The Search by John Henry Phillips
|The Search by John Henry Phillips|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: Packing a lot more emotion than many entries to our History shelves, this attempt to 'reunite' a D-Day survivor with the wreck of his landing craft is a wonderful pick to show the power of closure.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 336||Date: June 2022|
|External links: Author's website|
Archaeology cannot be child's play, when you're scraping in the dirt looking to find what you can find, often knowing there should be something there but not always confident what. Archaeology must be a fair bit harder when you set out to find some specific thing. This book is a case of the latter, as our author promises to locate the topic of the titular search. And he really hasn't made it easy for himself – the search area is a wide one, the target might not exist any more – oh, and it's underwater, when he cannot dive. Latching on to a particular D-Day veteran through helping the heroic old man's visit back to France, our author has promised to find the landing craft that delivered him to Normandy, and that he was lucky to survive when it sank from beneath him. The secondary aim is to erect a memorial to everyone else aboard, the vast majority of whom perished. Who else would make such promises to someone in their nineties?
Well we only have thanks that someone did, and that it was John Henry Phillips. We also have nothing but thanks and admiration for Patrick Thomas, the immediately likeable if tone deaf warrior, plucked from Shrewsbury and turned into a telegraph operator on board LCH 185. 185 – confusingly renumbered for D-Day itself, just to make looking for its activities just a smidge harder – was one of the first boats to approach Sword Beach, not the sheer hellhole that was Omaha perhaps but a damned lethal place to be. As a Landing Craft Headquarters, LCH 185 was a more-or-less mobile operations base, but a working one – not just involved in braying orders and picking up chatter, but leading convoys and spreads of boats through the mine-depleted channels, and making sure the prime Nazi targets – those leading the operations, signage, signalling and decision-making on the sand – could at least get there.
All this comes from some incredibly readable chapters about the D-Day landings, and for someone like me who has barely touched on that subject at least these have the feel of superlative writing. Phillips, moreover, even if he's only been used to penning university papers and lectures, and archaeology site notes and proposals, proves himself a consummate hand when it comes to narrative – he might rankle with a few people the way he fictionalises a lot of his man's life, but it never once felt inappropriate or incorrect to me. The whole purpose of the book, of the search for the boat and of the memorial, is to give Thomas a life beyond imminent death, and such close-up detail as here really makes him breathe.
The best non-fiction books have that frisson, delivered by being about a subject you couldn't ever guarantee yourself reading about, being presented in the best possible style by an author who can prove themselves the ideal person to represent their contents. And this is more or less that. It's clear through the modern timeline of the piece that story and writer found each other by chance – the bonkers circumstance of the first extended meeting between the two men, and the simple fact that five or ten years ago our creator was by no means the archaeologist needed for the job, and the subject not of a mind to spill, yet five years further on everything would be too late. There is, if you like, serendipity and science on these pages, and while I assume the author's academic background has reigned in the attitude of I knew I had months to honour this man, or everything would be dashed!!! there is the nagging tick of the clock as you read this, that wants everything pat and done and dusted before the chance is gone.
That and the very nature of the plot makes one itch to jump to the end to find the answer, and yet the writing is compelling enough to keep you on the page at hand and not skimming forward. Phillips with his debut book has a great career ahead of him, on this evidence – he makes documentaries and is breaching the walls of TV as I write. Whether he does the doolally thing again of hoping for one needle in the haystack, finding a specific relic to order, as his Indiana Jones inspiration would pretend was so easy, seems a long-odds bet. Either way, all I can do is heartily recommend this as a read, and as the final songs are sung and the final voices gone, and we lose the last veterans from the World War Two theatres of war, this has an intimate approach to a unique example yet shows a sterling tribute to all airmen, warriors and mariners concerned.
Good on you, Blue.
In very different ways, Ronnie and Hilda's Romance: Towards a New Life after World War II by Wendy Williams also brings people from the times of war to the fore.
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