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                                                                                        Readers Write #41 November 2015

The galloping submarine, 

             Skull's desert wear,

                          and a left-handed Cake    

As the lawyers like to say, the devil is in the detail.  My advice to any new author is to read your contract very carefully and with a blue pencil in your hand.   Publishers like to insert a clause that gives them a fat share of any sales of screen rights, meaning film or TV money.  I always cross out that clause.  Publishers are in the book business,  not the movie business, and who knows?  Screen rights could earn the author more than royalties.  Writing is a job,  and it’s up to the author to stay in business.

And the devil-in-the-detail warning applies to writing the book in the first place.  Get one small detail wrong, and the reader is liable to shout ‘Idiot!’ and fling your book in the fire.  For instance, in a crime novel by a well-known author, a character walks through an English wood at night and is startled by the sudden noise of an owl’s wings.  Not true.  Owls’ wings are virtually silent; that’s what helps them catch their prey.  It was just a detail, but my belief in the whole story took a nasty knock.  Another example:  a book about the Falklands Campaign made such a cock-up of a British submarine’s journey that I calculated the sub must have been doing 125 m.p.h.  That sort of thing shakes your faith.  Well, I’m human too,  and errors can creep in,  so if possible I ask a former pilot to read my new aviation story while it’s still in typescript.  Avoids a lot of blunders.  Even so,  I sometimes stumbled.  Many years ago, a veteran pilot pointed out that a book of mine referred to an R.F.C. pilot returning from a patrol at low level and hedge-hopping over the trenches.  ‘Wrong,’ he said. ‘There weren’t any hedges left to hop over.’  I hadn’t thought of that. 

 One thing I never had to worry about was what my aircrews wore on duty,  since it had to be uniform. Now Steve in Oxford, a longtime supporter, re-read A Good Clean Fight ‘and thoroughly enjoyed it’  all over again. The air war in the Western Desert was one place where nobody bothered about uniforms and everyone wore what they pleased  -  including Skull, the Intelligence Officer,  whose very old rowing blazer interested  Steve, himself a former college oarsman.  ‘Do you recall where he rowed?’ he asks. ‘It’s a shame it wasn’t Lady Margaret Boat Club as their scarlet blazers would have faded to a fetching pale brick red!’ LMBC, the boat club of St John’s College, Cambridge, is known to the inmates as Maggie because it’s named after Lady Margaret Beaufort, who founded the college in 1511.  But you knew that.  Steve is right about the colour (blazers are called blazers because LMBC first wore scarlet) but he’s wrong about Skull’s background in boats,  which was nil.  Skull was a junior don at Cambridge and he had a scholarly stoop that went with the job.  In the R.A.F. his insistence on the truth made him a bit of a loose cannon. Rowing had never had any appeal for Skull.  He saw it as seven men in their underclothes,  facing the wrong way and making a huge effort to keep up with their coach who was riding a bicycle on the towpath  and bawling at them through a megaphone.  The oarsman in his family was his Uncle Stanley. 

 When he heard that Skull was posted to Egypt,  he gave him his old rowing blazer.  ‘Just the thing for the desert,’ he said ‘Don’t suppose I shall need it again. Holidays thing of the past for us. Lucky you.’  The old buffer was right. As AGCF says:

‘His blazer was a size too large for Skull, and its stripes of dove grey, pillar-box red and royal blue, with gold piping, had faded to soft pastel shades, but its cool looseness was just the thing for the desert. Skull wore it with a pair of corduroy bags bought in Cairo, and he carried an old golf umbrella that doubled as a shooting-stick, which he’d found in a flea market,’

 The desert war gave birth to its own cartoonist in Jon, and his creation of the ‘Two Types’ shows that Skull wouldn’t have looked out of place. 


I never thought my ripping yarns would be linked with Philip Larkin. Oliver in Tamworth discovered AGCF  (‘utterly brilliant’), moved on to Goshawk Squadron and wondered if Woolley’s remembering of the whole Aston Villa team in 1913 (when the club won the Football Association’s Cup)  might have prompted Larkin to mention Aston Villa in his poem MCMXIV.  Well, stranger things have happened, although personally I can’t imagine Larkin enjoying my stuff.  Even his friends said he was glum (he turned down the offer of becoming Poet Laureate) and his output revealed a dour pessimism.  Not much room for humour in Larkin’s spectrum of talent. Anyway, Oliver now has a chance to compare and contrast my style with Larkin’s  -  he has Piece of Cake and Damned Good Show to occupy him in the long winter nights. 

Across the pond, Paraag in Washington DC has been  revisiting Cake, and he has a question.  Somewhere in that book I wrote a bit of advice by one fighter pilot to another:  ‘The fact is, most people, if they want to look behind them, turn to the left...When the average fighter pilot suddenly has to look behind him, it’s ten to one he’ll turn his head to the left.’  Was that,  he asks, my creation? No, it wasn’t.  I came across the left-looking preference in my research  - which means it was often a piece of tactical advice in R.A.F. Fighter Command in 1940, but that didn’t make it universally true. Nine men out of ten found it easier to look left rather than right.  Maybe the tenth man is left-handed.  Maybe the pilots who looked left when they should have looked right ended up getting shot down,  and so the evidence against the theory died with them.  All I can add is that nobody has ever challenged that bit of the book in the 30-odd years since it came out. 

Lastly, a word of advice to anyone who wants to be an author.  (Listen, I’m one of the older guys.  When you get to my age you’re allowed to pontificate a bit.) There are two sorts of writing.  One is for fun, in which case enjoy yourself, and the other is for money,  which can be hard work (and usually is).   The late Doris Lessing’s letters reveal a woman whose failure to get her first novel published led her to threaten to ‘cast the thing into the wastepaper basket in sheer frustration and despair’  and quit novel-writing.  Which made me think  of something Rudolf Nureyev  -  best male dancer in the world, in his prime  -  said.  ‘My advice for young dancers is to give up,’ he said.  ‘If they can, then they will not be missed.’   And if they can’t?  ‘Then there is something inside them, driving them, forcing them to dance.’ And Nureyev added: ‘That doesn’t mean they will succeed, but without it they’ll certainly fail.’  His advice is what you might call ‘tough love’.  What’s true for dancers is true for authors.  Lessing went on to write many books,  so presumably her despair was temporary and something inside her forced her to write.  The hard truth is that very few of us are born with the gift to write good novels.  The rest of us have to start at the bottom of the trade and learn our craft.  But if there’s something else that a writer would rather do, then take Nureyev’s advice and give up.  The world will be a happier place.
My thanks to all who wrote.

Derek Robinson                                                                        

Previous Readers Write

Why 1914

Why 1914?

Why 1914? is "the best short introduction to the causes of the first world war I have come across.  Derek Robinson is as vivid and trustworthy a historian as he is a novelist.”
                                Nicholas Lezard - The Guardian

Here's a taste of what you get:

“The Black Hand recruited Gavrilo Princip and two others to murder the Archduke.  All three young men had incurable tuberculosis. They were ordered to kill themselves when the Archduke was dead. Phials of cyanide were handed out. What could possibly go wrong? In the event, everything.  Especially the cyanide.”

"To find war news in July 1914 you have to look at Ireland.  Home Rule had been passed.  Ulster, largely Protestant, detested the Catholic south.  Gun-running was on an industrial scale.  The government was trapped in an Irish bog.”

"In 1914, Kaiser William II, commanding the most powerful army in Europe, was not so much a loose cannon as a whole battery of loose cannons.”

"Admiral Tirpitz, Navy Minister, held the job for 19 years and followed one plan throughout his career:  more battleships, and then more battleships.  The Kaiser said that ‘with every new German battleship there was laid a fresh pledge for peace’.  Yet Tirpitz was using his battleships to frighten Britain into silence.”

"On 15 August 1914, Lieutenant Bernard Montgomery wrote in his diary: ‘At least the thing will be over in three weeks."

”If Germany seized the Channel ports, this would be hugely damaging to Britain’s strategic position. Britain went to war for Belgium’s sake, and for her own.”

"In 1914 the German army did not talk to the German navy.  For eight days in August an armada of ships transported the British army to France without disturbance.”

"The British infantry’s  name for its rapid rifle-fire was ‘mad minute’: a trained rifleman could fire fifteen rounds a minute.  This was often mistaken for machine-gun fire.”

"Confidence of success fuelled German troops’ drive for victory.  All Germany shared this confidence:  friends and family wrote letters to German soldiers with the address ‘in or near Paris’. (The postal service being neutral, sacks of this mail reached Paris.)”

"Winning the Battle of Ypres gave the Allies no strategic advantage but it became a heroic trophy simply  because Germany wanted it so badly.”

    The Paperback is available only directly from the author

In UK                                              8
In Europe                                         10
Rest  of World                                 12.50
(But if you are in UK, see Spring Sale offer in panel above!)

Preferred payment method  -  PayPal
Email your order to me at and you will receive a Payment Request.  Then all you need is a credit card to pay into my PayPal account.

Why 1914_Amzn Ebk cvr
Click here to read
Elizabeth Ballmer's review
Why 1914?
   is now also available as an Amazon E-book.

Click here for details

Mentioned in Despatches

Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian chooses Why 1914 as one of his Paperbacks of the Year, writing: "The novelist Derek Robinson, 82 this year, just keeps going, and his prose is as sharp and sprightly as ever (there is something of Evelyn Waugh about its economy and grip)...   This year he has written and self-published the best introduction to the causes of the  first world war, Why 1914?, I have come across.  He is as vivid and trustworthy a historian as he is a novelist."

Robert Allison  puts A Good Clean Fight in his top 10 of desert warfare novels, saying, “Well above genre standards,  thanks to its energetic storytelling, its wealth of factual detail , and the author’s trademark gallows humour."                                                                                           Click to read the full article.

Reviewing A Splendid Little War, Nick Lezard writes: "Robinson has pulled off a remarkable coup. It's as bleakly intelligent as anything he has done but he has
also increased our historical understanding."
Click to read the full review.

Describing Derek Robinson's war novels, Antonia Senior said: "No one writes about war quite like Robinson, despite attempts to shroud him in echoes of other writers, such as Joseph Heller or Norman Mailer. He writes with a bleak savagery, in controlled, precise prose. There is humour – and it is dark and painful. There is love – and it is inadequate and messy. Most of all there is death. It comes from clear blue skies and grey clouds, from enemy fire and friendly mistakes. It
hovers, unseen, at  15,000 feet."
                                                                           Click to read the full article.

                                A Splendid Little War is now available in paperback. 

It's 1919. The  Great War is over but a civil war is raging in Russia.  Bolshevik Reds are fighting White Russians, and a volunteer R.A.F. squadron, flying clapped-out Sopwith Camels and DH9 bombers, arrives to duff up the Reds.  But the 'splendid little war' they are promised turns out to be big and brutal, a world of armoured train, anarchist guerillas, unreliable allies and pitiless enemies.  There is comedy, but it is the bleakest kind. A Splendid Little War shows war as it is: grim, funny, moving - but never splendid.

Reviews of A Splendid Little War
      The Daily Express
                                     American edition of GQ Magazine
                                                                                            The Independent                                                                    


DR_Who He?   When someone at a party asks what I do, I say I write Ripping Yarns.  It's a quick answer but a very incomplete one. I'm best known for my novels about the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force in the two World Wars and some might say the books are highly readable adventure stories.  Nothing wrong with that, but there's more than combat in the high blue yonder   -   there's also memorable characters, there's unexpected twists and turns of warfare,  and there's aircrew humour.   Especially the humour.  I did my National Service in the Royal Air Force.  I was never airborne; I was in a Ground Control Interception Unit, deep underground in a concrete bunker.  But I learned a lot about the special humour of flying people,  and it emerges naturally and unavoidably in my novels. Humour is one of the essential colours in the spectrum of life. You don't make a story more serious by removing the humour; you just make it less true.

The longer I do this job, the luckier I know I am.  For a start, I'm English and the English language is global. That's pure luck of birth. I might have been born in Hungary.  There are good Hungarian writers,  but it's a lot easier for me to find readers throughout the English-speaking world.  And I was lucky to have literate parents.  When I grew up there were always books and magazines about the house, unlike some other kids' homes. There was a good public library at the end of the street.  And there was the 1944 Education Act which created State Scholarships for bright lads and helped me get into Cambridge.
That's where I learned to write boringly. I was writing to impress, not to inform. Twelve years in advertising agencies (London and New York) kicked the crap out of my style. Every word had to work hard. I wrote ad copy and commercials for everything from Esso petrol to The Wall Street Journal.  Always I knew I wanted to move on, to be a fulltime writer  -  but I had nothing to say.  Nothing worth reading, anyway. (I was a late developer.) I wrote two bad and unpublishable novels and finally got it right with a story called Goshawk Squadron. Might have won the Booker Prize if Saul Bellow, one of the judges, had had his way. Not important. "The most readable novel of the year," Nina Bawden said of Goshawk in the Daily Telegraph. "I laughed aloud several times, and was in the end reduced to tears." That's worth more than any prize. The first novel bought me enough time to write the second, and so it goes. Lucky me.


MacLehose Press (an imprint of Quercus Books) has published all of my flying novels  -  four Royal Flying Corps books and four Royal Air Force books.  Here are the new covers: 
      pce cake       hullo russia        A Good Clean Fight       Damned Good Show_new

                war story_new              hornets sting_new            goshawk squadron_new              

Click here to go to the MacLeHose website. where you can click on their individual covers for  purchase options, including e-books.
This will be the first time that all my flying titles are in print from the same publisher:  something that gives me great satisfaction. Equally satisfying is the work of Tony Cowland, who has painted the cover illustrations for all the books. Each cover looks dramatically different, yet together they have a family likeness. They form a splendid collection, and they appeared at The Mall Galleries (near Admiralty Arch)  in the Aviation Paintings of the Year Exhibition by the Guild of Aviation Artists. The standard was high. My congratulations to Tony on a memorable achievement.
Artist and Author  
Photograph: Chris French

All four of the Luis Cabrillo novels (following the career of  probably the best WW2 double agent and later con-man) are now available as eBooks from Amazon/Kindle. Here are the covers:

                              Artillery                  RedRag                 OpBam 
                            Click on a cover to go to the Amazon sales page.

The R.F.C. trilogy and the R.A.F. Quartet are also available as e-books.



        'Operation Bamboozle' is a fastmoving black comedy about what happens when a high-stakes con artist takes on the Mob in Los Angeles.  The result is a heady brew of disorganised crime, hot dollars, triple virgins and dead bodies in the begonias.   

         Luis Cabrillo is the con artist, Julie Conroy is his squeeze, and here's the opening sentence:   

      For a man who had been hauled out of Lake Michigan in 1949, headless, his legs and arms broken, and stabbed in the heart with a red ballpoint pen, Frankie Blanco was in pretty good shape in 1953.  

Click to see the News of the World Review


                        RED RAG BLUES                                                  

  He's a heel, bless him. 

 Luis Cabrillo rides again in this "dashing tale of Nazis and Mafiosi", as The Observer called it. 
In fact, Nazis and Mafiosi play second fiddle to the real dynamo in this story.  It's 1953, and Senator Joe McCarthy's witchhunt for Reds under beds is scaring America witless.

Cue Luis Cabrillo, ex-double agent, now con artist supreme. Dollars flow, hotly pursued by bullets. Luis doesn't know it, but FBI, MI5, KGB and CIA have him firmly in their sights. Not to mention Stevie, the only three-times married virgin in New York City.  This is a rich, fast and very black comedy.

(To read the full Observer review, click here.) 

MacLehose Press (an imprint of Quercus Books) owns the book rights to all my RFC and RAF novels.  Sam Goldwyn Jr  owns the screen rights to Goshawk Squadron. In 1988, LWT made a six-part television series of Piece of Cake and they own the rights to that production.  I own the screen rights to any remake of Piece of Cake.  I own the screen rights to all my other novels. Quercus Books owns the e-book rights to all my fiction backlist, available through Amazon/Kindle.  Derek Robinson

Contact       I welcome comments and views about my books, though as a working writer I can't guarantee to have sufficient time to answer everyone.  

Click here to send me an email 

Main publications     Click any group heading to see details.

The RFC Quartet (WW1)
         pce cake          A Good Clean Fight          Damned Good Show_new           hullo russia          
                             The RAF Quartet (WW2)
The Double Agent Quartet
Other Novels/History
Rugby Books

Bristol Books

Availability of the books.   

All my fiction is available as e-books.  Maclehose Press publish (in print) all eight of my flying novels, available from any good book seller (who may have to order a copy). Or you  could try the websites listed below, often useful for tracking down both new and used books. 

 The two Bristle books, and A Darker Side of Bristol are published by Countryside Books .

Finally, I have a few copies of Pure Bristle, available at 2 each. 

Quercus Books  Amazon UK      Amazon USA      Fantastic Fiction   

Other websites you may find of interest:    Wikipedia     IMDB     Jeremy Northam Blog   

Major books and original publication dates:

1971 Goshawk Squadron
1973 Rotten with Honour
1977 Kramer's War
1979 The Eldorado Network
1983 Piece of Cake
1987 War Story
1991 Artillery of Lies
1993 A Good Clean Fight

1999 Hornet's Sting
2002 Damned Good Show
2002 Kentucky Blues
2005 Invasion 1940
2005 Red Rag Blues
2008 Hullo Russia, Goodbye England
2009 Operation Bamboozle
2013 A Splendid Little War

2014   Why 1914?