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                                                                                        Readers Write #43 May 2016

The hazards of fiction,

                Why 1914?’ rides again,

                          and a big polar bear in Detroit.  

Years ago I was the defendant in a case of breach of copyright    -    what’s usually called plagiarism   -   after I published my novel, Piece of Cake.  It’s an occupational hazard.  As someone said to me during the filming,  ‘After the hit, comes the writ.’ In my case, it came after a national paper announced that Cake would be adapted for television and the budget was 6 million.  Some people thought that I would get it all.  If only. One person decided I didn’t deserve any of it because, he claimed, I’d copied his book. (Later I discovered that he had written two screenplays about an RAF fighter squadron in WW2 and he’d failed to sell them, which may explain his resentment.)   Thanks to the support of my publishers and  some top lawyers,  I won the case,  but it took seven years. 

One thing I remember is that in the seventh year, the plaintiff commissioned a barrister to write a Counsel’s Opinion.   Mysteriously,  I got to see it.  Their barrister advised them not to take the case to court,  and wrote:  ‘Mr Robinson appears to be a tenacious opponent.’    Too right I was.  One of the accusations made against me was that I pinched the use of the pilots’ nicknames,  in particular Moggy Cattermole, from the plaintiff’s book.  In fact I knew the original Moggy when I was at school. That, of course, was 40 years ago, but I tracked him down.  He lived in Dorset, so I visited him and he was happy to write a letter saying that, at school, he was nicknamed Moggy.  (What’s more,  he was a lawyer and an MBE.)  That evidence would have sounded good in court,  and I suspect their barrister recognised that.

 So what?  It was a long time ago,  and Cake is still in print.  (In fact, Quercus will reprint all my RFC/RAF novels next month.) But tenacity is, I think, an underrated quality in writers.  Talent is not enough. The UK must have fifty thousand talented writers who have completed the first half of a good novel which then gathered dust on a shelf.  When the story got difficult, they quit. I know the feeling; it has happened to me; there is such a thing as author’s block. The solution is not to quit but to try harder. Tenacity counts.  I hit the buffers twice while writing  Cake (which took four years).  Both times I saw the problem    -   I had been trying to force the story in the wrong direction.  So my advice to writers is:  Don’t expect it to be easy.  Writing for publication is not fun, although sometimes it’s enjoyable.  It’s work. Fun comes later, when you hold the printed book in your hands.  Remember Jane Austen.  

Today there are Jane Austen Festivals.  TV and the cinema can’t get enough of her;  the latest Hollywood version is a vampire movie.  If anyone can find an unpublished manuscript of hers,  publishers will throw money at it.  That was not the case when she was writing.  Pride and Prejudice was returned without even a rejection slip. Years later a different publisher bought Northanger Abbey for 10 but didn’t publish it.  A third publisher took Sense and Sensibility only when she agreed to pay for the printing and the advertising.  Miss Austen didn’t quit.  She appeared to be a tenacious writer,  for which her many fans should be grateful. 

 Emails regularly remind me that I should be grateful for the English language, which is both marvellously flexible and gratifyingly universal,  and not just in the English-speaking world.  In a recent RW,  I celebrated Gunnar, a retired log-truck driver in Sweden who has read everything I’ve written;  and now I’ve heard from Lars in Denmark who, when serving with UN forces in Cyprus, ‘stumbled upon Piece of Cake and have been a huge fan of yours ever since.  Your books (of which I have every one) give me great joy and laughs and thrills.  Besides,  the books keep me in touch with the English language. I have just re-read the two books with pilot Silk for the third time,  and will certainly read them again.  You are the best.’  And Lars ends with a request:  ‘Please tell me that more books are under way!’  

 As it happens, I’ve just finished another novel.  Not a flying story;  more like The Eldorado Network.  Every novel is a gamble,  and I’m too close to this one to know whether it’s any good.  Watch this space. 

 Lars bought a copy of  Why 1914?   Other requests for copies keep arriving,  which suggests to me that the tsunami of books, TV programmes, articles and memoirs has prompted people to wonder what caused the whole catastrophe.  That’s the question my book tries to answer, and I packed it with things that most people (including me) never learned at school.  Here’s an example.  Nearly everyone has heard about the assassination on 28 June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, but why was he there? Stand by for a taste of the book:        

                  ‘Franz Ferdinand went to Sarajevo to show off his wife. The correct form for an heir was unquestionable: he must marry someone whose family was listed in the royal family’s book of rules, the Hapsburg House Law.  The archduke broke the rules. He fell in love with a countess, Sophie von Chotkovato, far below him in the pecking order, and they married. The Austrian court was appalled....It treated her  like a commoner. On ceremonial occasions she must not appear at her husband’s side. She could not be deleted, so she was made semi-invisible. For Franz Ferdinand, this was a permanent insult. Sophie was beautiful and he wanted the world to applaud his choice. There was one loophole. His many titles included that of Inspector-General of the Austrian army,  and when he reviewed his troops, Sophie could be beside him. In 1914 the army’s summer manoeuvres would be in Bosnia.  That was what took the couple to Sarajevo: not politics but love.’

 Rhys, in Shropshire, came across me 30 years ago when he got Goshawk Squadron as a Christmas present    -  ‘To this day it remains one of my favourite books!’  He asked for a copy of Why 1914?, saying: ‘If this is half as good as Invasion 1940 then it’ll be a wonderful read.’  Kevin in Michigan asked for a (signed) copy of A Splendid Little War, which has a special interest for him because his wife’s grandfather was one of the American contingent to Murmansk, in the far north of Russia.  (My book has a brief, chilling description  of that campaign.)  The troops were nicknamed Polar Bears.  Many men came from Detroit,  and its cemetery  has ‘a beautiful monument of a three-times-lifesize polar bear, with many veterans buried around it.’   Despite being shot in the leg, granddad had a long life.  Anyone who served in Murmansk had to be tough.  

 Now to New Zealand.  My last RW showed Eric Driver’s replica of a WW1 French Nieuport 16 fighter,  complete with 8 dummy Le Prieur rockets.  Since then,  the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton in Somerset  has displayed its replica Sopwith Baby, a single-seat seaplane fitted with rockets,  as flown by the Royal Naval Air Service.  It had no success against Zeppelins but it shot down more than 50 German observation balloons.  Here it is. 


 Dave Morris, curator of the museum, says of the rockets: ‘They would be launched just like fireworks. There was a button in the cockpit that would fire them all at once and they would hope that at least one would hit the balloon.’  Le Prieur rockets were cardboard tubes filled with 200g of black powder, with a wooden conical head and a tail.  Pilots got as close as possible to the target to make up for the rockets’ extreme inaccuracy.  Eric tells me the rockets were set off by a 2-volt battery    -    ‘presumably that was the norm in those days’. He’s trying to work out how he can fire his Nieuport 16’s rockets without upsetting the Civil Aviation people at the next Classic Fighters Airshow at Easter 1917. ‘If it comes off, I’ll let you know; if it doesn’t then I won’t...’  

A last word about names.  American authors go in for three names   -   think of Edgar Allan Poe.  Maybe I’ve been shortchanging myself.  Is it too late to adopt a longer name?  I’m thinking of Miles Farragut Ravensworth.  The legal process is surprisingly simple. The UK Deed Poll Service will rename you, in only four working days, for a mere 33.  One man changed his name to Bacon Double Cheeseburger.  A father and son took the name of their favourite football club, Queens Park Rangers. Someone decided to be called Happy Birthday.  Another went for Sarge Metal-fatigue.  No.  On reflection, I’ll stick to what I’ve got.  It’s easier for autographs. 
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?