It was as though ghosts were walking through the throng at The Fishes on Sunday. Among groups of friends in deck-chairs and children playing Garden Jenga, strolled ladies in tailored dresses with velvet collars, Land Girls and men in uniform. An armoured Dingo Scout car guarded North Hinksey Lane. An Army truck and 1940s taxi were parked under the trees down near Seacourt Stream.
It was a strange but thrilling experience to sit in a tent listening to actors dressed as Lt. Mike Dixon and ATS Driver Charlie Carrington read passages from Not Only The Good Boys. It felt like the end of a very long campaign that started ten years ago when I found some foreign newspapers under the bathroom lino at my house in Deddington.
Dated 1939, they led me to an important but little-known piece of history – the story of one extraordinary man’s struggle to build a set of secret weapons to help the invasion force establish a beach-head in Normandy. He had only a year to do it, and very limited resources. That man was Major-General Percy Hobart and between 1940 and 1948 he and his wife and daughter lived in the house my family now calls home.
With the story reaching its climax on D-Day it felt right to launch the book to coincide with the 70th anniversary commemorations. We came up with the idea of a Forties themed garden party at the Fishes four months ago.
Since then pub manager Owain Llwyd Jones and his team have been seeking enthusiasts with wartime military vehicles who would be willing to bring them to the pub. A chance conversation in the bar put him in touch with Martin Twyford, who agreed to get involved, and volunteered his friends too. We were offered a Sherman tank – but decided North Hinksey Lane might never be the same! I found an extraordinary cache of authentic uniforms at Abingdon Drama Club, which agreed to loan them.
Actor Amy Enticknap came to a sneak preview evening for book groups in May and, having read the book, volunteered herself and friend Steve Hay to perform extracts on the day. Live music, a barbecue and hairdressers who set the guests’ hair into 40s do’s, made for a lovely mellow party on a lovely mellow day, the weather a far cry from the terrible storms on D-Day itself.
I spent three years researching and writing Not Only The Good Boys. Having read many first-hand accounts of D-Day the whole 70th anniversary weekend was vivid for me – and far more about the men who fought than about a book launch. All day I was conscious of the Commonwealth War Grave just five minutes walk away in Botley Cemetery, where 516 World War II airmen are buried. Although deputy manager Rob Rowley-Williams looked as if his RAF uniform had been tailored for him, to me he was an echo of all those very young men who fought and died for our freedom to sit in a pub garden on a sunny afternoon with our friends without fear of persecution.