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                                                                                        Readers Write #40 July 2015

A shabby Cardigan, 

             Why Moggy buzzed Protheroe,

                          and tiny gems in the Cake

We Brits are notorious for celebrating our defeats.  Boadicea, famous for losing to the Romans.  Harold, second-best to William the Conqueror.  Dunkirk springs to mind.  But top of the list is the Charge of the Light Brigade, the most idiotic act in the Crimean War, itself a total waste of men and money but immortalised in a piece of Victorian poetry of which everyone remembers a line or two, even if it’s only that bit about the valley of death.   Why on earth did we (and the French) send an army and a navy to attack the Russian Empire?  It’s a question worth looking at,  what with the British Government thinking aloud about making war on parts of Syria,  which is not all that far from the Crimea.

 As usual in the Middle East, religion is somewhere in the mix.  The Crimean affair began with a quarrel between Greek and Roman monks about which of them had custody of some Christian shrines in Jerusalem, at that time part of the Turkish Empire.  It led to a long, bad-tempered dispute between Turkey and Russia.  Britain and France took the side of Turkey, mainly in order to teach the Czar a lesson.  Russia   -   then as now   -   was regarded as a threat to its near neighbours. The Crimean campaign was planned to be a short, sharp bash but it got bogged down and the plans went horribly wrong. The biggest blunder was to send the 7th Earl of Cardigan at the head of his Light Cavalry Brigade on a charge into a dead-end valley.  Inevitably, they got battered by Russian guns on three sides.  Cardigan didn’t stay for the fight; he rode back to his living quarters, which were a luxury steam yacht on the Black Sea. For the rest of the war he lived aboard, in comfort.  He did little or nothing to help his men ashore who were suffering from bad food, and not enough of it, and  poor shelter from the bleak weather.  As many died from sickness as from enemy action. After the war, Cardigan came home to a hero’s welcome from the people of London.  He lied about his part in the Charge, was made Inspector-General of Cavalry, was awarded the Order of the Bath, and often advised the House of Lords on military matters. Why not?  He had bought his commission in the Army, as had every other officer.  To command the 15th The King’s Hussars, Cardigan had paid half a million pounds in modern money.  But the Crimea changed all that. It spelled the end for all ‘bought commissions’.

 This is summed up pretty briskly in my book  Why 1914?:  “ invigorating  hurricane named Edward Cardwell, former soldier, Secretary of State for War, one of the forgotten heroes of British history, turned the Army upside-down, which was the only way to set it on its feet.”   Every officer, all seven thousand of them, opposed change, any change. Cardwell defeated them. He bought them off.  He stuffed their mouths with gold.  His reforms made possible the professional British Army of 1914.

 That’s one reason why I wrote the book.  The Great War   -   as a flood of centenary histories tells us again and again   -   was a massive disaster.  Each nation that was involved expected to win a brief and glorious  encounter. Instead they got stuck in a war that was just one damn thing after another.  The big question is: why did it happen?   What caused the catastrophe? That’s what Why 1914? is all about.  It brings alive a world that is hard to believe in:   the world of batty Kaiser Wilhelm II, a cousin of the hopeless Czar Nicholas II; of huge navies that rarely fought;  of infantry attacking with bright uniforms and brave flags and regimental bands;  of cavalry against machine guns; of a world that had not seen a major European war since Napoleon and marched into a total deadlock because it had no method (and no interest) in avoiding it.  Why 1914? reveals a world which was both ignorant and arrogant and which suffered from that explosive mixture.  The book is meant to be a quick read for people who usually never look at military histories,  and the feedback (often along the lines of  ‘I wish I’d known all this when I was at school’) suggests that  Why 1914? hits the mark.

 Moving on. An interesting email from Jeff, somewhere in the UK, who ‘belatedly found your books on the library shelves, very enjoyable’  and asks who exactly was Protheroe? He’s a character who comes and goes in Piece of Cake until Moggy Cattermole buzzes his car and he crashes.  I should know all about him, I wrote the novel,  but 30-plus years have gone by and I’m as baffled as Jeff. Rex’s raid to rescue Sticky’s Hurricane from neutral Belgium seems to have got up Protheroe’s nose,  which explains Moggy’s reaction.  But Protheroe’s brief life deserves a bit more description, and I’m sorry he got short-changed.

 Then I got a message from Jon, a Norwegian fan, who was holidaying in Alsace and noticed the Vosges mountains, which he first encountered in Cake.  So he bought the Kindle edition, scanned it for references to Alsace but failed  ‘because I got sucked in big time and ended up reading it all over again from the first page’.  He’s still reading, and was especially struck when the adjutant, Kellaway (‘one of my all-time favourites’) recalled a pilot in his old RFC squadron who was memorable  for ‘calling the war a swindle, and that he wanted his money back’.  Immediately,  Jon says, he recognised ‘it was obviously something Woolley had said’, and he flattered me for ‘leaving tiny gems like that for readers to find...’  Alas, I don’t deserve the praise, because in fact I didn’t put those words in Woolley’s mouth, either in  Hornet’s Sting or in Goshawk Squadron.  No doubt somebody said it, and I’m sure tens of thousand of men thought it.  If anybody knows the origin, tell me and I’ll put Jon’s mind at rest.

 Finally, a few words about that bruised old medium, the English language, which has kept me from the poorhouse all these years.  For me, the golden age of lyrics for popular music was the Thirties, when words made sense and rhymed and told a story.  Current lyrics strike me as so much noise, repeated and often meaningless.  Well, I’m one of the old guys. For years, I’ve been telling my friends whenever they would listen that Bob Dylan’s words in American Pie are junk.  He tells us:

                                               Drove my Chevy to the levee
                                                      but the levee was dry,
                                               Them good ole boys were drinking
                                                      whisky and rye.

Now, I have seen a levee. Big American rivers have them. A levee is an embankment, built to keep the water out.  The word is French; levee means ‘raised’. That’s why it’s dry.   Go to a wet levee and the river will wash you away. The reason Don Maclean (who wrote the song) went to the levee was it rhymed with Chevy. If he meant it was dry in the non-alcoholic sense, how could them good ole boys be drinking whisky and rye?  Nice melody, but the lyrics go nowhere. American Pie sold three million copies in a single year. When Maclean was asked its meaning, he said: ‘It means I never have to work again.’

 Now his notes and manuscript for the song have come up for auction in New York.  They fetched $1.2 million. His publisher says he knows what the words mean.  He believes that Maclean drove his Chevy to a bar called The Levee in upstate New York,  found it dry and moved on to the nearby town of Rye  where the boys were drinking whisky. Hurrah! All is explained!  Except none of it stands up.  Nobody remembers a bar called The Levee in that area, and Maclean never wrote ‘drinking whisky in Rye’.  His handwriting is very clear.  He wrote  ‘drinking whisky and rye’. Why? Because ‘rye’ rhymes with ‘dry’.  What does it all mean?  Nothing. 

You may be thinking that I pay too much attention to what words mean.  Well, it’s my job.  And I believe that sloppy writing means lazy thinking.  Here’s an example.  Recently a double-decker bus hit a bridge in London, and a spokesman from Transport for London said:  “A route 197 double-decker bus...was involved in a collision with a bridge.”  Really?  A mobile bridge?  I suspect that the spokesman was over-influenced by the way the police report road accidents.  They always say  that road-users were ‘in collision’, because nobody yet knows which was responsible.  But to say that a bus was involved in a collision with a bridge is to turn an accident into a bad joke.  Unless, of course, the bridge collapsed first.  In the photograph,  I have to say that it looks very intact.

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?