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Readers Write #80 November 2021
Squadron by Derek Robinson review — this savage portrait of war is a modern
novel, first published 50 years ago, was championed by Saul Bellow and
nearly won the Booker Prize. Review by Antonia Senior
A British Sopwith Camel in battle
with German biplanes during the First World War BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES
In 1971 an acerbic debut novel about fighter pilots in the First World War nearly won the Booker Prize. Goshawk Squadron was championed by Saul Bellow but it lost out to VS Naipaul's In a Free State.
If Bellow had swayed his fellow judges, Derek Robinson would be a
household name, rather than the darling of a small band of devotees.
Robinson, who is 89, has written 25 books,
but Goshawk Squadron, reissued next week by MacLehose Press,
remains his finest. It centres on the unforgettable figure of Stanley Woolley,
the commanding officer of the squadron. He is 23, “young for a major and old
for a pilot”. His pilots hate him and he hates them. He wants them to live, and
drives them with an unceasing ferocity which teeters on madness.
The Royal Flying Corps pilots are being turned into
heroes in the British press. Their aerial dogfights are seen as a noble
counterpoint to the horror of the trenches. Lloyd George calls them “the
cavalry of the sky”. Woolley knows this is utter rot. Their job is to lurk in a
cloud and shoot the Germans in the back. As each replacement pilot arrives,
full of enthusiasm and bombast, Woolley shatters their illusions.
“Every second you are in the air someone is trying
to kill you,” Woolley tells one of the new recruits. “They go up every day and
murder nice chaps like you.” Woolley, Robinson writes, “made nice chap sound
like a genetic defect”.
The training is brutal. The pilots loathe Woolley’s
relentless drills and dark harangues. Life in the cockpit is unpleasant; the
castor oil fumes from the engine give them the runs, and they try to block
their bowels with booze. Robinson, who served in the RAF during his National
Service, is particularly convincing in conjuring up the boozy banter of these
young men and their wild fatalism.
As the squadron’s death toll mounts, young
replacements arrive, 19 years old, fresh from school, so green they do not even
know how to turn a plane. Two newbies discuss “the old man”, his scruffiness,
his violence, his insistence on fighting dirty. One idealist says: “It’s
absolute nonsense to say that chivalrous men can’t fight a chivalrous war.
That’s why I put in for the RFC. We’re literally the only sportsmen left.” He
does not last long. Some survive longer: girl-mad Killion, who dreams of nurses
but when he meets one is “young and trembling with desperation”; Gabriel, whose
religious fervour and refusal to drink before lunchtime make him a figure of
Not all the characters are men. There is Margery, a
nurse who loves Woolley. Her romantic notions of the war were soon shattered by
the squalid reality of nursing on the front. She understands Woolley’s
nihilism, although she finds it painful. There are glimpses in his relationship
with Margery of the man he could have been if the war had not pushed him into a
logical, necessary brutality.
The Germans are not Woolley’s only problem. The
squadron is being harried by the French authorities who want to prosecute
members of the squadron for manslaughter after a drunken night of excess,
involving off-duty pilots, left a local man dead. The British high command
needs French support to counter the German offensive and Woolley is fighting
his own side as much as the enemy.
Goshawk Squadron, with its flashes of black humour, is often
compared to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Both capture the absurdity of
war, but Catch-22 does so through authorial tricksiness;
Robinson uses realism to create the same effect. This savage portrait of war is
a modern classic; and Major Woolley is an unforgettable creation.
(The Times 11 August 2021)
Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson, MacLehose, 284pp; £9.99
Previous Readers Write
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 trains,
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
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.
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.
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..
SALESMORE GOOD NEWSAll
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:
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.
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.
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 ofPiece 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
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.
Availability of the books.
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
The two Bristle books, and A Darker Side of Bristol
are published by Countryside Books
Other websites you may find of interest:
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?
2017 Holy $moke
2019 Never Mind the Facts
2020 Odds and Sods
2021 Odds and Sods Mk2