin Griggs and proposes a route that will effectively wipe the Griggs’ farm off the map. Meanwhile, kindly Colin opts for an alternate route that will suit everyone – tunnelling under the golf course and constructing the tunnel himself, potentially winning the favour of Major Woods in the process. As with all small town politics, however, nothing is ever that simple.
When I started reading this book, Minter’s writing style immediately appealed to me. The text is very well written, accessible, and humorous. I had to do a little of my own research to begin with as I hadn’t had the opportunity to read the first book in the trilogy. I was a little confused by the concept of ‘hole farming’ and wasn’t familiar with the feud between Colin Griggs and Major Woods, but after a bit of surfing the web I soon set this straight and was able to enjoy the book for what it is, a really funny, light-hearted read.
My initial reaction to Minter’s work was that it reads like an English sitcom, an opinion which I maintained throughout. It really does feel as though you are watching an episode of Keeping up Appearances or One Foot in the Grave. I really liked Minter’s introduction of Colin Griggs (whose character I absolutely love, by the way – but more on that later). Colin is introduced as an aging farmer, whose thoughts are so plagued by the rumour of a new bypass that he is unable to sleep and decides to put pen to paper to help clear his head. The description of Colin, sneaking downstairs in the early hours of the morning, trying so hard to be quiet and ultimately stumbling aimlessly in the dark, is priceless:
‘Making his way downstairs, he remembered the third from the top produced a loud squeak. Stepping over it, he stumbled past the next two treads. In the dark, he’d misjudged the distance. He struggled to maintain his balance ricocheting off the walls like a pinball in an arcade machine.’
Another aspect of Minter’s writing I enjoyed was being able to see the characters thoughts through the use of the third person omniscient. This too, for me, added to the feel of the book being like a sitcom. An example which immediately comes to mind is Colin’s wife’s description of Colin coming in from the cold in the first chapter:
‘Dropping his smile he flopped back into his chair. The fly on his pyjama bottoms gaped. There was nothing to see. It must be cold out there, she thought.’
Minter is said to draw on his own knowledge of rural Oxfordshire as the inspiration for his characters. Hailing from a small town myself, I can definitely relate to Minter’s choice of characters and his description of village politics. Those involved in community interest groups can very often get far too carried away, especially if it is a heavily contested subject. This is evident with the characters in Minter’s book and none more so than Major Woods, who sees himself as being at ‘war’ with several other citizens of Harpsden and takes his role as head of the Golfer’s Against the New Bypass very, very seriously:
‘The Major felt his hackles rise. “Mr Flanagan, you’ve been invited here today as a guest, to report on proceedings only. This is not a public debate. Please keep your thoughts to yourself. If you’d listen and not interrupt, then as Mary said, you will learn. Now please be quiet. Questions will be allowed later.” The colour in his cheeks was reminiscent of a Macaques’ red bum.’
The Major in general is only too reminiscent of someone taking a role far too seriously. No doubt the bypass is an important subject, but the Major appears more than a little unhinged. I hope I don’t make any enemies by saying that from why I understand of small groups like this there is always a character such as the Major, who feels they can take the law into their own hands, Minter just does a rather fantastic and hilarious job of describing such an individual.
One final passage of praise for this book: I thought the characters were fantastic. Minter presents a really good mix of characters, including a fantastically posh and aging Lady of the Manor, a sultry seductress, as well as characters who appeal to a reader’s better nature, and others that are just downright infuriating. Major Woods is firmly rooted in that last category for me; I find the idea of such a man absolutely repugnant, which I think is what makes him such a great character. A friend of mine once told me of an aging army Major who would always sign his name ‘Major’ so and so, if there was a chance the person reading it might think they were better than him. I don’t know if such a man actually exists, but it is of him that I thought when reading about the self important, furious and somewhat ridiculous man that is Major Woods.
‘The persistent drone of the Mercedes horn alerted him to the Major’s arrival. Looking up he was taken aback to see him, eyes staring, mouth trembling, moustache twitching, face reddening, nostril flaring, only a few feet away from him.’
Needless to say, anybody who insists on being called Major outside of a barracks by close friends is not ok by me, but he does make for a rather amusing read.
On the other hand, I struggle to see how anyone could fail to warm to Colin Griggs. The man is so well meaning, while perhaps a little short sighted at times. I really took to Colin, finding his inability to use a computer an endearing and largely accurate description of many older people I know.
I was very pleasantly surprised by the book as a whole. Minter has created something very unique to him – it is different to anything I have read before. The only aspect of the book I struggled with slightly, and which I feel could perhaps use a bit more work, is the transition between settings and chapters. At times the text can read a bit like a script and it can get a little bit much, making it difficult to read too much in one sitting.
Overall, I found A Tunnel is Only a Hole on its Side to be a really light-hearted and entertaining look at village politics and rural living. I think Minter is undoubtedly unique in his writing style and has created something, which, while it may not be for everyone, will have a lot of people singing its praises. I would strongly recommend anyone give it a go, if only to experience something a little different.
Many thanks to James Minter for providing me with a free review copy of the book.