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                                                                                        Readers Write #44 June 2016

Play dead and don't smile,

                Operation Jostle was no picnic,

           and the work ethic of Dylan Thomas.

    Cops-and-robbers dramas on television often claim to reflect real life.  Sometimes the phrase ‘police procedurals’ suggests serious authenticity.  Yet the programme makers can be surprisingly squeamish.  When murder is committed,  the corpse is not dead, of course.  It is an actor trying not to breathe.  What is odd is that the actor’s mouth is always shut.  On television, everyone dies with the lips firmly sealed.

This is such an unbreakable rule that I asked a friendly medic about it,  a man who has seen plenty of sudden death.  ‘Not true,’ he told me.  ‘Most people die with their mouths open.’  Murder on TV or in the cinema is lavish with blood spatter but the victim always dies with a presentable expression.  This is one of the many curiosities of cop shows.  Mobile phones are useful in keeping the plot moving, but they rarely ring when anyone’s talking.  Come to that, nobody enters a room in the middle of dialogue;  they always arrive when someone’s finished speaking.  Cops never fail to kick down doors with ease;  building codes on film sets are pathetic.  How often have I seen a cop go into a men’s room and express his frustration by ripping  down a hand-dryer?   I hope one day to see him dislocate his wrist because the device is securely bolted to the wall.  And one day a police car will race to the scene of the crime and find nowhere to park.  It happens to the rest of us.  Why not them?

The answer, of course, is entertainment.  In the world of televised drama there is always a parking space; otherwise the show would never end.  I too am in the entertainment business.  Readers spend good money to buy a novel because they expect it to entertain them;  if it’s not readable it’s unreadable.  But it has to be believable too,  and that can be tricky.  I understand why murder victims in TV dramas keep their mouths shut;  the director doesn’t want them to look unacceptably dead.  But whenever I see the alleged body, mouth firmly shut, my reaction is to say: ‘It’s an actor!’ And realism goes out of the window.

 So it’s a balancing act.  Film and TV directors want to be convincing but not so convincing that the viewer turns pale and heads for the exit.  Years ago,  I had a letter from a very senior RAF officer, written more in sadness than in anger, who deplored the savagery with which pilots are killed in Piece of Cake.  He accepted that aircrew died, but why did I have to spell out the brutal horror of their deaths?  (Perhaps he feared the novel would harm recruiting.)  Well, I wrote Cake because I felt that a lot of fiction about air combat had pulled its punches.  It made too much of the chivalry of the skies (which I doubted) and not enough of the reality of death.  A pilot who is cut in half by a burst of cannon shells at twenty thousand feet  is no more romantic than an infantryman shot through the head.  Courage in air warfare is a matter of recognising the price of failure.  Pilots know this,  and many of them have told me that Cake (and my other RFC/RAF novels) rings true. 

And sometimes my stuff prompts a reader to write a book. Margaret, somewhere in the UK, was researching the Desert Air Force of 1941-42 when she found A Good Clean Fight;  it helped her tell the story of her father.  He flew Wellingtons in Operation Jostle with 109 Squadron.  This was a little-known effort to baffle Rommel’s tanks in the North African campaign.  The Wellingtons were fitted with special Marconi equipment.  Tanks in battle communicate by radio.  The Wellingtons flew overhead and transmitted non-stop to jam the tanks’ frequencies.  Flying a predictable pattern invited interception, and the Jostle Wimpeys were attacked by Italian Macchi fighters.  Margaret’s father survived, only to contract polio and be invalided home in an iron lung.  The enemy wasn’t the only threat in the desert war. 

David in Lincoln much enjoyed Cake, especially episode 3 of the TV series where Ray Hanna flies his Mk9 Spitfire under a country bridge ‘as if he’s on a Sunday afternoon drive! Brilliant interpretation of a brilliant book’.   David’s novel, which involves various aircraft from several wars, has interested a publisher, so that’s half the battle.  And Gavin, another UK fan, writes: ‘I felt I should send you a message of praise because your books made me want to became a writer again.... your sense of humour, and the just deserts that you give to characters like Mackenzie and Cattermole, are the best aspect of all.’  More strength to your collective elbows, Margaret, David and Gavin.  My first book was published in 1969, and simple arithmetic tells you that I no longer run for a bus;  so I’m happy to see new writers picking up their pens.

Mail arrives from all over.  In New York City, Richard Snow has enjoyed my stuff since Goshawk Squadron in 1971  (‘The opening of  Hornet’s Sting is as fine as any I know in any novel’), and he was baffled when he was in London and Hatchard’s couldn’t supply a copy of my Why 1914? Then he discovered it’s self-published and bought a copy from me.  (Richard is himself a very good military historian;  his book A Measureless Peril, on the American part in the Battle of the Atlantic, is a revelation.)  Dave, also in the US, writes:  ‘Just finished  The Eldorado Network  quartet.  What a hoot! Your metaphors are a delight to read   -   like, “a tank-top that was as busy as a freshly caught trout”.  And many, many other gut-busters...’   Jon, a Brit living in Austria, has ‘been an admirer of your work for many years’, so much so that his copies of my RAF books got re-read until they were battered and tattered to death.  I was able to get him some replacements.  Paul  (who could be anywhere) first read Cake on a kibbutz in 1986, has now read ‘everything you have written before and afterwards’ , and is suffering what he calls withdrawal symptoms’,  so he hopes ‘something is in the pipeline’. Something is, Paul.   ETA: next spring.

Since my last RW, a few literary oddities have cropped up.  For instance:  Dylan Thomas was not a no-good boyo who wrote best when tanked-up.  His village GP from 1949 to 1953, Dr Hughes, wrote a memoir of this much-loved British poet,  and in it several myths go up in flames.  Thomas wrote best, his doctor says, in conditions of ‘quiet, routine and relative sobriety’.  The routine  never varied:  he worked in a shed, undisturbed, from 2.30 pm until 6.30 pm.  His wife, Caitlin, was ‘a nymphomaniac and first-class bitch’.  Their rows were vicious:  ‘She would physically attack Thomas, sometimes knocking him unconscious by banging his head on the floor.’ He died, not from drinking 18 straight whiskeys in a New York bar as the legend says, but from pneumonia. (With a wife like that, I can see how 18 straight whiskeys might have been attractive.)  I have always doubted the notion that anyone writes better when drunk.  At the time, the words may seem magic, but next morning they will be garbage.

However, a comfortable chair always helps,  and someone recently paid $394,000 for the chair that J.K.Rowling sat in while writing Harry Potter. Whether the bestselling  skills go with the furniture is open to question.  Saul Bellow’s desk failed to get a bidder when it came up for auction.  Nobody wanted to own the woodwork on which he won a Nobel.  I’d have offered a fiver.  Saul was a Booker Prize judge in 1971.  He wanted Goshawk Squadron  to win but he got voted down by the others,  one of whom later admitted he was drunk.  Life is full of oddities.  

 Finally, something to revel in:  a Spitfire in flight, so close and so clear you feel you can reach out and touch it.  


                                             Spitfire 1 EM 


John Dibbs is an aviation photographer.  Working with ex-RAF pilot Tim Ellison, he got within 15 feet of a Spitfire in flight.  By shooting through an open canopy with a hand-held camera, he captured these remarkable images. Usually, close-ups of the fighter in the air meant using zoom lenses, followed by much cropping and magnification.  John  Dibbs got closer than any photographer I’ve ever known.  


            Spitfire 2 EM


Dibbs has tracked down every Spitfire in the world that’s flying and photographed them all, brilliantly.  They total fifty    -    far more than I thought possible; but, amazingly, several of them were total wrecks that have been restored and made flyable    -   a tribute to the Spitfire’s design.
     Spitfire 3 EM  

 All the pix shown here are in a book,  Spitfire  -  The Legend Lives On    -   published by Osprey.


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?