Readers Write #1
from the author, now and then.
One of the rewards of self-publishing is the number of
messages I get from people who read my books. Here are some of
their comments. First names only, for obvious reasons.
Edward, in London, was one of the
first to get hold of the latest novel, Hullo Russia, Goodbye England,
and said: “I thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought the
denouement - Silk’s final flight in the Vulcan
- was particularly good. You fooled this reader
nicely.” Sean in
Lancashire simply said: “Damn splendid
book.” Steve, in Nottingham,
welcomed “the long-awaited reappearance of my favourite cussed
intelligence officer.” That must be Skull. Chris, in Victoria, Australia, was still reading
HRGE when he said he was “enjoying my copy immensely. It’s always nice
to spend time with old friends like Skull (possibly my favourite
character in any of your books) and Silk… the appearance of Baggy
Bletchley was a treat too.” And John, in New York State,
said: “I loved every page of it.”
Every new novel is a gamble - for you as well as for me. No
book pleases everyone, and any author who expects it to happen is
doomed to disappointment. So I was neither surprised nor dismayed
when Graham in Essex sent me a
thoughtful review which mentions “two minor disappointments.
First, I wished the book were longer - it all seemed over very
quickly. Secondly, there were no new major characters to engage
us, which reinforces the feeling that this is something of a
tailpiece to earlier books.” Which raises the question: how
long should a novel be? Answer: the story itself makes that
decision. When it reaches its end, the book is complete.
Piece of Cake made 569 pages in hardback, while
Goshawk Squadron made only
runs to 264 pages. Different stories, different lengths.
I’m happy to say that Graham enjoyed Hullo Russia.
He says: “the meeting of Robinson’s cool approach and sardonic
humour with the lunacy of nuclear deterrence and Mutually Assured
Destruction proves to be a marriage made in heaven.” I like
his thumbnail profiles. Of Silk: “the man you meet in a bar, a
charmer and funny too… Silk is running out of places to do the only
thing he knows and enjoys. For me, he resembles one of Sam
Peckinpah’s heroes, increasingly lost as the West is pacified and
tidied up.” About Skull: “the good man in a bad trade. The
man you love to have on your team, clever and thoughtful - but he never
knows when to shut up. Because there is no combat in this novel
and the enemy is totally unseen, Skull fulfills that role and acts as
the grit in the plot which gives us the pearls.” Nicely
Other books are others’ favourites. Mark, in Liverpool,
reckons Piece of Cake is my
best WW2/RAF book - he’s re-read it so often, he’s on his third
paperback copy. (His brother’s vote goes to
Damned Good Show.) Likewise
C.M.G., in the Borders, who tells me he’s been known to finish
reading the ending and immediately start again at the beginning
- and finding something new every time. Gordon, in
Lanarkshire, got so much out of
Hornet’s Sting that he’s
“experiencing symptoms of bereavement and wondering if there’s any
chance you’ll write another RFC novel?” Well, nothing’s
impossible; but my new novel, out later this year, is
Operation Bamboozle, yet
another in the Luis Cabrillo series which began with
The Eldorado Network
- of which Steve in Florida
writes: “It caused me physical pain from laughing.” But his
Many thanks to you all.
Readers Write #2
Gender Confusion, and a Dog Named 'Moggy'.
Listen, I just write the books. Who knows where they end up? I've
had mail from Norwegians on oil platforms, and from a pilot who
flies jumbos for a South Pacific airline, and from Jim in Alberta
where it's often 30 or 40 below. I'm told the U.S. Marines in
Iraq enjoy my WW2 desert story, A Good Clean Fight.
Nothing surprises me, not even the email from Tim in Australia that
began: "The first book I stole was
Piece of Cake." He
nicked it from the school library when he was 16. "I probably
read it another six or seven times before it fell apart." By then
he was old enough to pay for books, so he bought another copy.
Should have bought two, and given the other to the library.
So I don't know
where my books end
up, and I don't know how
the reader feels at the time. For instance, Tony in
Ireland has read the RFC and the RAF trilogies. "I was working in
Eastern Europe," he says, "and they saw me through some hairy
times" - which sets the imagination working. And
Peter in Somerset recalls a very rough patch when he
was ill. "I want to thank you for helping me recover,"
he says, and he names in particular
Hornet's Sting, Piece of Cake
Damned Good Show
- "so good, so entertaining and so well written that I
forgot how ill I was and simply enjoyed the pleasure of the
stories." I had never thought of the novel as
therapy; but when the book takes you out of yourself
and lifts you to somewhere you would otherwise never go,
that journey might well do you a power of good.
These thoughts are prompted by the steady stream of letters (and
cheques or PayPal requests) that followed
Lezard's corker of a review of
Hullo Russia, Goodbye England
in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago. David in Maryland ordered a copy
and wrote that he came across Goshawk
Squadron over 35 years ago and still re-reads it, along with other
yarns of mine. Helen in Dublin said she 'enjoyed' my writing,
then thought that 'appreciated' was a better word, and finally upgraded
that to 'enthralled'. W.B.T. in Southampton has read and re-read all my
books, and (he says) so has his wife, which is pleasing.
Paul in Dublin ranks me as "one of 3 or 4 authors all of whose work I
own"; and Matt in London "recently read
Goshawk Squadron on my
honeymoon and absolutely loved it." (Let's hope that marks the
start of a long relationship.) And many more
letters, saying more of the same, including the nice lady in
Wales who addressed me as 'Dear Sir or Madam'.
That's got the
Gender Confusion out of the way. Now for the dog named
Moggy. Jack in Alabama liked
Kentucky Blues, so
he moved on to Piece of Cake
and writes that he thought the characters "were very well-drawn,
with CH3, Fanny, Flash, Skull and Moggy being stand-outs... In
fact, I'd place Moggy as one of the best-drawn characters in war
literature ever." So when Jack's girlfriend gave him a cocker
spaniel for Christmas, he named the dog 'Moggy'. Didn't go down
well. "God, how people bitched and complained!" he tells
me. The nickname means nothing in the States. Jack travels
a lot. His girlfriend took care of Moggy in his
absence and rapidly renamed him 'Tucker'. "But," Jack adds,
"for a few short days, Pilot Officer Cattermole lived on in the form of
a rambunctious little black dog." Nice tribute, Jack. Can't think
of anything better.
ex-Vulcan pilots and groundcrew also bought copies of Hullo Russia. Next
time I'll write about that. They all say they finished the
book, sometimes reading it non-stop, which can't be bad.
Return to Homepage
Readers Write #3
feedback, the deaded P tube, and
the Snow White trick.
is a very good researcher, By chance, he met the owner of a Californian
leather-goods shop who was one of the Polish Jews rescued from the
German death camps by Oskar Schindler. After that, Keneally worked hard
to find the facts that became
Schindler's Ark, which became the film Schindler's List. He
could have written another Holocaust history. Instead, he wrote his
book as fiction - not because he wasn't sure of the truth, but because
he didn't want it to end up on the packed shelves of Holocaust volumes.
Keneally wanted his story to be read by people who never look at World
War Two histories. And he succeeded.
I think I know how he feels. I parted company with one publisher
because my fiction always ended up in the Military History section of
the shop. That wasn't why I wrote it. I wrote it for the Keneally
reason, so that people might get an idea of what war is like at the
sharp end. Not the daily scores in, say, air combat in the desert war
(which is how military historians tend to see the battle) but how a
fighter squadron lives, kills and dies in the sand, flies and blood of
the Western Desert. A Good Clean Fight is good history; I
researched it thoroughly. But it takes you where the military histories
never go. I hope that's true of all my flying stuff.
Including the latest, Hullo Russia, Goodbye England. I've had
some feedback from former Vulcan pilots and groundcrew. Chris in London
flew Vulcans and said: "It was a good read, and took me back." Brad in
Lincoln said, "Have just finished it. Grand read!" Having been
front-line ground crew for 15 years, he noticed a couple of places
where I slightly bent the truth - for instance, each Vulcan airbase was
either a Blue Steel or a bomb station, but not both. My mistake.
And here's another detail I might have included: "There is no mention
of the dreaded P Tube, a rubber bladder with a fitted chrome receptacle
into which you could pee, if you really had to. After a sortie, each
crew member emptied their own, normally at the side of the Crew Chief's
hut on the pan." I suspect that's the kind of info my readers like to
know. Some people thought Baggy Bletchley bought it in a portable loo
at the end of Piece of Cake, and were pleasantly surprised to
meet him again in Hullo Russia. He survived
Cake, and A Good Clean Fight; he may surface again.
I was happy that Brad confirmed the problems of arming a Vulcan with
the Blue Steel missile. The fuel (HTP) was so toxic that any groundcrew
splashed with it had to dive into a nearby plunge bath instantly, or
his clothing caught fire. And loading the missile meant 230 gold studs
(the Butt Connector) made perfect contact; if not, download and start
again. An exercise involving Blue Steel began hours before take-off. A
far cry from the famous 'four-minute warning' of an attack.
Peter, a former Vulcan captain now in France, got the book and
wrote: "I sat in a deckchair at the week-end and I pretty much read it
straight through. I think that says a great deal, and I found it a good
read. The story perhaps stretched the imagination a little in some
areas. Certainly our hero Silk could not have been disposed of quite so
quickly." Well, endings are often the most difficult part. Peter adds
that he joined the Vulcan OCU eight years after Silk. By then, the
aircraft was a truly low-level machine, Blue Steel had long gone, and
so had the WW2 veterans in the aircrew. (Maybe some of the mindset of
those who had bombed German cities went with them.) But Peter also read
Piece of Cake. "I think you have caught the repartee and banter
of aircrew magnificently," he says. "My first Vulcan squadron used the
Snow White party trick." (That's the one with everyone in line astern,
marching on their knees, arms folded, singing 'Hey Ho!' - it's in Cake,
page 75.) "With 55 aircrew on the squadron, there were sometimes more
than seven dwarfs!"
Thanks to all who
wrote. And welcome to several public libraries who have
bought copies, including Enfield (in London), Hartlepool, North
Yorkshire, Dorset and Wrexham. Glad to have you on board.
Return to Homepage
Readers Write #4
No Guinness in Mongolia,
a shrink's view of Silko,
and "Jag tycker om det," in spades.
over 25 years, nobody has asked me to explain in detail the episode at
the start of Piece of Cake where the pilots are ordered to
study, as a matter of urgency, a Classified Secret document
called 'Useful Polish Terms and Phrases for British
Aircrew'. (The order gets scrubbed, like so many in
wartime.) Now Nick in New South Wales ("I just finished
re-reading Piece of Cake, and I enjoyed it as much
as I did the first time. Your books come alive for me because they make
me care about your characters") asks the meaning of 'Jag tycker
om det'. Was it just a nonsense phrase? Far from it:
it's Swedish for "I like it." Someone at Air Ministry got Swedish
and Polish confused, and in 1939 most pilots couldn't tell the
difference. Typical wartime cock-up.
We'll skip lightly over
the many gung-ho letters, such as Louis in London: "Thanks for all the
hours of marvellous entertainment you've provided over the years"...
Stephen in Surrey: "I couldn't believe it when a friend told me you'd
written another book" (he bought two copies, fast)....Neal in
Texas: "I've enjoyed your writing immensely. I loaned A
Good Clean Fight to my father and he loved it - we
spent a solid hour discussing it" - and we'll
move on to the former Vulcan aircrew who are reading Hullo Russia,
Goodbye England, often as a gift from the family. Steve in East
Sussex ordered a copy for his father-in-law, for whom HRGE
might have been written: he flew Lancaster bombers in WW2,
survived intact, moved on to fly Vulcans "for God knows what
eventuality" and "has never ceased to both inspire and amaze with
his many recollections." In Doncaster, Ray got a copy for
his brother-in-law, a retired squadron leader navigator on
Vulcans. (Navs really flew the bomber; the pilot just sat
in front and drove it. Or so the navs say.) Simon in
Lancashire got the book as a surprise gift for his dad, an
ex-Vulcan pilot at RAF Scampton and Waddington. And then there
was the splendid letter from Peter, living not a million miles from me.
Here's where we get to the Mongolian Guinness famine.
an RAF Canberra pilot in Germany in the early 1960s. The
bomber - faster than many RAF fighters - was part of
Britain's nuclear force. His task was photo-reconnaissance;
but since his Canberra looked like a bomber, the Soviet defences
would probably have treated it like one. He was 21 years old.
"At the Ops
bunker we were shown our recce targets - a couple of
airfields and a railway line in Poland - and the previous
crew's plan. I never discovered who it was, but he had drawn a
straight line over the middle of Berlin, which struck us as a bad
idea." (Berlin's Russian sector was heavily
defended.) Peter and his nav plotted a more realistic route and
calculated that, at very low level (50 feet) and a reasonable survival
speed (350 knots), they wouldn't have enough fuel to get
back. His flight commander's advice was to shut down one engine
for the journey home. "We thought about this, and realised we
weren't meant to get home. We assumed that we would all be
launched eastwards and, with us unarmed as decoys, the bombers
would have a better chance of getting through."
faced a similar prospect (which is partly why I wrote HRGE).
One Vulcan pilot raised the question of the one-way journey with a
senior officer, who advised him to "keep on flying east, land somewhere
deep in the country, and settle down with a nice, warm Mongolian
Peter's nav told
him he knew "a long beach in West Donegal where one might get a
Canberra down in one piece. So we planned that"
- crossing the North Sea at zero feet, avoiding the UK
defences - "and then sit out the war in Donegal.
Would we have done it? Almost certainly not. Did we
care about the war plan? Not much. I was very young,
life was brilliant, and no-one else seemed to care much
either - 'Have another beer, old boy'." Or
another Guinness. No Guinness in Mongolia. Unlike West
"enjoyed HRGE immensely. Your V-force
plot prompted many memories of my time as a Canberra PR7 pilot."
However, as Nick in NSW remarked, it's the characters in my books that
matter, and a different Peter in Ipswich, having been a
psychiatric nurse for many years, also enjoyed the book and found in
Silk, the Vulcan pilot, "an amalgam of several characters....
Although he does his duty, his amorality and emotional detachment mark
him down as having considerable sociopathic tendencies, although his
ability to learn from experience goes against his being an out-and-out
psychopath. Douglas Bader comes to mind."
Maybe that also
explains why it is that Silko can't play the cello (another
crucial bit of plot). Readers in Rutland and in
Buckinghamshire can now find out for themselves
- their public libraries have bought copies. Welcome aboard.
Robinson Return to Homepage
Write #5 August 09
Grand Theft Library,
murder in the imagination,
how many people steal books, especially books by me. I've heard from
upright citizens who wouldn't think of cheating on the golf course, but
admit that they stole a copy of 'Piece of Cake' or 'Damned Good
Show'. Often it was the school or college library
that was plundered. That's how Jan in South
got started with my stuff. Then he
bought the rest, has read and re-read them until they fell to bits, and
he's replaced them, with kind remarks about their "superb
characterization, off-beat humour and unquestionable knowledge of the
subject", all making for
"unforgettable reading". And
he added something that made me stop and think:
"I suspect that you are actually writing non-fiction clothed as
authors? Before I wrote 'Goshawk
Squadron', for instance, I worked hard on the research, and learned all
about what the R.F.C. was doing in France in 1918
also what the British, French and German armies were doing to each
book came out in 1971, when a lot of men were alive who had fought in
and I didn't want them rubbishing my story.
So 'Goshawk' is built around a strong framework of fact, and the war itself is the terrible engine
that drives it forward. Some of my
pilots, fresh from school, die without becoming heroes, without making
difference - well,
that's the way it was. A few veterans
hated the book (sometimes without reading it).
But Bill Asburey, a pilot in the First War and a good friend,
recognised a streak
of truth in 'Goshawk', and he invited me
to be his guest at the
R.F.C. Association annual dinner. The
organisers refused to have me. Bill resigned his membership. "They
face reality," he told me. "They want to believe that nobody died in
vain. But a lot of war is
Now for something brighter, as they don't say on TV
news. Imagination. I
use it all the time. How it works, beats
me. I'm just grateful.
Take a story of mine called 'Kentucky Blues'. It's about a small,
not-too-bright town called Rock Springs
the time of the Civil War, deep in Kentucky.
There's a murder trial, some jurors drop
out, and the remaining jury can't decide
whether or not to count the absentees' proxy votes when it comes to
their verdict. So the judge rules that they must vote on it -
should proxies count or not? But
before the vote can be taken, a few awkward jurors raise an objection.
proxy votes count in the vote on whether or not proxies should count?
is baffled. Confusion reigns.
partly from my imagination and largely from my experience when I was
for the Manhattan Rugby Club in New York. We
an A.G.M. where the same proxy argument descended into chaos. I just stole the idea and moved it to 1860s Kentucky. There's a lot of stealing in fiction.
round-up of some readers' messages. Ron in Walthomstow
found 'Hullo Russia,
a "cracking good story", and adds: "I'm glad Skull got the
promotion he so richly deserved."
(Skull, the squadron Intelligence Officer, keeps getting fired
honesty, and gets promoted whenever he
moves on.) Wesley in Southend says
'Piece of Cake' is "my favourite book by any author in any genre...It
my opinion of any other book, about war in general and the RAF in
particular." Steven in Queensland
seems to have collected everything I've written: "You have a whole
in my bookcase," he says, while James in South
Carolina read 'Hullo Russia' without pause and
"an excellent piece of writing". Andy
in Hong Kong
, having just re-read "and, of
course, thoroughly enjoyed 'War Story'" is
seeking 'Damned Good Show', and
the good news is I expect to get reprint copies any day now. Finally, a note from ex-Vulcan pilot Peter in
I suggest in HRGE - that
if they were scrambled to attack the Soviet Union,
it would be a one-way mission. Nobody
expected to return. "There was
always much banter about
heading west rather than east if we
were scrambled," Peter recalls, "but it was just that
- I am
quite certain the vast majority would have headed off to do what had to
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Readers Write #6 October 09
Tin Pan Alley,
and a First from Finland.
that there are no heroes in my books.
Plenty of courage, no lack of sacrifice, a lot of death. But
The word itself has been done to death.
I was in New York when US soldiers, marines and airmen returned from
the First Gulf War, nearly twenty years ago, and they got a
reception. New Yorkers called them all
'heroes', and many servicemen looked uncomfortable with the
label. In any army, for every frontline fighting man
there are six or seven or even ten men behind
him, providing support. Cooks,
medics, dentists, truck drivers, guys organising supplies, keeping
sending signals. All doing essential
jobs, but are they all heroes? When
everyone is heroic, the word has lost all meaning. Let's save it
for those who truly deserve
Moving on: I've always believed
that a good writer can
write convincingly in any style that's needed
- tabloid journalism, song lyrics,
boring bureaucratic jargon,
whatever. I'm sometimes disappointed by
crime novelists who include chunks of newspaper
reporting for the sake of plot.
They've obviously never worked on a paper. When I wrote 'The
about a double agent reporting allegedly secret info -
his style often had to be boring in order to be convincing. The facts seemed more exciting because the
writing was so dull. I worked hard on
that, just as I did in 'A Good Clean
Fight' where I wanted to quote the lyrics of a certain popular song. (Good contrast with the bleak Libyan desert.)
Surprise, surprise: UK
copyright lasts for 70 years after the
death of the creator, and those lyrics
were still in copyright. Rather than pay
a fee (hey, writing is a business, remember), I wrote my own lyrics, of
I'm quietly proud. You can sing them in
the bath, if you wish:
When you don't care...
I'm bound in iron bands.
When you don't care...
I'm lost in desert sands.
In this wilderness, with none but you to guide me,
I'm in heaven with your tenderness beside me...
And if you think any
fool could have written that, just try
writing the next verse. But don't steal my
words. They're my copyright now.
Fresh insights from
readers' messages. Anthony in London
bought 'Hullo Russia...' and mentions what a pleasure it is "to find a
novelist who is able to produce books that you can't put down - I
finished 'Piece of Cake' in a few days and felt totally wrung out
by the sense
of tension and fatigue you managed to sustain..." By
contrast, a different reaction from John,
somewhere in UK, who "read it
again and again over a period of three years...I never, ever laughed
so many times. My wife thinks I'm mad, The humour is fantastic, and the
of the characters very emotional..."
Matthew in Ontario
discovered 'Cake' when he was 14: "I have read it dozens of times since
then and still enjoy it immensely."
Indeed, it has inspired him to
write a Bomber Command novel. And why
not? Kim, now a librarian, confesses to
having borrowed a copy of 'Hornet's Sting' from a public library, told
was lost (not true) but paid for it, and says: "I always enjoy
your work to fans of Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O'Brian, C.S. Forester, etc. Absolute fantastic reads on all
And Richard in North Yorkshire
- another big fan
reckons that " 'Goshawk Squadron' should have won the Booker
Prize." (I'll settle for the fact that it's still in print nearly 40
later.) Also from far-flung
readers: Neal in Houston,
Texas says of 'Hullo Russia...': "Well done, sir! You still have the gift
for character and banter." Mark in Adelaide, while
an armful of books, says: "Thanks
for years of entertainment!" While
Jarmo in Oulo, on the strength of reading the first 80 pages of War
wants a similar armful of what he calls my "delightful prose". And Oulo, in case you're wondering, is
to you all.
Return to Homepage
Readers Write #7
readers are far-flung,
The television adaptation of
Piece of Cake still attracts questions. (It was first shown
in 1988, so if you're under 25, ask your parents.) All five
hour-long episodes are now available on DVD, at what strikes me (and I
can be impartial because I sold the rights and so I don't make a penny
from the DVD) as a very low price. If you can't find it locally, try
Ian Allan Publishing - that's where I bought
mine. For a drama, the TV showing pulled in a big audience. I
think the final episode attracted 13 million viewers in the UK,
and LWT sold the series around the world. In the US it went out
on Mobil Masterpiece Theatre, a much respected viewing slot. And
don't tell me they spell it 'Theater' over there. Mobil called it
'Theatre', and I have the poster to prove it.
Tim in Victoria,
Australia was 12 at the time, watched Cake with his Mum, bet
her that Moggy would survive, "which of course ultimately resulted in
my having to make both our beds for a week." This throws an
interesting light on the novel and one reason why I think it keeps on
getting re-read (and re-shown): it's the unpredictable nature of
events. A good story should surprise. I set out to tell the
events of the Phoney War, the Battle for France and the Battle of
Britain, just as they might have happened to one RAF fighter
squadron. All the research I did (and that was a lot) confirmed
one thing: many pilots got killed, some in battle, some not, some by
inexperience, some by sheer bad luck. Flying was risky in those
days. On a typical fighter squadron, of those pilots who had
begun the war, most would not be flying a year later. Sometimes
This is the
unpredictable element that keeps Piece of Cake on edge.
When the television series was being cast, I was pleased to see that I
recognised hardly any names. Viewers are smart. They know
that the star they meet in episode one is not going to be killed in
episode two or three, and probably not at all - television
has paid that actor a ton of money and it's not going to be
wasted. Nearly all the pilots in Piece of Cake were
played by young unknown actors. Some became better known
later (Jeremy Northam, Nathaniel Parker) and Tom Burlinson had
already made a name in Australia but not in Britain. So viewers
could never guess who would live and who would die. Tim, aged 12,
guessed wrongly, and that both reflected the truth of the war and
upheld the dramatic tension of the story. Incidentally, I thought
Neil Dudgeon, who played Moggy Cattermole, was excellent. An RAF
fighter pilot who actually led a squadron in the Battle of Britain read
the book, saw the series, and wrote to me. He had known men like
Moggy, and he summed him up very neatly: "Bad for
discipline, good for morale - every squadron should have
one. Just one."
Other questions I get
asked: (1) Did I write the screenplay? No, I didn't. I'd put four
hard years into the novel, and I was very happy when Leon Griffiths
(who created Minder) wrote the screenplay. (2) The novel says
Hurricanes, so why use Spitfires? Very few Hurricanes survived,
and none were aerobatic, so it was Spits or nothing. (3) Did I
like the TV version? Well, naturally I pefer the book, but
it's a long story and if they'd shot the whole of the printed word, the
series would never have ended. It's pretty good. The music is
haunting. I wish it were on CD.
Back to readers
write. Among the more exotic messages have been those from
Bernice, who runs Crooked Timber Books in what sounds like a very
rugged corner of Nova Scotia; Jarmo in Finland (ordering the RFC
trilogy); Anette in Sweden (ditto); plus Karen in Switzerland
(Hornet's Sting), Jules in Holland, Charles in Prague and Werner in
Vienna (all for Hullo Russia, Goodbye England).
Which prompts two
thoughts. First: that I'm lucky to write in English, a
global language. When an Egyptian airliner talks to Bulgarian air
traffic control, they talk in English. I'm sure Finland is
a delightful country, but if I'd been born there, writing in Finnish
would not have made my career any easier. And my second
thought is that there are translations of my work sitting on my shelves
that might make an unusual gift if you have a friend in another
country. I have copies of Goshawk Squadron in French (Les
Abattoirs du Ciel), in Spanish (Escadrilla Azur), and in Dutch (Het
Havik Squadron). There's The Eldorado Network in Spanish (El Spia
Dorado) and in Dutch (Het Eldorado Netwerk); and Kramer's War in
Finnish (Luutnantti Kramerin Sota) and in what may be Belgian but is
probably Dutch (Kramer's Oorlog). I've even got
Polish versions of A Good Clean Fight (Pustynny Ogien), and of The Eldorado Network (Siatka
Eldorado) and of Artillery of Lies (Artyleria Klamstw). If you're
interested, email me and we'll take it from there.
My thanks to all who have written.
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Readers Write #8
Rumblings in Cornwall,
the Forgotten War,
helpings of 'Cake'
I sense a smouldering impatience in Cornwall. K.M.D. of St
Ives writes to say how much he's enjoyed my previous books, especially
the RFC/RAF trilogies. 'Damned Good Show' meant much to him
because his father-in-law was in Bomber Command in WW2, got shot down
in a Wellington, spent four years in Stalag Luft III, and then in the
1950s instructed at RAF Finningley, a V-Bomber base. Which
is why K.M.D. particularly wanted to read 'Hullo Russia, Goodbye
England' - it echoes much of his father-in-law's
But then he
adds: "I've been disappointed that there aren't more of your RAF
books. After all, there's still a lot of WW2 left for Hornet Squadron
after 'A Good Clean Fight', and there's also Korea, Suez etc."
Well, I wish I
could oblige. The money would be nice. I see other writers who, year
after year, produce a succession of novels that play variations on the
same tune, and a small voice inside me says: Why don't you do
that? Dick Francis writes a horse-racing novel a year. His fans
love him. Write an RAF novel a year and your fans will love
you. Why not? And a loud voice inside me says: Because
you'll be bored rigid. Even the great Conan Doyle grew to loath
Sherlock Holmes and tried to kill him off. His fans wouldn't wear
it and Doyle went back to grinding out more variations on a tune that
must have made him want to throttle someone. If not Holmes, then
Watson. Or Inspector Lestrade. Or Mrs Hudson.. Or, ideally,
the whole gang.
I'm not in the
grinding-out business. I write novels because I find an idea that
strikes me as different, even surprising. I try to write a story that I
enjoy - something fresh and unusual, maybe something that
upsets what most people think they already know. Every novel is a
gamble. I like risk. So I can't do what K.M.D. of St Ives
suggests, which is to put Hornet Squadron into Suez or Korea
simply because those wars happened. I need an idea as well, a
hook to hang the story on.
One of the hooks
I found, and used in 'Damned Good Show', is the forgotten war waged by
Bomber Command from the outbreak of war to 1941/2. Say
'Bomber Command' to most people and they think of Lancasters flattening
German cities. But the Lancs weren't much seen on ops until
mid-1942, and not in large numbers until 1943. Take the
Thousand-Bomber Raid on Cologne on 30th May 1942; only 73 Lancs
took part in that, as compared with 79 Hampdens, 131 Halifaxes
and 602 Wellingtons (plus others). In fact, Bomber Command's
first operation was on the very day that war was declared, 3rd
September 1939. During the next couple of years, the Command
learned how (and how not) to take the battle to the enemy
So I was very
pleased to hear from someone who was there at the start. Lawrence
Wheatley in Bude, Cornwall. He qualified as an Air Observer (soon to be
renamed Navigator) in summer 1939, and joined 'B' Flight of 144
Squadron. The squadron flew Hampdens, a compact twin-engine
bomber that plays a big part in 'Damned Good Show'. Lawrence
suffered from chronic air-sickness and was grounded by the medics,
which almost certainly saved his life, because on 29 September 1939 'B'
Flight was searching for targets north of Heligoland and ran into
German fighters. All five Hampdens were shot down. Soon people were
calling it the 'Phoney War'. It was real enough for the
RAF. Throughout WW2, Bomber Command losses were heavy. Of the 48
men who completed Lawrence's Air Observer course, 28 died in action or
in flying accidents.
Lawrence said he's enjoying D.G.S., "though slightly
disappointed" that it's centred on the officers "and little is said
about the Sergeants' Mess where the majority of the crew would
live." It's a fair point. My problem was numbers. I
told the story through the pilots, who were usually officers.
That involved a dozen (or more) characters. If I had included the
Sergeants' Mess too, it would have doubled the cast. That would be more
than I, or most readers, could handle.
other flying stories have been prompting some mail. Bob in Ottery St.
Mary flew Canberras and Buccaneers (both types were capable of carrying
nuclear weapons) and he writes: "I don't know how you do it, but the
atmosphere and the characters on the squadrons I've served on are often
reflected in your books." Steve in Nottingham, having just read
'Hullo Russia, Goodbye England', says: "The flying descriptions
- absolutely brilliant. I presume you leaned on some former
pilots to get that right." Well, I certainly had my stuff
doublechecked for accuracy, but in essence it all came out of what's
left of my mind. Chris in the Borders "liked HRGE immensely. You
have a way with character dialogue that, in my opinion, is second to
none....Also the story had me from the start; these are characters that
I may not necessarily care about, but I revel in their ups and downs,
and ultimately they mostly win me over by the end; including Luis
Cabrillo from 'The Eldorado Network' trilogy..." (It's actually a
quartet, with the new book 'Operation Bamboozle', which Chris bought.)
Jonathan in Basingstoke is now on his third copy of 'Piece of Cake',
having worn out the other two: "Still an old favourite that I revisit
every few years....and it has the rare gift of giving something
different every time." While Susan of Colchester bought HRGE and
'Hornet's Sting' as a Christmas gift for her husband, "a devotee of
your writing"; and when Richard in Kent got his copy of 'Operation
Bamboozle', he was "really chuffed to have a shelf full of your
produce." And I'm chuffed too.
Thanks to everyone who wrote.
Return to Homepage
Readers Write #9
Barrel-rolling a Boeing, our forgetful MPs, and a nice line in
the filming of Piece of Cake, the Spitfires were flown by
professionals, and they took it seriously, which is
when (a) the aeroplane was worth half a million pounds (more now), and
(b) it was irreplaceable, and (c) your life depended on it.
I remember a day when the weather was too gloomy for filming, and one
pilot got very bored with hanging around. When the cloud-level
the light was still poor, but he was itching to fly, and so he took off
and threw his Spit around for ten minutes. Just for fun. No charge on
the producers. But the pilot got a big charge out of it.
mention this because I imagine that inside every commercial pilot is
the ghost of a fighter pilot who sometimes looks at his Airbus or his
Boeing and wonders what it would be be like to perform a sweet barrel
roll, or play leapfrog with the clouds. Just for fun. Then
fighter pilot gets firmly put back in his box and the pro pilot returns
to another day in the cockpit. Or, as many call it, the
that explains why quite a few working pilots like to read my
Rowland in New South Wales spent eight years flying in police
helicopters, and he read his paperback Piece of Cake
so often that it fell apart. He says: "Many of my vintage aircrew read
it in our many and lengthy downtimes. We read parts of it to each other
across the crewroom, office and hangar floor...Good memories."
now bought a hardback copy from me.) "A sincere thank you for the many
hours of enjoyment Piece of Cake brought to very bored aircrew waiting
for the telephone to ring." Robert in Cologne is another pilot
with Lufthansa) who keeps returning to Cake (now on his sixth
reading). "For me, it is maybe the best book about flying
have ever read," he writes, "apart from being a very good book."
he adds something it's always good to hear from a pro pilot: "You got
the flying scenes right - and I'm very sensitive when it comes to
that." But it's the humour and the characters that keep drawing
back: "I just read the part where Squadron Leader Rex elaborates on
fighter tactics in October '39 - with Reilly (his dog)
wandering away. That is so good." Dogs often make useful
in my books. My wife reckons that Othello, the elderly basset hound in
Operation Bamboozle, has the best lines. Nobody hears him, of course,
but he knows what he thinks.
Moving on: Gordon in Suffolk worked
for Rolls-Royce engines until recently. He enjoyed Hullo Russia, Goodbye England,
and he's not the first to tell me he's "absolutely appalled that you
could not find a publisher. If you can't get this type of book
published, who can?" It's a mystery to me too, but commercial
publishers go their own sweet way, which is why I self-publish my
stuff. Gordon, having found my website, says: "It was like
a treasure trove of undiscovered goodies." (He meant the books,
author's photograph, which a friend said looks like a benevolent
Balkans dictator. That's what friends are for.) Gordon passes on
story he was told by a veteran aerospace journalist who went to a
reception given by a defence manufacturer. Many youngish MPs were
there. The journo remarked to them that it was marvellous to see the
Vulcan, greatest of all V-bombers, flying again. Blank looks.
'V-bombers....Vulcan, Victor, Valiant...Cold War... nuclear deterrent
in the 1960s...' More blank looks. Gordon quotes Alan
is nowhere more distant than the recent past." Too true. It's one
reason why I wrote HRGE.
People forget. Even things like the motto of the nuclear powers
- Mutual Assured Destruction - can slip their
continue to intrigue me by their sheer stamina. David in Barnes SW13
reckons he's read "just about every one of your books at least 5 times
(beginning with Goshawk Squadron) and I have now recruited my present
wife, my ex-wife, my two brothers, my daughter, her husband and soon, I
hope, their two boys." To which, with the Cake
DVD, he's just hooked his son-in-law. Truly amazing. John,
in Oz, is reading Damned Good Show for the fourth time, and
his dad flew in them - would like me to write about the
low-level work of four-engine Halifaxes dropping supplies to partisans
in Italy, Jugoslavia, even Poland. Very hairy ops. And Peter in
Ontario got a kick out of reading A Good Clean Fight, since his dad
flew Kittyhawks with the Desert Air Force, went on to fly Spits in
Johnson's Canadian wing at D-Day, and survived the war. Peter
big fan") bought Hornet's Sting, Op
Bam and Hullo Russia. Then Karen in Switzerland, having just
read War Story and Hornet's Sting,
says: "I loved both and 'missed' reading them when finished." She's
always been interested in vintage aeroplanes and in photography (she
sent me some fine airborne** shots taken
at Old Warden, especially one of
the Bristol Fighter), and her partner is a retired pilot. Add her
interest in the history of both World Wars and (she says) "You managed
to tick all the boxes that make the perfect book for me. I adored all
the characters and found myself completely absorbed by the pilot psyche
of the day." Lastly, Stephen in Nottingham "enjoyed Bamboozle,
which managed to combine a page-turning plot with some lovely period
detail (as ever), and a nice line in scams." He then raises an unusual
point. In Cake, he
supply the background to every main character - except
Cattermole. Stephen wants to know more about him. I'll give it
Thanks to everyone who wrote.
** If you would like to see Karen's
Write #10 March 2010
Humour can be more dangerous
than gunpowder. With
gunpowder, you get a choice of two: either it explodes or
With humour, the choice may be three. Ideally, people
some people may not see the point. When that happens, the silence
deafening. And yet others may find the alleged humour so unfunny
for them, it backfires. It offends them. This is the risk
because there is no such thing as a joke that cannot upset somebody,
somewhere. So humour is a gamble. Ask any stand-up
He'll tell you of nights when he had to fight the audience to make them
laugh. Other nights, they would laugh no matter what he said,
even if it
was "Corrugated iron". Humour is a battlefield.
Maybe that's why it's such a big ingredient in
my books. I write about battlefields (some of them in the sky) and
cropping up, even in the most desperate situations. It might be gallows
humour. In my first novel, Goshawk Squadron, a very
fighter pilot is so twitchy about going on patrol that he can't face
porridge at breakfast. Woolley, the CO, comes in. "Are you going
eat that, Dudley?" Woolley
"Or have you already?" Nobody in the Mess laughs.
But I hoped the reader would at least smile, partly because the joke
tell the story and partly because it helps me make a living.
Briers says much the same thing, and he should know.
Briers ('The Good Life') is one
of the best comic actors in Britain.
He's been called an icon. (Live long enough and, as Alan Bennett
if you can still eat a boiled egg, you're an icon. I'm the third
other two are Wallace and Gromit.) Briers says his talent for comedy
his family in comfort for more than 50 years. Here's his advice
actors: "If you want to starve, go for Shakespeare.
if you can be funny, lucky bugger, look at the bank balance..." Briers
no ham: he's played King Lear on tour to 30 countries. But
funny is what he's good at, and he's grateful for the talent. I'm
grateful for mine. Subtract the humour from my books and I don't think
(in Western Australia)
would have read and re-read all my RFC and RAF stories.
fave is A Good Clean Fight,"
he writes. "Such vivid imagery!" He's a Flight Lieutenant,
RAAF, an Air Traffic Controller and amateur pilot, and his Aussie
grandfather fought tank battles in the Desert War (where AGCF takes
place), so it's no surprise that the book rang bells for
what strikes him especially is the humour. "Your wicked satire
is contagious, and I must control myself when dealing with difficult
weeks after reading one of your books, lest I drop slightly too barbed
in response to their 'unhelpfulness'."
Jean-Marie, a retired pilot, tells me he reads and enjoys all my
Nowadays, the aircrew in all airlines must have a grasp of
which is good for me. Martin in London SW6 (not a pilot) rates
"simply one of your greatest fans" and to prove it he's read Hornet's
Sting five times, Goshawk Squadron even more, and he's
finished Damned Good Show for the third time. Now he's
into Red Rag Blues and Operation Bamboozle, plus Hullo
Russia, Goodbye England.
("Did Silk make
it to the church with Zoe?" he asks.)
month I promised Stephen in Nottingham
that I would reveal Moggy Cattermole's
background, since nothing is said about it in Piece of Cake. I've
given it some thought, and young Moggy - always too tall
age, and never a pretty boy - turned out to be the only son
minor Anglican bishop. He had three elder sisters who spoiled him
rotten. He soon rebelled against discipline and good manners
happened to sons of ultra-respectable families). He found that he
talent for getting his own way, sometimes by flattery, sometimes by
sometimes by blackmail. He was morally neutral but fairly brave.
flying because civilians, especially women, treated him like a
Otherwise - no ambitions and no principles except having a
time at others' expense. If it hadn't been for the war he would
ended up in jail.
Thanks to everyone who wrote.
Write #11 May 2010
and the shock of Woolley's Twin
he was being interviewed on television, Stephen Sondheim remarked that,
West Side Story on Broadway, many of the audience walked
show wasn't what they expected. Their idea of a good musical was lots
laughs, gorgeous girls, and songs you could whistle on the way home. West Side Story,
by contrast, was about love and hate between street gangs, and it
ever the way musicals were written. Sondheim (lyrics) and Leonard
(music) - with some help from Shakespeare -
stretch their talents and challenge the audience's expectations.
wanted to move on, to create something fresh and new and surprising.
is satisfying but dangerous. Bizet's Carmen was fresh and new and
panned by the critics. When Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was first
performed in Paris,
the audience rioted. TIME magazine gave Bonnie and Clyde zero stars.
When Dave Brubeck wrote his jazz hit, Take Five, his record
it down because, they said, people can't dance to five-in-a-bar music.
was broke for most of his short life, Catch-22 was rejected by 17
publishers, and my novel Piece
of Cake was such a spectacular flop when first
published that the hardback edition got remaindered within six
is not in the same creative league as Stravinsky or Van Gogh
some have said it's up there with Heller's Catch-22), but I was trying
something fresh and original when I wrote it: a novel about the
Britain which showed that RAF fighter pilots were not all heroic,
always victorious. They were human. The strain on them was huge.
behaved admirably. Some did not. Inevitably, the book was condemned by
who preferred to believe the myth. They said that Cake was wrong, bad,
disgraceful. I wasn't surprised, or even disappointed. If
your neck out, chances are that someone will try to chop it off. One
friend urged me to rewrite
Goshawk Squadron without Woolley who, he felt, was totally
unacceptable. Another friend abandoned The Eldorado Network after
chapters. "What on earth is it all about?" he asked.
That's life. Fiction, like fruit, is a matter of personal taste. No
book is for
everybody, which is why I never say to anyone, "You must read this
novel - you'll love it." They may hate it, and
my terrible taste
knowledge only goes to boost my respect for those big-hearted
readers who strongly recommend my stuff to their children, wives,
working colleagues, neighbours, librarians, and someone they met in a
Peter, in Wellington,
falls into a slightly different category - his (adult)
takes his books and fails to return them, which explains why he ordered
from me. "This will be the fifth copy I will have (temporarily)
owned," he says, and he also owns "three copies each of Goshawk Squadron
Hornet's Sting, bought at various times against
depredations by my
Some of the
emails I get rank me so highly amongst the Great Writers of
the World that I haven't the nerve to repeat them here. But Alan of W5
says, "Big fan - keep doing it!" while D.E.W. in Luton says, "I
your books immensely." Another great fan, Jim in Frome, ordered Hornet's Sting
and looks forward to "reading the one book I've so far been unable to
find." And Ronald, now living in Normandy and "an avid
reader since Kramer's
War in 1978", wanted Hullo Russia, Goodbye England
and Operation Bamboozle,
and tells why - "thoroughly entertaining, amusing,
and thought-provoking." Finally, Nathaniel, here in Bristol,
read everything of mine he could find, then bought Hullo Russia and finished
"at a sitting". He also uncovered a rarity -
a figure who was famous enough to get a big obituary
surprise) likened him to Major Woolley.
The obit ran
in The Guardian on
22 March 1995 and it was
written by Christopher MacLehose (by far the best editor I ever
was for Edmund Fisher, a brilliant figure in the publishing world,
"fabulously intolerant of dead wood" and "militantly
unpompous" and "a severe trial to his corporate masters".
MacLehose also detected "an inadvertent likeness in him to Major
the RFC commander in Goshawk
Derek Robinson whom Edmund later published (and what a terrifying
would have made): a brave, passionate, rebarbative officer,
seeking out the best in his men, a tireless inspiration to them, always
about winning, having a huge appetite for combat, insufferable to his
superiors, a rattler of cages, a hater of pretentiousness and snobbery,
of swathes, not going to be forgotten."
Although he published Goshawk
when he was at Sphere, I never met Edmund. My loss.
Readers Write #12 June 2010
killed Fido Doggart?
Across Africa with malaria in a Tomahawk,
and a Gong for Liam in Darwin, North Australia.
My apologies to Wisconsin. Usually I
associate that state with its blacklisting, Red-hunting, late Senator
Joe McCarthy of the 1950s, who enjoys a romp in my novel Red
Rag Blues. But now Robbie writes to tell me that in his
corner of Wisconsin the man whose memory they respect is Progressive
Senator Bob La Follette. Clearly there's a lot going for
Wisconsin. For instance, Robbie's college library "has an
excellent selection of your books" - he's just enjoyed
Kramer's War, and Rotten With Honour is next, with Kentucky
Blues to follow and Invasion, 1940 yet to come. I
doubt if that could be said of any British college library.
Robbie is an archaeology student and he has the forensic skills.
Of A Good Clean Fight, he asks: What became
of Fido Doggart? Alive and well on page 211, he just
vanishes. I too am baffled. It's almost 20 years since I wrote
the novel. Perhaps Fido simply walked into the desert one starless,
moonless night in search of the latrines, and got lost. It
The S.A.S. features big in that story,
so it's not surprising that Gordon - a self-confessed
former 'brown job' who served in Bosnia - enjoyed it,
especially the character of Paul Schramm, who's a German intelligence
officer. "Another example," Gordon says, "of your refusal
to stereotype." That's very much to the point. For the
novelist, the enemy is always more interesting when he's given a human
face, and I got very tired of postwar British films that painted all
German officers as either fanatical or stupid, or both. I've
always liked Schramm and his chum, the exiled Dr Maria
Grandinetti, probably the most human people in the book.
In fact I like characters who don't fit
the heroic mould, and here we come to Moggy Cattermole from Piece
of Cake. Gordon comments on my "sense of authenticity, which
few authors achieve", which means that "we care about the cast of
Cake without loving any of them - although two RAF
officers I knew absolutely adored Moggy, which speaks volumes." I
doubt if Moggy would have returned their affection. Moggy never
gave anything back, including money.
Which leads naturally to Major Woolley.
Andrew in Leytonstone "first read Goshawk Squadron when I was
about 13" and has "re-read it half a dozen times over the years"
as he came to realise "how young those boys were at the time."
(Straight from school, in many cases.) When a friend of his got married
and had enough toasters and salad bowls, he asked to be given a
favourite book. Andrew bought them Goshawk Squadron. A
I've said it before: I just write the
books; I have no idea who will read them, or where, or under what
circumstances. Michael Kavanagh writes: "I read (or
re-read) Piece of Cake 3-4 times a year. I have to.
It's a drug but it's harmless..." I chalk that up as a good
thing. His father, a WW2 fighter pilot at the ripe old age of 33, read
Cake, found it "as accurate as he could remember" and, Mike adds,
"was at pains to point out that the gung-ho stupidity of such as Rex
never truly left the service, and he confirmed that his squadron had a
'Moggy'." His father later flew Tomahawks in stages
(total trip was 3,967 miles) from Takoradi in Ghana to
Egypt (another echo of A Good Clean Fight), an
experience he described as " a fighter he loathed and malaria to
add to rheumatic fever." As for the plague of flies in the desert
war, "you should double it for Takoradi and add the mosquitoes
for good measure." Fight could never tell the full
truth, but it seems I got somewhere near it.
A random dip into other messages.
Nick in Lincolnshire, ordering Hullo Russia, Goodbye England,
has been "a massive fan for 40 years". Martin in London read
the recent books (Hullo Russia, Red Rag Blues,
Operation Bamboozle) and welcomes my "dark
cynicism...quite brilliant". Another Martin, in Cheshire, finds Cake
to be "one of those rare books that stay with you all your life", and
after 30 years as a cop, including "one or two sticky moments", he can
relate to fighter pilots with "hands shaking, and falling about
laughing after an op, especially when you thought your time had
Finally, news from a really far-flung
fan. Liam Phillips lives in Darwin, North Australia, which, he
says, has only two seasons - "wet and dry. The wet is a
steaming madhouse of humidity that sends the population insane,
punctuated by relief-inducing tropical storms. During the wet my
reading increases ten-fold on weekends - too hot to do
anything but stay indoors with the air-conditioner cranked."
That's how Liam found himself, in February 2000, inside his favourite
secondhand bookshop, "desperately trying to find something to sate my
WW2-flying-appetite...." Then he remembered an image. Spitfire
pilot, face covered in oil, thinks he's gone blind, another pilot tells
him to remove his goggles. Another image - Spitfire
pilot flying under a bridge. "They were from a TV show a long way
Liam began searching the bookshop,
starting at 'Fiction, A', and an hour later had "a nice busted-up copy
of Piece of Cake to take home." It revived his feeling
on watching the TV series, "which, even for a boy of 8 or 9, was
very emotional". Now, ten years later, "my level of anticipation
in starting a novel had never been higher". And rarely had he
been "so sad to finish a bok. Almost stunned with the emotional
Thus began "my love-affair with all
things Robinson...I got hold of Kramer's War, The Eldorado Network
and Artillery of Lies which I read and loved...When I
discovered Goshawk Squadron, I had the same feeling I had had
with Cake...Like Nina Bawden, it really did reduce me to
tears..." Then came War Story and Rotten With
Honour, and "in July 2001 I walked into the bookshop and lying on
the counter was A Good Clean Fight." Joy was
unconfined. Liam was about to leave on a European backpacking
jaunt, so "a few pairs of underwear and socks were jettisoned in favour
of Hornet Squadron." He rationed his reading to two pages at a
time "which kept my sanity" while he crossed Russia and half a
dozen other countries. Now he got into his stride and actually
bought a new Kentucky Blues. In 2007 he went to New York to
get married and his brother gave him Red Rag Blues,
which is largely set in that city, so the gift was "much fun".
And he's happy to share the fun. When a friend took paternity
leave, Liam handed him a shopping bag containing all my books. "He read
them, one after the other, and was pretty annoyed when I told him
that's all there was."
Ah, well. No good deed goes
unpunished. But if anyone deserves a gong, it's Liam.
My thanks to all who wrote.
Return to Homepage
Readers Write #13 July 2010
Shot down by Rex,
Lambs into Tigers
and 'A man has to do what a man has
to do' when he's Luis Cabrillo.
actors say they get inside the skin of the characters they're playing
mastering the way that character walks. I knew an actor like
normally a charming chap but he couldn't get out of character during
the run of
the play; and sometimes that was rough on the family, especially when
cast as a crude and selfish oaf. Every morning he would lurch
into a chair, curse the cat and demand a mug of tea in a voice made of
Not easy to live with.
Actors live the part. When the TV series of Piece of Cake was
filmed on location, Tim Woodward - a pacifist in his
years - played Rex, the squadron CO, a hard, ambitious and
man. During a break in the filming I unexpectedly met Rex, in
still looking hard, ambitious and arrogant. For a second, my
wanted to salute him. (I'd done my National Service, and you can take
out of the RAF but you can never take the RAF out of the boy.)
Rex, looked right through me. Quite right. He was a squadron leader. I
With authors, it's often names that help to create the character.
perfect for the CO (we never know his first name). Before I could
Squadron I thought a lot about that CO's name, and until I
Woolley, I couldn't make him talk. I didn't want to give him a
name like Beauchamp or Dalrymple or Carruthers (or Bigglesworth).
wanted something that would cut against the grain of the usual romantic
of the RFC. Stanley
then there's Moggy Cattermole. I named him because he's lanky,
helps if tall characters have long names. I knew someone at
Cattermole, always nicknamed Moggy, and the combination seemed right
someone who is - as a Battle
squadron commander once told me - "Bad for discipline, good
for morale. Every squadron should have one. Just one." The link
between 'cat' and 'moggy' doesn't exist in the US,
but he seems to endure in Americans' affections. No such problem
Paxton. (I borrowed it from the name of a village in Scotland
where I went to school.) David in Oro
wrote: "I've re-read War Story several times, and particularly
enjoyed the very accurate evolution that you skilfully wove for Paxton.
survive?" He does indeed, and matures nicely in Hornet's Sting
(which David now has). As a pilot, and formerly a young U.S. Marine officer in Vietnam,
David says he "can identify with the seemingly innocent lamb-into-tiger
Which leads me to the Luis Cabrillo books, not so much lamb-into-tiger
saga of Tell 'Em What They Want To Hear. It began with The Eldorado
inspired by the feats of a real double agent in WW2, codenamed Garbo.
born in Spain,
so I gave my character a Spanish name. I kept it short and simple
easy to pronounce, partly because I was going to have to write it ten
times and partly because I can't read novels with long, complex,
unpronounceable names (often Russian). Luis is easy, and if you
Cabrillo, you'll find a popular kitchen soap-pad buried in there.
had a New York
literary agent who said that US publishers disliked novels with Spanish
so I rewrote the whole of Red Rag Blues with Luis Cabrillo from
to Guy Montgomery from England.
Turned out they didn't like Guy either. Neither did I. Exit New York
Enter a man who sees the true worth of Luis. Graham Thorne, of Malden in Essex, sent me
sparkling little review of Operation Bamboozle, and here it
loved the classic Robinson opening paragraph, which brought me straight
the plot and made me want to know immediately what was going on. I also
the headlong twists and turns of the plot and the fact that, for ages,
not figure out what on earth the map on the cover had to do with the
book I was
rapid-fire and amoral style in which the book is written seems to me to
perfectly what it would be like to know, and live with, Luis Cabrillo.
immense charm and wit but also that whiff of danger - and
borderline lunacy - that makes us ordinary readers secretly
know him from a distance.
a joy to meet the gorgeous Stevie Fantoni again and a privilege to be
introduced to the Princess Chuckling Stream. Among the superb
of hoods and enforcers, I particularly liked the psychotic Vito
DiLazzari. He is the classic, indulged son of the tyrant,
so that he knows too much for his hereditary role -
instead of Hedgehog.
where now for Conroy and Cabrillo? I hope we hear more of them. For, as
gets older and that little bit slower, and as the world gets more
with less room for the maverick, then life for Luis will get steadily
tougher. Like a late Western, there is a great book to be written
man running out of room, and Derek Robinson is the man to do it."
Well, time will tell. Are con artists an endangered
an unemployed lorry-driver conned a property developer out of £1
persuading him that the Savoy Hotel in London was
for sale, cheap, at £250 million. (Real price: £500 million.) The
in jail, but the con suggests that charm still parts many folk from
money. And Luis has truckloads of charm.
So: thanks to Graham, and to far-flung readers who recently
for books - Anders in Sweden, David in Malaysia, Matt in
Fred in Virginia, Christopher in Spain, Lars in Denmark, Blair in
and many more.
thanks to all who wrote.
Derek Robinson Return to Homepage
Readers Write #14
The black widow
The price of a nuclear crisis (4 pence),
And a Mile-High Club for Dedicated Readers?
Journalists very rarely include bits of
fiction in their reports, but halfway through a column about the Battle
of Britain in The Independent, written by
Robert Fisk (who is a very good journalist), he quoted a short episode
from Piece of Cake. It concerned an RAF airfield during the
Battle, where a fighter pilot had been killed in action. Every day his
widow stood beyond the end of the runway, waiting for him to return.
The pilots got sick of the sight of the 'black widow', as they called
her, and eventually Moggy Cattermole went out and told her, very
firmly, to buzz off.
I was surprised (and rather flattered) that Cake
was worth quoting, so I wrote to Bob Fisk and told him that the episode
was based on fact. In 1940 there really was an RAF field with a
black widow who had to be discouraged. Bob phoned me (from
Beirut; he gets around), was glad to know that the fiction he'd quoted
was not invented, and we had a cheerful chat.
Next I got a message from Graham Thorne in
Essex. He had read Hullo Russia, Goodbye England and
now he recommended the new edition of Peter Hennessy's The Secret
State, subtitled Preparing for the Worst, 1945-2010,
which he says "makes a superb and chilling backdrop to HRGE."
I got a copy. Graham was right. I paid especial attention to the
chapters on the Cold War, RAF V-bombers, the threat of Soviet nuclear
attack, and how Britain would respond. Hennessy describes something
that I mentioned in my Author's Note to HRGE - how,
in a crisis, the State planned to make urgent contact with Prime
Minister Macmillan when he had left London in his chauffeur-driven
Rolls-Royce. The solution was to use the Automobile Association's
nationwide radio network to call the car's radio telephone.
But Hennessy has dug deeper than I could,
and found what the PM was supposed to do next. No point in
talking to the AA. So his chauffeur was told to find the nearest
telephone box. Then someone realised that you needed small change
to make a call - 4 pence (in old money).
Solution: everyone who might drive the PM's car was told to carry
four pence with them at all times. Strange but true.
Meanwhile, Soviet missiles would be on their
way. Hennessy takes a long look (as did I) at the famous
four-minute warning during which nuclear-armed Vulcans would be
scrambled. But I think he overlooked one factor which I included
in HRGE; and that is the time it took the ground crew to
prepare the Vulcan for flight. When the Vulcan carried a Blue Steel
stand-off nuclear missile, its ground crew had to fuel the missile with
hydrogen peroxide (a highly volatile and toxic liquid, to be handled
with extreme care) and then had to 'marry' the missile to the bomber by
connecting 230 gold studs. If one connection failed, then start
all over again. (Nor could a Blue Steel-armed Vulcan stand for
hours, waiting for a possible scramble. Hydrogen peroxide leaked;
it had to be topped up from time to time. Ultimately, the Vulcan
must be disarmed and the Blue Steel emptied.) So here's the
question. Who was going to scramble the ground crew some hours before
the aircrew got their four-minute scramble order? That is one of
the things that HRGE is all about.
On to comedy. John Douglas, now living
in France, had a brief RAF career in flying training back in the
early 1970s, and he rates Piece of Cake highly: when he saw
it again on DVD, "...I had forgotten how good it was. The flying in it
was exceptionally good..."
During his basic flying training, his course
visited 617 Squadron - famous for the Dambusters Raid, when
it was led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, DSO, DFC. John recalls:
"We were given the 'insider's tour' of the Squadron Museum. 'Guy
Gibson's Hat' in a glass case turned out to be changed every time the
CO decided the aircrews' hats were getting just that bit too
tatty...and the worst was then selected to be 'Guy Gibson's Hat' in the
glass case! We were also shown 'Nigger's Grave'." (Nigger was
Gibson's dog. PC hadn't been invented in WW2.) "We saw the place
where the dog had been ostensibly interred on the night of the Dams
raid, and were told: 'Nobody knows where the damn dog is,
but everyone expects to see the grave, so we put up a stone!' "
617 Squadron carried nuclear-armed missiles,
and the visitors were told that aircrew had to learn detailed routes to
and from their assigned Soviet targets. But, their guide told the
trainees: "In the event of the 'real thing', they were actually going
en masse to Bermuda!" And John still has a fantasy of "missiles
flying, civilisation ending...and Bermuda being swamped by phalanxes of
Vulcans, B-52s, Bears and Badgers, all queueing to get into the
Well, the RAF has a well-deserved reputation
for poker-faced humour. The Guy Gibson stories are plausible
enough; after all, bomber stations in WW2 had better things to do
then collect mementoes. But I can just see that guide revealing the
Great Bermuda Exodus, in order to find out how hard he could pull his
visitors' legs before they broke off.
Onwards. One of the pleasures of my
job is knowing that the work I did 30 or 40 years ago is still being
discovered by new readers. Oliver in Dusseldorf recently found Goshawk
Squadron ("deeply impressed") and now he's reading the rest of the
RFC trilogy. Simon in East Sussex bought a copy of Hornet's
Sting , and says it almost hurts to finish the last page of my
novels, "which probably accounts for the number of times I've
re-read them!" James, somewhere in the UK, saw Piece of Cake
in a secondhand bookshop while on holiday in Wales ("So many
utterly distinctive, subtle, exquisitely drawn characters....quite one
of the most magnificent pieces of war fiction I have ever read.")
Ian, in Basingstoke, rates the WW2/RAF novels as "the best books I have
ever read - Piece of Cake specifically" and he's
lost count of how often he's read them. Werner in Vienna had to
replace his War Story because the old copy "hasn't survived
the borrowing and lending of several friends." Mark, also
somewhere in the UK, says "I still read Piece of Cake once a
year or so." So does Abi, who found the book 23 years ago when
she was 14 and saw the TV version. She says: "It has got me through
some pretty desperate times and has also been a favourite treat to dip
into - I've had four paperbacks and now two hardback
copies. One extra just in case." John Welsh in Irvington,
New York, reckons he's read Cake "maybe thirty times."
And so on. Maybe someone (not me) should form a club for
Big Repeat Readers. Just a thought.
thanks to all who wrote.
Robinson Return to Homepage
Readers Write #15 October 2010
quartet of Hurricanes,
And never enough Cake.
Why all the fame? Was it the
all-red triplane? Was it the barony? Was it the Snoopy comic
strip? It couldn't have been simply the high score, because WW1
produced other highscoring fighter pilots who fought and won despite
difficulties which von Richthofen never faced -
especially the prevailing west wind that slowed down their return
to base while it blew the German aircraft home. The Englishman Albert
Ball, the Frenchman Guynemer, the American Rickenbacker, and others,
richly deserve to be remembered.
Perhaps the most memorable of all was
Mick Mannock, the mirror-image of the aristocratic Richthofen.
Mannock was Irish, the son of an Army corporal who abandoned his wife
and five kids when Mick was twelve, so the boy left school and got
work. He became a linesman for the phone company, travelled for years
in the Middle East doing odd jobs, and was in Turkey when war broke
out. The Turks (Germany's allies) roughed him up, but he got home
and the Army put him in the Medical Corps. He repeatedly applied
for the RFC, and finally made it. In 1917 he arrived in France.
At 30 he was thought to be dangerously old for a pilot. And he
had a wonky left eye. A little over a year later he had at least 61
victories, some said 73; three DSOs, an MC, and -
posthumously - a VC. His father, the
ex-corporal who'd been absent for 20 years, presented himself at
Buckingham Palace to accept the medal from His Majesty. You
couldn't make it up.
But Richthofen gets all the
attention, and now I've had a message from John Clark in
Australia, a great fan of my stuff who wanted a copy of Hornet's
Sting because he reckons that the relationship I built up between
Paxton and O'Neill in War Story "was one of the funniest
and most poignant in war fiction." John adds that on ANZAC
Day, his grandfather always used to tell him how he saw
Richthofen shot down - and not, as many
believe, by a Canadian pilot, Roy Brown, but by grandfather's pal, an
Aussie rifleman called Cedric Popkin. "He always said he could
virtually follow the fatal bullet's path," John
I think Grandfather was wise to include
that word 'virtually'.
Then, in total contrast, came a note
from an old friend, Garth Ennis, Belfast-born but now in New York and
big in graphic publications, or war comics, as he calls them. On a trip
to the Duxford airshow for the Battle of Britain 70th anniversary
he snapped this fine shot of four Hurricanes in formation, and he
even found a quote from Piece of Cake to match it:
The controller sent them up to
eighteen thousand, then to twenty-two thousand. Cox calculated when
they were above Dover, and turned north. The cloud was now more than
two miles below. It looked as flat and smooth as a bedsheet. It
covered the Channel and London and reached far into the North Sea. Blue
and Green sections cruised at a couple of hundred miles an hour and
made no visible progress at all. The world was vast and lovely and,
apart from four Hurricanes, utterly empty.
Evidently, Cake still grips a
lot of readers. Fred in Fairfax, Virginia, says: "Great! I
snagged Piece of Cake at the local library. The dogfight in
the final chapter is some of the most gripping prose I've ever
read." Chris in British Columbia has read Cake and
several other novels of mine and now "recommends them to anyone who
will listen" - including the Junior Air Force
Officers under his command. Thomas in Denmark tells me, "I read Piece
of Cake every two years or so - a very
fine story." And my guess is that Kurt in America has had a big slice
of Cake because he says: "Love your books! I started
out as a military pilot at 18. Spent 5 years in the US Army flying
helicopters and oh the stories I could tell..." He gives a hint: "A
helicopter with its landing light on, ten feet above a railroad track,
looks remarkably like a train coming at you at night..." Moggy
Cattermole would have liked that.
And there is further news of lifelong
quests to collect every word of fiction I ever wrote. Alex, in
Kaiapoi, New Zealand, needed just two, Operation Bamboozle and
Hullo Russia, Goodbye England to complete his set. Barry, in
Somerset, bought Goshawk Squadron when he was 14 for
35p (about 50 cents American), then kept looking for more by me,
with no joy until the Cake TV series appeared and he
continued a hunt that has now lasted 35 years, often in dusty
backstreet bookshops, until he finally tracked down the lot. He
sends thanks for much enjoyment; I send warm congratulations to
all you hunters.
Stephen Travis in Nottingham (another
steady companion) re-read the RFC trilogy and "it got me thinking about
Major Woolley" - about how different he is from his
brother officers, having bridged the class divide and all. The
novel says nothing about his early life. Have I any notions?
Not many. Everything I know for
sure about Woolley is on page 1, para 3 of Goshawk.
Later, Woolley says things about himself (usually to Margery) but was
he speaking the truth? It's for the reader to decide. One thing's
certain. I didn't base him on any actual pilot; but
recently I came across a description of Mick Mannock by someone who
knew him that's not a million miles away from Woolley: "Mannock
was a tall man with blue-grey eyes, a thin face, and he seemed to wear
an expression of perpetual disapproval."
Finally, a quick round-up. Hullo
Russia seems to have gone down well. Peter in London
E17 "greatly enjoyed it". So did Stevan in W3 (he
bought four more titles of mine on the strength of it). Nicholas in
Hong Kong "enjoyed War Story so much I couldn't wait to
read the final part of the trilogy". Oliver in Dusseldorf, having
bought books in August, found Hornet's Sting "just a hell of
a good read" and came back for other titles. David in Eastbourne, while
asking for Hornet's Sting, said how much he'd
enjoyed my other novels and added: "Why they're out of print
beats me. Others of the ilk ain't the proverbial patch." Well, I
hope to have good news about that situation, probably in my next column.
thanks to all who wrote. Derek Robinson Return to Homepage
Readers Write #16 December 2010
slave rides again,
Exploring the Canadian military,
and a double whammy from the US.
Hanging on the wall of my bathroom is a
message I got in the
mail when the series based on Piece
of Cake was on television.
got quite a bit of hate mail then, but this one was a classic, being
anonymous but also written in crayon and all in capitals. It said:
HAVE YOU EVER CONSIDERED TAKING UP
MORE SUITABLE EMPLOYMENT?
LIKE BEING A BROTHEL DOORMAN.
TROUBLE IS, YOU MIGHT HAVE
DIFFICULTY IN FINDING SOMEONE TO GIVE YOU A
ABOUT, THOUGH - HOW ABOUT A TELEVISION PRODUCER!!!
Not too subtle,
perhaps, but I couldn't fault the writer for
spelling or grammar, although a good editor might have queried the
exclamation marks. I keep it on the wall for much the same reason
Roman emperors who were making a triumphal procession used to keep a
standing behind them whose job was to whisper: 'Remember, Caesar, you
mortal.' In my case, the warning is: 'Remember, Robinson, some of
punters out there think your stuff is crap.'
And that's their
privilege. In the long run it's readers,
not authors, who decide whether or not a book makes the grade. I
because I get some very generous emails which may not be statistically
representative. Kieran in Buckinghamshire reckons that the RFC
'without doubt the best aerial combat books I have ever read'. From
Chris in Scotland:
'Thanks for a cracking read.' Dave in Northumberland writes: 'Friends
have spent years enjoying your books' - he bought some as
always a clincher - 'and I re-read them on
Richard in Manchester
has no doubts: 'They really are wonderful.' And Marc in
'Your books are brilliant,' especially the RFC and RAF series
have re-read many times (as has my father, an ex-national serviceman
in Malaya). There's not many
apart from George McDonald Fraser, that get it as right as you
- the laughter, the excitement, the selfishness and naivety of
the incredible physical and mental demands, the terror and the
Stafford in South
simply says, 'I devour your books,' and he bought three of the latest
feed his appetite.
All that is on
the plus side. I don't hear from
readers who throw my book at the cat, say it's unreadable, and go down
instead. I don't hear from them because they're not going to
stamp on me, but I'm sure they exist. They probably won't read this,
which is a
pity because Chris Buckham, who is a major in the Canadian Armed
depths in the novels that surprised even me. He recommends that Junior
Force Officers under his command should read them, and his
of Piece of Cake tells why:
'Dark humour underscores a theme throughout that speaks to the
character's means of dealing with the realities of war. The
strength of the book lies in its development of its characters and its
into the human psyche. The Commanding Officers and Flight
struggle with the changes that war brings in their relationships within
Squadron between themselves and the young line pilots. Conversely, the
pilots struggle themselves as they grapple with the deadliness of their
profession. Leadership strengths and weaknesses make themselves
keenly and shortfalls are quickly tolerated less or are
This novel captures the essence of the effects of combat on unit
command. It is stark and uncomfortable but it highlights lessons
best learned and understood before the guns start firing.'
Which - as Chris
points out - unfortunately doesn't always
Finally, a double
whammy of praise in another unsuspected
place. John Sandford is an American novelist, much read on both
the Atlantic. He wrote a story
Watch. The whammy is double because the central character is also
author. Here he's in a college town, with some time to
'The day was a
nice one, the beginning of warmer weather,
and the college girls were coming out of their winter cocoons, walking
with their form-fitting jeans and soft breast-clinging tops.
Maybe get a
novel, Jake thought: he'd just read the first of
a series of novels about British fliers during World War 1, by Derek
and was anxious to get another. And, of course, university bookstores
most likely place to find his own books; like most authors, he
finds a couple of his own books 'in
what he thought was an obscure location', so he quietly reshelves them
better spot. He also buys a copy of Goshawk
'With a sense of
satisfaction, he walked across the street,
got a bagel with cream cheese and sat on a bench in the sun and started
about the Goshawks.'
John. Always nice to get an unsolicited
testimonial from someone in the same line of work.
thanks to all who wrote. Derek Robinson
Return to Homepage
Readers Write #17 January 2011
Bristle with pride,
The wide blue yonder in deepest Texas,
from Surrey to Florida.
Back in the days
when I was fairly broke, I came up with a
spoof glossary of the
dialect in my home town, Bristol, and I called this language 'Bristle'. The title on the cover was Krek
Waiter's Peak Bristle. It had three
things going for it. My pal Vic, a
illustrated it brilliantly. It was small and cheap (a lot of people
instead of Christmas cards). And many of the Bristle entries were about
of Bristol. People laugh more readily at jokes set in
places they know. (New Yorkers laugh at Yonkers, unless they live there, in which case
at Staten Island.)
spawned half a dozen sequels. Today,
forty years on, it's still in print; and
if I'm known for anything in Bristol,
it's as the creator of Bristle. When
Mick in Wiltshire bought a copy of Hullo Russia, Goodbye England, it
was for his father, Ted, who was the Chief
Systems Engineer on Concorde at Filton (which is in Bristol).
That was a very big job indeed,
and I hope he is enjoying reading
about Vulcans with Bristol Olympus jet turbines that gave it a kick
earthquake, because the Olympus went on
to power Concorde. Mick added this note
about his dad: "Over the years,
whenever he entertained overseas visitors, he always dropped a copy of Krek Waiter's in their laps before
taking them around the old place."
Which reminded me
of what happened ten years ago, when the
British Society of Paediatric Gastroenterologists, Hepatologists and
Nutritionists met in Bristol. (I'm not making this up.)
The chairman, Dr Martin Brueton, waved Krek
Waiter's at them and urged them to
get a copy if they hoped to understand what the natives were saying.
Life is full of
surprises. I had heard that copies of A Good
Clean Fight, my SAS and RAF novel set in North Africa, found their
US Marines serving in Iraq. Now
I got a message from Charles Howard in Kansas City. As
an infantry officer, he was in the thick
of some heavy fighting both
in Afganistan and Iraq,
including the Battle of Fallujah, where
he had Lawrence's
Seven Pillars of Wisdom with him. In Iraq he also read
Larteguy's Centurions and his Praetorians. (These novels
written by Jean Larteguy in 1960 centred on France's Algerian War. Huge
bestsellers in France. The English translations were much read, and
quoted, by US officers in Vietnam and Iraq. Centurions was adapted for a
film called Lost Command, with
Anthony Quinn. English copies of the
book are very scarce; I don't know
why.) Charles Howard writes:
"I have always believed that literature
tells us a fictional, but more true, version of what happened before. A lot of us, when we're doing difficult
things, like to see how others handled similar situations. As you say,
looks the same in any country!" His last job was at the US embassy in Cairo,
and now he's bought a copy of A Good Clean Fight. "Maybe they and
I marched over some of the same ground."
A different kind of
surprise came from Joe in Austin, Texas, who
- having read most of my
was "excited to find your website" and decided to
download Hullo Russia from
who supply Books On Tape. ("West Texas is quite desolate, so
listening to audio tape
on a long drive is nice.") Audio tapes of my novels have been made by
Soundings in the UK, so I checked with Soundings and they have a deal
Amazon company Audible.com, with the result that some of my books will
appearing on Amazon sites in the UK, the US and Australia and New
probably in other areas. You will find the audiobooks listed in both CD
Cassette formats, and also as downloads under the name Audible. Which
news. Here are pictures of the audio covers.
I like them.
Joe has a yen to hear his
favourite books read by the
authors, and he'd welcome Piece of
Cake read by me. But I know my
limits. Soundings use actors,
and very good they are. What's more,
Soundings doesn't edit or adapt; they
record every word in the book. Cake
is a longish novel (670 pages in paperback) -
quite a challenge, even for an actor.
I try, when I'm writing, not to waste a word; every word must
count. So I'm pleased when they use them
for my Mile High Club keep appearing. Steve in
Surrey, buying Red Rag Blues,
says: "I've never read a book that even
comes close to captivating me like yours do... I make a point of
of Cake at least once a year." And
to prove it, he did something calculated to turn heads: "I
laughed out loud on the train to work
when I got to the point where Sticky reads out the cricket scores from
French radio truck." And there is
similar laugh-aloud evidence from Edgewater, Florida, where Loraine
I'm her husband's favourite author, and she says, "I can always tell by
the way he laughs that it is one of your books he's reading." (She
Operation Bamboozle for him.)
Alan in Wellington, New Zealand, bought Hullo Russia,
having "recently done a mammoth re-read of all the RFC/RAF books and I
loved them all over again."
Penny,in Hertfordshire, a "big fan", wanted Hornet's Sting to
complete her collection. And John in
Portland, Oregon ("enjoyed many of your books very much") did the
My thanks to all who wrote.
Return to Homepage
Readers Write #18 March 2011
Hornets in Yonkers,
Hilarity and brutality in New Zealand,
Robinson-mania in the Netherlands.
may remember the report from a fan, deep in the American West, who
bought a springer spaniel pup, or it might have been a fox terrier, and
christened it 'Moggy', as a way of preserving the memory of that other
maverick creature, Flying Officer Moggy Cattermole in Piece of Cake.
(His girlfriend renamed the pooch to something she could shout in the
park without feeling embarrassed. Trapper, I think. Or
Now I hear from Jane, on
America's East Coast. She may qualify for my Double-Digit Club,
having read Goshawk Squadron
many times, and she adapts Woolley's
line: "Ah, bloody (insert name). I hate the bastard" when
she encounters bad drivers in up-State New York - and she
immediately feels better. Which just goes to show that fiction can be
More evidence of this from
an old friend, John Walsh (who actually lives in up-State New York).
He's teaching inner-city kids the basics of aviation by helping them
build model airplanes. As a way of developing a group allegiance, he
suggested they adopt a name, and so a dozen kids in Yonkers "call
themselves (very loud and very proud, by the way) Hornet
Squadron!". John is currently deep into my yarn of Hornet
Squadron, A Good Clean Fight,
for the third time. The book went with
him all through the second Iraq war and back, so it's no surprise that
the cover has fallen off.
Meanwhile, Tony in Nuneaton
put another of mine through its paces. He writes: "My copy of Kentucky
Blues has now been read by the whole family, including my
mother-in-law, who loved it as much as I did!" He bought copies
of Damned Good Show and Hullo Russia, Goodbye England. He
flies radio-controlled models and - perhaps inspired by
Goshawk Squadron -
decided to build an SE5a. Hendon air
museum let him take a close look at their RFC replicas. His
reaction: "Apart from the craftsmanship of it and all the other
aircraft, my overriding impression was of their frailty. Little
wonder the numbers shot down were far outweighed by accidents,
equipment failure and training." Too true. An excellent book on the
RFC, The First of the Few by Denis Winter (Allen Lane 1982) quotes the
official total of casualties at the end of the war: of 14,166 dead
pilots, 8,000 had died while training in the UK. No dual control
in those days. You were on your own, the first time you took
off. All too often it was your last.
They were young (18
or 19 was not uncommon) and the young laugh easily. So there was
humour to be found in every squadron - or, as Alan in New
Zealand sums up my war novels, "hilarious and brutal". Alan writes for
the Journal of the Wellington Science Fiction Society, but he casts his
net widely and it takes in non-sci-fi books as well. He's read
everything I've published and his review in the Journal of Hullo
Russia, Goodbye England - too long to print here in
full - is on http://tyke.net.nz
(go to 'wot i red' and then
go to February 2011). It's the first novel of mine to be set in a
time that he remembers. He was only a boy, but "I was nevertheless
strongly affected by the almost palpable sense of fear engendered by
the Cuban Missile Crisis. It seemed likely that the world I knew would
not be there when I woke up in the morning. If I woke up in the
And adds: "The thing that makes a Derek
Robinson novel stand out from all the others that surround it is his
impeccable understanding of history, his extraordinary ability to
re-live it in context through the eyes and minds of the people to whom
it is a contemporary happening, and the sharp, crackling and sometimes
breathtakingly cynical wit of his dialogue and of his observations; a
wit that is often laugh-out-loud funny but which makes you weep inside
even while you are laughing so very hard at the piercing truth of
it. Hullo Russia, Goodbye
England is a genuine tour de force."
arrives from elsewhere. Martin in SW6 has gone through all my books. He
read Hornet's Sting in the
office, "surreptitiously, almost under the
table" - even the most tolerant of offices might have
raised an eyebrow if he'd read it while completely under the
table. The image of the two Russian flyers in France, "playing
both the piano and poker fast and loose, demanding duels, has
remained with me for 10+ years." Now he's suffering what another
reader called 'withdrawal pains' and he asks urgently for "more needed
for the summer please!!" Well, I'm working on it, and I hope
something will appear in the summer, but - just as
Woolley predicted the war would be over by Christmas but which
Christmas he didn't know - I don't know which summer the
new book will be ready. I had a financial adviser called Lewis,
very good at his job, who used to ask me what I would earn next
year. I always said I hadn't the faintest idea, which caused his
brow to furrow. There are writerly types who crank out a novel a
year, fair weather or foul. If only. Goshawk Squadron took me
about nine months to write. (I was young and didn't know any better.)
Piece of Cake took four
years, and got derailed twice on the way.
Kentucky Blues was an idea
that refused to go away, but it took 25
years to germinate. How long will the new yarn take? As
long as it likes.
Paul in Deal discovered Piece of Cake
"when the children were young and to read half a chapter a night was an
achievement". Now they're off to University and he ordered
Hornet's Sting. Erwin in
Holland is one of my repeat offenders, having
read Cake for the 6th time.
He found a secondhand copy in the UK with
his girlfriend - now his wife - 20 years
ago. He's read all the rest ("wonderful books") and now
asked for Hullo Russia.
So did Joe,
three thousand miles to the west in Ramsey, New Jersey. He sends
thanks for my writing: "It puts me directly in a place in history I
never knew (I'm 30 years old), and is so rich and alive that I can
practically smell aircraft exhaust and fresh cut grass." Go back nearly
four thousand miles to the east, where Stian in Rogoland, Norway. wrote
his master's thesis on WW1 aviation and got "much enjoyment"
from Goshawk Squadron, so he
asked for the prequels, War Story and
Hornet's Sting. He served with the Norwegian Army, and says: "You
describe service culture quite well." Well, the military is the
military wherever you go. Streaking south by ten thousand miles
takes me to Steve in Te Anau, New Zealand. He found the same
satisfaction as Stian: "I'm ex-RAAF, so I could relate to the military
BS between squadron and upper echelon - it still goes on."
Of Goshawk Squadron he says:
"I couldn't put it down, really enjoyed
the banter between pilots and the black humour, interlaced with vivid
dogfight scenes." Zooming up to the USA and Michael in central
Indiana ("currently reading A
Good Clean Fight for the 10th
time") works in community theatre and would like to adapt my RFC
trilogy for the stage. I'm happy to give the project my
Finally, how about this...
the guy in the glasses and the slightly worried smile on the right. The
guy with the cheery grin is Bill Hitchings, confident that his camera
is doing its stuff. Bill flew from Melbourne (reading Damned Good Show
on the flight - "just as enthralling" as my other
books) and he dropped in for a cup of tea. Good to
My thanks to all who wrote.
Readers Write #19 May 2011
Going where no
Matching Woolley Guinness for Guinness,
Agony Aunt Flies Again.
sort of book is Goshawk Squadron?
One family read it and the
husband thought it was a great adventure, his wife found it a moving
love story, and their teenage son laughed his socks off. I think each
was right - it's a story of young men who fall in love when
they're not fighting for their lives, and make the blackest of jokes if
As it was my first novel,
people sometimes ask me why I wrote it. Was it for the combat, or
the romance, or the humour? The answer is all of those and more. I
wrote it for the history. Nobody had written a brutally honest book
about the Royal Flying Corps and I wanted to fill the vacuum. I
wrote it for me, and if anyone else liked it, well, that would be
a bonus. Luckily for me, the bonus happened and Goshawk still
gets readers all over the world.
the wider truth about that vacuum when I saw a review by David
Aaronovitch of a book called 'Civilisation'
Ferguson. One cause of the recent economic disaster, so
Ferguson claimed, was that few bankers knew anything about the 1929
Crash, and he blamed that failure on the last 30 years of
education. Aaronovitch shot that notion down in flames.
When he studied modern history at Oxford 35 years ago, he said, nothing
after 1914 was taught. He got Gladstone but not the Depression.
Same happened to me when I was studying history at Cambridge in the
Fifties. The biggest events of the century, the two World Wars, were
out of bounds. But they had influenced everyone's lives,
including mine, and they were exactly what I wanted to understand.
Later, when I could, I researched them. And wrote some books. My
fiction is based solidly on fact. The stories may be ripping yarns, but
they're also reliable history.
And if a reader prefers the yarn
to history, that's fine by me. Darren in New Zealand writes
that he gets unusual satisfaction from Goshawk. He "acquired a copy
25-odd years ago in a pub in South Wales after a bollox-freezing game
against some feral team from the valleys. I've carted that book around
ever since. To add a bit of realism to the story, every time Woolley
reaches for a Guinness, I do the same." The first chapter
is a bit of a challenge - Woolley sinks a few -
but "after that it's downhill all the way." Amazing.
impressive are the model-makers. Keith in Leeds bought a copy of
A Good Clean Fight. This
is a sequel to Cake,
follows Fanny Barton and his Hornet Squadron in the Desert War, where
they fly the P40 Tomahawk. Keith plans to build scale models, and
asked my permission to use my initials as squadron recognition letters
on the planes. I'm flattered. And Peter in Nottingham
bought Cake and Hullo Russia, Goodbye England (he
describes himself as
"a complete Vulcan nerd - I've been in the cockpits of six
of the survivors"). He's a semi-pro in the model business
- he's sold a few of his WW2 tanks to film companies
- and, inspired by A Good
Clean Fight, he's not only built models
of the Tomahawk but also photographed them flying low over the
desert. Look closely and you might see the shark's teeth on the
nose. Very convincing.
next? I'm Stone Age Man when it comes to the more exotic workings
of the Internet, so the doings of Steve in Victoria, Oz, leave me
gasping. He bought Hornet's
Sting (thus completing his
trilogy) and told me that he and a group of like-minded
enthusiasts are "flying Rise of Flight (a WW1 flight sim) over the
Internet". Actually flying? "Check us out on Oceanic Wing ,"
Steve suggested, so I did. These guys recreate
WW1 aircraft (and others) that are so realistic that they can fly
(and fight) them. Astonishing. Their website also has a books
page with some enthusiastic remarks about my stuff, so they're
obviously well-read too.
A quick whizz through
other mail. Christine in Southampton was stumped for something to give
her ex-RAF dad on his 89th birthday, and then found that he'd read my
Damned Good Show and was
"completely blown away by how authentic and
realistic your book is". So she bought him a copy of Cake and one
of Hullo Russia.
Problem solved. Leon in Woking also
bought Hullo Russia,
and added that Cake "remains
for me the
perfect novel in terms of content, pace, characters, dialogue, depth,
everything!" and urges me to keep writing. Well, I do my
best. John in Japan bought an armful of books and asked:
"Why on earth hasn't War Story
been either made into a movie or
televised?" Good question. The movie/TV business is a total
mystery to me too. Howard in Santa Cruz, California, had the
initiative to email my new publisher and tell him that printed editions
of some of my books "are available only in the range of $100" and
he urged him to issue all my stuff as eBooks - which,
in fact, my publisher is now in the middle of setting up.
(100 bucks is a crazy price, brought about simply by the fact that some
books are scarce. At one stage, specialist book dealers were asking
over £200 for a used copy of Hornet's
Sting - which is why
I decided to self-publish it for a fraction of that price.) And finally
Steven, I don't know where, tells me that years ago he bought A Good
Clean Fight, couldn't get into it, threw it down in disgust (too
to appreciate it, he thinks), picked it up later and loved
it - especially the relationship between
Schramm and Maria Grandinetti. As a result, he says: "I've always
promised myself, in the event of a lady deciding to 'love me for five
minutes', to take the bull by the horns." Go for it, Steve.
You never know. Five minutes could last a lifetime.
My thanks to all who wrote.
Readers Write #20 August 2011
roller-coaster of books,
Shock-horror at MGM,
and mobilising the mental juices.
Computers get a bit of
stick nowadays for what they do to
reading and writing - everyone is stuck to the
it's said, and nobody writes a real letter any more. But there's
angle. The Internet has been good for books (if not for
in Toronto tells me that, 19 years ago, "My father introduced me to Goshawk
Squadron when I was 13" (a round of applause for fathers like
"but I only just started reading your other novels, obtained secondhand
over the 'Net, as most seem to be out of print." Too true, but
leaning on my publisher to revive them. Peter ordered copies of Hornet's
Sting and Hullo Russia,
(Another round of applause for the man who invented
Meanwhile, a longtime
fan, David in Malaysia, tipped me off
to something my publisher had failed to tell me, which is that their
Piece of Cake and Hullo Russia, Goodbye England
has been postponed from this October to next February. There's a
reason: the designer we had lined up to create the new covers
and so we're starting from scratch. Book covers are what the Promotion
Department needs in order to do their job. One bit of good news: you
get (if that's your taste) my RFC trilogy (War Story, Hornet's
Goshawk Squadron) as e-books on Amazon/Kindle. Swings and
snakes and ladders. Maybe ham and eggs. Take your pick.
The moral of the story,
I suppose, is to soldier on and hope
the good and the bad luck even out. Take the case of the American
Martin, a nice guy and a talented lyricist and composer. He died a few
ago, aged 96. During the Second World War he co-wrote several hits,
number called The Trolley Song ('Clang, clang, clang went the
Ding, ding, ding went the bell, Zing, zing, zing went my
From the moment I saw you, I fell...') which, if you're one
younger fellahs, you may never have heard. But in 1944 Judy
belted it out in the movie Meet Me in St Louis, and it helped
Hugh Martin kept
working and in 1957 he had another
hit. Bear in mind that by 1957 the world looked a grim and gloomy
The Korean War had ended in stalemate. Nuclear tests were exploding in
parts. The Soviet Union had the first satellites circling the globe,
the USA. So,
surprise when Martin wrote these lyrics for MGM:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
It may be your last,
Next year we may all be living in the past.
The studio turned
it down flat. Bittersweet and nostalgic
they might accept, they said, but not a dirge. Martin got to work
rewrote the last two lines:
Let your heart be light;
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.
And of course
Martin lived to see his song become as
immortal as anything can be in showbiz. Was he sorry to lose the
which he felt had expressed the world in 1957? Probably.
But he was
a professional. He was in the entertainment business. So am I.
foremost, I write novels that entertain. If they also take the
somewhere he might never otherwise have gone, and make him think
little - what the film director Sidnet Lumet
"stimulating thought and setting the mental juices flowing
" - well, that's a bonus. Lumet managed it
such fine movies as Twelve Angry Men, Network and Dog Day
Afternoon. Whether I manage it is entirely up to the
reader, but I'm
encouraged when I hear from Peter in Portishead (the town, not the
first read Goshawk Squadron as a boy, "while hunkered
the bedclothes with a torch." Since then it's been with him in
first Gulf War, Northern Ireland
twice, Kenya and
the United States.
No wonder his copy is looking rather
fragile. "I thoroughly enjoyed Hullo Russia,
he says. "What a fantastic slice of Cold War madness, articulated
perfect characters. I've read your books since I was a schoolboy and
fail to entertain me." (He also bought copies of Operation
Bamboozle and my Summer Special.)
I finishd writing Hullo Russia I
wondered if it would work. Nuclear annihilation is not, after
barrel of laughs. But it seems I needn't have worried. Now
finished a new flying story. It has its share of triumph and
disaster. Will it work? Will it entertain and make
mental juices flow? We'll see.
thanks to all who wrote.
#21 October 2011
Literary lions stumble,
of an invisible man,
And explosions of brilliance in Dublin
Why do writers
write? I ask because Bud, in California, rounds off
his request for a copy of Hornet's Sting ("A friend said it
the best book he had ever read, and I have to concur") with a simple
plea. More of the same, he says. The good news, Bud, is
finished a new novel. Maybe the less-than-good news is that,
it's a flying yarn, it's not like any of the others. Some authors
please their readers by performing the same trick again and
again - sequel
after sequel. I can't. I write because I want to go
fresh, find different characters and report something surprising.
this involves aeroplanes; but there's a big leap from A Good
Fight (Libyan desert, 1942) to Hullo Russia,
(Vulcan nuclear squadron. 1962). Different tasks, different
And a different
author. I'm not the same scribbler I
was twenty, thirty years ago, and what may seem worth exploring
unknown territory then. As someone once said: How do I know what
until I see what I've said? Except that, in my case, I
know what I've said until you, the reader, points it out to me.
novel is a gamble, and even the best writers stumble, once in a while.
Louis Stevenson and P.G.Wodehouse - two names you rarely
see in the
same sentence - each wrote a stinker or two. They
thought the yarns were a good idea at the time. (Nobody sits down
thinks: I'll waste a year or two on a real turkey.)
end product was a big mistake. OK, if you insist, I'll tell you
titles: Stevenson's Catriona (poor sequel to Kidnapped; David
Balfour falls in love with the childish Catriona who, as Stevenson
"as virginal as billy-ho!") and Plum's
Psmith, Journalist (English toff flattens the New York
with a straight left). Both books, for me, never got off the
Back to the
beginning. Why do writers write? Bill,
somewhere in the US, came across Piece of Cake in the library
US Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, enjoyed it immensely,
through my RFC and RAF series and, he says, "to some modest degree,
shaped the man I am today." He's seen life: after the Navy
became a paramedic and a firefighter. He adds that "Frankly, after my
father, you and Bernard Cornwell have been my biggest and most positive
models." I was startled. I take what you said as a
Bill, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable being a role model. After
the invisible man in the room. I just tell the story and let the
make what he likes of it. Two characters I've
- Stanley Woolley in Goshawk Squadron and Moggy
in Cake - are not the sort of men you'd want your
to marry. Yet they score strongly with readers. I don't
I found them. Sometimes I think the door was left open and
wandered in. That's how Skull arrived in Cake (and
They're all lucky accidents. But role models?
It's easy to say why
writers don't write. Not
for the money. Writing novels is a precarious business. The
Revenue taxes me by estimating what it reckons I'll earn next year,
which is total guesswork based on what I made last
most freelance writers, my income goes up and down like a
the Revenue get it wrong as often as right. If you want steady
recommend a career as a chartered accountant.
fame? It's not much of a reward. It
certainly won't pay for the groceries. A good review in the newspapers
welcome, as long as you remember that it'll wrap tomorrow's fish and
Fame is fleeting, and so are novels. Nearly all the heavyweight
bestselling authors who dominated the fiction lists when I was a boy
are out of
print now and largely forgotten. Will my stuff be around fifty years
now? Do I care? Not much. I'm not writing for posterity (it
did me anything for me). And look at what happened to J.M.Synge, who
Playboy of the Western World. The play's opening night, in Dublin in 1907, caused a riot. The audience
the stage, and not to congratulate the actors.
Synge's crime was
to write a play without Irish
heroes. Ireland in 1907 was
effect, a British colony, and nationalism, independence, freedom were
air. Dubliners wanted a play they could cheer about.
Synge's Playboy gave them a man built like Woody Allen who
dad with a spade and was idolised by the feckless peasantry. The
outraged. Two years later, Synge was dead. Quite soon after
was acclaimed as a masterpiece, performed worldwide. It's still being
currently by the London Old Vic - a century too
do Synge any good. So why did he write it? Why stick his
out? All we can say, with any confidence, is that he couldn't
it. The story was too good to miss. He'd left the door open
had walked in. He was a writer. Writers write.
Quick round-up of
my mail. Jim in Dunfermline
bought Hornet's Sting "as I thought Goshawk Squadron
was right up there with Winged Victory by V.M.Yeates."
David in Barnes, having accidentally drowned his copy of Sting,
reports that his new copy is "banned from the bathroom".
Sam in Brisbane "first read
of Cake at 15 years of age, been reading it yearly since. A huge
fan of Moggy" and
now ordered the RFC trilogy and my last copy of Hullo Russia.
(Sold out - fresh edition is planned for February 2012 by my
MacLehosePress/Quercus Books.) Jimmy on Facebook sent more
of the amazing Rise of Flight, which creates Internet flight sims of
over the Western Front, and he said, "I hope you enjoy it as much as I
enjoy reading your books."(You can see a selection of clips of the
program at: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=rise+of+Flight+Youtube&aq=f
And Ben, now in his final year at school, having not only read my RFC
but also got his mother and mother to read it
"an achievement of sorts" - is writing a
5,000-word project as an A-Level extension. His subject: Hitler's
Sealion and the truth about the role of Fighter Command in the
1940.....a topic I've looked at in my Invasion 1940.
My thanks to all
Return to Homepage
Readers Write #22 January 2012
with clipped wings,
good deed goes
The Royal Flying Corps is almost a hundred
years old. A reader of my RFC trilogy today is in a comparable position
someone in 1912 who was reading about the Battle
And yet today's reader seems able to put himself in the cockpit of an
an SE5a with a great understanding of of the excitement and horror of
over the Western Front. That understanding is sharpened when the reader
himself tasted a similar excitement or horror in combat. That's my
anyway. Patrick, an old friend and a U.S. infantry veteran of Iraq, is
his second tour of duty in Aghanistan, where, he says, "Your books were
welcome diversion from the day-to-day work" - which is with an Airborne
Division. Recently he bought A Good Clean Fight, a novel set
in North Africa in 1942. It follows
Hornet Squadron and,
separately, an S.A.S. patrol which raids behind enemy lines. The patrol
by Captain Lampard with a reckless determination that some might call
foolhardy. "I served with Lampard in 2005," Patrick writes. "He
is an ass, and currently works at a base in the U.S. Some of my current
show up in your books as well, but without the Wodehouseian banter of
British counterparts. I am looking forward to seeing whom I'll meet in
series." He meant Hornet's Sting, which may take his mind off
cold "as I start to read, shivering in my billets near Kandahar."
Somewhat north of Afghanistan,
reading Goshawk Squadron caused
Erben to start thinking hard about another war. His father, a WW2
him: "In peacetime, all is well rehearsed, and when war begins, chaos
rules" - or, in its English version, "The first casualty of war is
the plan." (Not, as many think, the truth.) Erben has just read my Invasion,1940,
which coincides with his own ideas. Hitler, he says, "decided to fight
strategic war without having strategic weapons. I cannot understand how
his generals intended to do long-range airstrikes with a Me109" - whose
limited range (no drop-tanks) meant it could fly no further than London. "That was
cunning planning," Erben says, and he singles out Operation Sealion
planned seaborne invasion, largely in towed river barges) as an example
improvisation that dogged the German war effort. "You wouldn't have
the Royal Navy to 'boldly wipe out' the invasion," he says. "Perhaps
bad weather would have done damage enough."
Perhaps. But if Sealion had sailed in a
flat calm, the Royal Navy was ready and waiting.
Europeans are often so fluent in English
that they put us Brits to shame, and Boris in Frankenburg, Germany
is a good example. He's
read (and "enjoyed enormously") almost all my RFC and RAF series and
he has no trouble with the pilots' dialogue, which (like pilots
cannnot always be taken seriously. Now he's bought enough books to fill
gaps, and he seeks The Eldorado Network too - which,
can't supply. Maybe my publisher will reissue it. Rob, near Rotterdam,
"great fan" of Piece of Cake, bought my other WW2 books. And
Cees, not far away in Amsterdam
("In 1983 I bought The Eldorado Network and I read it at
once a year") discovered that there is a sequel. In fact there are
I have no spare copies of the first, Artillery of Lies, but I
to supply Cees with Red Rag Blues and Operation
Leap ten thousand miles to the south-east
(which of course is no barrier to the Internet) and Liz in Melbourne,
having searched in vain for my titles in Australia, then found my
and ordered the RAF/WW2 trilogy as a birthday gift for her husband, an
"avid reader" of my novels. Still in Australia,
George in Goolwa
Beach writes that
enjoyed the RFC series. I have great respect for those airmen. I used
Vickers MMG when a member of my school Cadet Unit (late 1950s).
stoppage on those guns was hard enough on the ground!" He bought more
copies of War Story and Damned Good Show.
Now jump another few thousand miles to Canada and to Peter in Nova Scotia.
His father read Goshawk
Squadron to him when he was a kid, "strategically omitting some
parts, as I later discovered when reading it for myself as a teenager."
can't imagine what those parts were, unless his dad took exception to
solitary section where Woolley forces a new fighter pilot to utter a
profanity, in an effort to shatter the schoolboy decency that obstructs
hunger for the kill. In later years I was able to compare that section
translations of the book and learn how to swear in French, Spanish and
Peter went on to read more of my stuff, ordered Hullo Russia
Sting, enjoyed the first "immensely" and saved the second
"for the Christmas holidays" - and then bought extra copies of both
for his father, a late thank-you for starting the ball rolling all
to England and Portsmouth, where
("a huge fan") ordered Hornet's Sting and A Good Clean
Fight. Robert in Tyne and Wear
and Operation Bamboozle, and emailed me later to say, "I am
that I have read them because I have not got them to look forward to. Invasion,1940
should be put forward as to how history should be written. And as funny
other war books. Is 'funny' the right word? 'Entertaining'? Bamboozle
equally as good." Meanwhile, Nick in Norfolk
tells of an experience familiar to many of us. "Over the years I've
all of your WW1 and WW2 books and been so enthralled and impressed that
couldn't wait to lend them to like-minded mates." We all know what's
coming, Nick. The books "became public property so I never saw most of
them again..." Now he has refreshed his shelves with copies of Hornet's
Sting and A Good Clean Fight, and he waits patiently for
MacLehose Press to reissue Cake and Hullo Russia
for March 2012). Elsewhere, David in Rochester, Kent,
enjoyed Operation Bamboozle, adds: "I hope you write many
more." At least one more - called A Splendid Little War -
appear from MacLehose Press, probably in autumn 2012. After that, who
One thing is definite. I shan't be doing
any business in all of February 2012. The shop will be shut while the
gets thoroughly overhauled, oiled and polished. So - please save your
My thanks to
all who wrote.
#23 April 2012
A curtain-call for extras,
in the bathroom,
and laughing fit to bust
The folk-singer Fred
Wedlock, now alas no longer with us,
once told me the secret of how to create a statue of a
"Get a big block of stone," he said, "and hack off everything
that doesn't look like horse." There are days when writing feels
like making that statue, except that the chisel is blunt and the mallet
handle made of rubber.
That's when I
reach for my omnibus edition of Raymond
Chandler's novels, partly for the pleasure of seeing a champion in
partly to remind myself that he had his bad days too, and partly to
that what matters (especially in a crime story) are the extras, the
characters whom Chandler crafted so beautifully. In The Lady
Lake, he has a scene where his private eye Philip Marlowe visits
Graysons, a retired couple who can probably provide some
'Grayson was a long stooped
yellow-faced man with high shoulders, bristly eyebrows and almost
The upper part of his face meant business. The lower part was just
goodbye. He wore bifocals and had been gnawing fretfully at the evening
could have cut all that, and more like it, and got on with
but the book would have been all the poorer. There's a good
still in print, 53 years after his death. It's not for his plots. It's
extras, his telling details about people and places in Los Angeles in
the 1940s. When Marlowe leaves
the Graysons, he takes the elevator, 'carpeted in red plush. It had an
perfume in it, like three widows drinking tea.' Those last five
alone are worth the price of the book, and many other books.
There is another link.
It goes back to long ago, when Hamish
Hamilton was publishing The Eldorado Network. By good
Machell was my editor - and Roger had also been
Chandler's editor for his British editions. He told me that one day his
rang and it was Chandler, calling from his home in La Jolla,
obviously very drunk. "I'm going to shoot myself," he said.
Roger, thinking fast, said, "Don't do that, Raymond. Let's talk about
it..." He heard two loud bangs. Then silence. Roger phoned the La Jolla
police, they hurried over and found Chandler
sound asleep in the bathtub, with two bullet-holes in the ceiling.
End of anecdote. But
what interested me was that when Chandler wrote The
Long Goodbye (and at last won huge critical acclaim), that
included a scene where a successful author, in a fit of boredom and
tries and fails to kill himself. Or maybe he doesn't really try, maybe
just acting. What's interesting is that Chandler wasted nothing.
everything he saw and heard got noticed and remembered, including his
misadventure with a gun in a bathroom. One day he might be able to use
Every writer should have two mottoes. One is: Trust nobody, check
everything. The other is: Look and listen. The book isn't about
author. It's about the world he sees, even when (in my case)
world of 50 or 100 years ago.
Thanks to the Internet,
I get echoes of what I write in
emails from readers all over the globe. Of course praise is
(There is no limit to the flattery an author can absorb.) Bill,
in the U.S.,
himself a novelist, spent 25-plus years in the American Air Force,
flying Phantoms, so his opinion carries weight when he says of my
'I can tell you that the fighter-pilot humor is right on target.'
re-reads Goshawk Squadron and is now 'in the midst of Piece
Cake and laugh until I have tears rolling down my cheeks'.
John in Japan,
an old friend, writes: 'I have just come to the end of A Good
Fight in audiobook format. Bravo, is all I can say. I also
Goodbye England last
year and thoroughly
enjoyed that as well!' (Much of the credit must go to the actors
the readings, Michael Tudor Barnes and Nick McCardle, for their
voices.) And Derrick (I don't know where) 'just wanted to drop
you a line
to thank you for the pleasure your books have given me. I first read Goshawk
Squadron as a boy nearly 40 years ago and have re-read it three
since.' Liam via Facebook 'cannot wait for the new book, A
Little War, apparently due later this year.' (Publication is now
for January 2013.) He urges 'those of you not in the know' to
of Cake, the greatest novel ever written'. Another Facebook
John, 'just finished Hornet's Sting. What a
always had a soft spot for Paxton - poor bugger. The development
character from the first book (War Story), and his
with O'Neill, was beautifully done. The end of Pax's story certainly
- a letter from Guy, a very old pal (we were at college
back in the Middle Ages). Recovering from a rather nasty illness, he
to re-read my flying stories - 'Once again I
totally engrossed among the vivid characters. Their persuasive
caustic banter make them so alive and such good company.' Enter
to give him a copy of my non-fiction book, Invasion. 1940,
says 'to my astonishment I was so hooked by the reasoning that I
whole of it before returning to the interrupted novel.' Well, I
hard to make that slice of history as readable as any work of fiction,
glad it paid off. Guy spent his National Service on a Motor
dashing up and down the Channel, so he has personal knowledge of those
I'm delighted to hear
that Guy's gremlins have been
zapped. On the other hand, maybe the Luis Cabrillo quartet should
health warning on the cover. L.L in New York 'picked up Red
ran across Cabrillo, the Fantonis and Chick Scatola (Mafiosi of
competence) and began laughing so hard' that he ended up in
hospital - although it's only fair to add that
already suffering from a deep chest cold, so maybe Luis Cabrillo's
doings simply hastened the doctor's decision. Anyway, I sent L.L. a
copy of the
sequel, Operation Bamboozle and he replied with thanks,
look forward to reading BAMBOOZLE with a pacemaker
Both books were fun to write, and I'm glad they're fun to read.
thanks to all who wrote, and to the many who sent
me birthday greetings on Facebook - too many for me
Write #24 June 2012
And Other Occupational Hazards
are readers, too. At least, some are. I've known book
reviewers who, pressed for time, just read the publisher's blurb on the
back cover. Othere, with a little more time, glanced at every
third page of the book, which they reckoned was enough to give
them a feeling of whether or not it was any good. They have my
sympathy. I've done their job myself, and it's a daunting
prospect when you get given four or five thick books, all to be
reviewed by next Tuesday.
why I value the advice of the best literary agent I ever had, the late
George Greenfield. "Don't read your reviews," George said. "Measure
them." Size equals impact.
I did read them, if only to spot the mistakes. I remember a
rather sniffy (but quite large) review of A Good Clean Fight
by a man whom I knew to be an academic. He ended his piece by
saying that I was shaky on jargon in the Desert Air Force, and
that "the knowing reader" (meaning himself) "waits in vain for the
squadron's Kittyhawks to be identified as 'Tommy Dodds'." Well, I
research my books pretty thoroughly. I wrote and told him I'd
never come across this nickname, so what was his source?
apologised. He'd got it wrong. He had looked in The Concise Dictionary
of Slang and Unconventional Usage and he'd misread the entry. It
happens. I chalked it up to experience.
who get steamed-up by bad reviews are like actors who storm about bad
notices - too sensitive. After all, it's only one
man's or woman's opinion, and (as I've often said) no book is for
everybody. My first novel, Goshawk Squadron, got
some good reviews and some very bad ones. A respected writer in an
eminent magazine read Goshawk and his review advised me to
quit now and find a better job, such as digging ditches. My local radio
station asked Alan Gibson to review the book. He'd won a Double
First at Oxford,
he was a well-known broadcaster, and he was a frequent contributor
to The Times. His views seemed worth
hearing. On air, he summed up my central character, a man named
Woolley, with a four-letter word that had never before been broadcast
on the BBC. No doubt that was Alan's honest opinion, but he was
wrong. History has confirmed that.
away Woolley and the book vanishes. If Woolley had been simply a
four-letter word, he would be shallow and tedious, and the book
wouldn't be worth reading, then or now. Yet, in
the years since Alan's review, there have been at least six
editions of Goshawk Squadron and several
translations. MacLehose Press will bring out a new edition later this
on from Goshawk Squadron to Piece of Cake. It was
widely reviewed in America,
and by far the longest treatment was in New Republic,
a well-respected magazine, where Paul Fussell's comments covered more
than two pages. (George Greenfield cheered.) Fussell liked some
things. 'Sheer narrative', he said, was my strong suit: "I defy a
reader to put the book down once Robinson has got him into the
air..." He approved of my realistic description of
"the details of human destruction, so important to understand if the
reader is to participate in the fear felt by the pilots." What he
didn't like were two things: my handling of history (nothing new,
he complained) and the characters (ditto).
characters are not much more than his historical revelations," he
wrote. "The cast consists of cliches." And he spelled out what he
most disliked: the pilots are "virtual subversives and
delinquents, sarcastic wits skilled at insubordination, drunken,
sadistic, nutty, scared to death, welcoming as an inestimable
benefaction every day clouded over and unfit for flying." Not the
book I remembered writing. And his account was odd, because
later Fussell found fault with the way I 'romanticized' the squadron:
"No group of pilots could be so charmingly intelligent and verbal, so
gifted at Noel Coward repartee..."
puzzled me that Fussell could wish to have it both ways, finding the
pilots so repellent yet so charming.And my guess is that one reason why
Piece of Cake has been reprinted so often, and is now
reissued by MacLehose Press, is that Fussell totally misunderstood the
book. Readers like the characters he hated; they even like
dodgy types like Moggy Cattermole. They enjoy the humour. Former
RAF aircrew tell me that the dialogue is convincing, that
aircrew banter was very like mine (and still is). As a
history of the first year of WW2 in the air, the book is accurate and
authentic, but what brings readers to return to it again and again is
their recognition of the characters, of their enjoyment of life and the
abrupt fact of their death.
Fussell's review was a long time ago, and now he too has died, on 23
May 2012, aged 88, an acclaimed literary scholar. In 1944 he fought
with the U.S.
infantry in France,
was wounded and decorated. His horror at the killing never
left him; in 2004 he said that only those who had experienced
battle were fit to write military history. Maybe that conviction
explains his response to Piece of Cake. I leave it to you to
coincidence, as I was writing this column, an email arrived from
an old fan, Martin in the Kings
- one of those members of my mile-high club who can't get
enough of my stuff and who re-read the books until the spines
disintegrate and they have to restock their shelves. Two years
ago, Martin had read Damned Good Show three times,
Hornet's Sting five times, and Goshawk Squadron
more than five. For me, statistics like that are good
enough to answer Alan Gibson's **** and Paul Fussell's cast of
cliches. Martin, speaking on behalf of other Robinson
addicts, wonders if another book is in the pipeline. It's
done and dusted, Martin. Right now I'm looking at roughs for the cover
design from Tony Cowland, the talented aviation artist who has
created all the covers for the RFC and RAF reissues. The
book is A Splendid Little War, and it's due from MacLehose
Press in January 2013.
Thanks also to Robert in Texas, Max in East
Sussex, John in Edinburgh, Chris in West Australia, Jonathan in Surrey,
and Sam in Devon - and to everyone who wrote.
Previous Readers Write
#25 July 2012
Stooging down The Mall,
Strafing the literary festivals,
and Moggy on the analyst's
To London for a day, a trip that turned
into something of a
challenge. I was aiming for The Mall Galleries in (obviously) The
The challenge was because (1) it was raining, (2) it was humid and (3)
time I tried to get into The Mall my way was blocked by large
barriers guarded by men in hard hats and high-visibility jackets. Signs
pre-Olympics security mania, I suppose. Eventually I got in, found the
and its Exhibition of Paintings by the Guild of Aviation Artists, which
included a series of paintings done by Tony Cowland especially
eight of my R.F.C. and R.A.F.novels, now being reissued by MacLehose
Arrived in time to hear the prizes being announced. Must have
hundred artists present, so competition was strong. Tony won
Winsor & Newton Award for a Group of Paintings
- i.e., our
covers - and quite right too. Here's his
before the title and stuff gets laid on, for Damned Good Show.
episode he illustrated shows R.A.F. Hampdens on a low-level raid on
warships in the North Sea, winter of 1939-40. This book, along
Good Clean Fight,comes out in August 2012. The R.F.C.
While Tony and I
were looking at his
award-winning group on the wall of the gallery and talking about odd
like contrast and perspective , a man in a well-cut dark suit and an
tie paused to admire the pictures. We introduced ourselves,
said he'd read and enjoyed all the novels, given them to friends and
planned to buy them all over again; which was good to hear
when Tony told me later that the man was a very senior serving
What he particularly liked, he said, was the way I wrote about the
imperfections, as well as the heroics, of the Royal Air Force. From his
experience, he said, he knew that the Service does many things well and
things badly, and to ignore the second does nobody any favours.
refreshing to hear this. A novel is not a recruiting
I was on the train,
still enjoying the
after-glow of his remarks, when reality caught up with me. Praise
nice, but it doesn't help anyone write the next book. By chance, I'd
from Graeme, a fellow-novelist in Western Australia. My stuff
have been a helpful influence on his work. Generous of him
so. But - again - it doesn't help me
next book. And then there's Erica Wagner, Literary Editor of The
who knocks out a column every Saturday, and who recently wrote that
it's hard for an author to find time to write books at all.
It's these damn literary
festivals, you see.
Well, Erica didn't damn them; she quite likes them, goes to them
year-round, can't get enough of them. She recommends one in
Northern Ireland, where "Lady Antonia Fraser, John Banville, Edna
and others will be discussing their writing relationships with
Good luck to them. But will it help them write their next books?
it be a total (if pleasant) distraction from the day job? Which is to
with something fresh and original, isn't it? I just ask the
Never mind: on to the next festival! Descartes said: I think, therefore
am. Some authors have updated that: I go to literary
festivals, therefore I am a writer. It ain't necessarily so. I
literary festivals should be rationed. One per book. Write
you can appear at a festival. Have fun. Okay, now go home, write
Meanwhile, readers keep taking a second
(or fifth, or tenth,
even twentieth) look at Piece of Cake and tripping over
never noticed before. Joe (don't know where) first saw "the
TV series when I was an aviation-obsessed lad barely ten years old",
much later he decided to read the book. "Impressed with the level of
detail, as well as the page-turning aspect of the story," he says. He
one small question "about everyone's favourite sociopathic bastard,
'Moggy' Cattermole. His apocalyptic rant to Mary stuck in my mind from
first time I saw it..." (Mary's pilot husband had been killed and
she depressed the whole squadron by standing at the end of the runway
on end, waiting for his return.) Years later, Joe realised
knew that Mary might well be pregnant by him - "which would
open up a whole can of worms in that messed-up psyche of his."
Joe asked: was this ambiguity intentional, or was he reading too much
The answer is: the ambiguity was intentional. I
wanted each reader to decided how far Moggy's feelings for Mary went,
he was so furious with her. Everyone thought she was a jinx. But
an excuse for his rage? Moggy was nobody's idea of a good father.
Perhaps the thought of paternity frightened him. He is one of the most
in the book (some say the most memorable), and it's hard to find a
answer to the question: what makes him tick? The key passage between
Mary is on pages 253-239 of Cake, hardback edition, and pages
of the paperback edition. You decide.
Quick round-up. Rick in Seattle bought Operation Bamboozle
to complete his collection - quite a tally. John Walsh, an old
New York, writes that he almost shouted 'Hallejujah' at news that my
new novel (out in January 2013) features a Sopwith camel, an aircraft
he especially admires because he helped restore one to airworthy
status. I hope he'll like the way I've handled the little fighter.
My thanks to all who wrote.
Write #26 September 2012
and stoked in the USA.
In my last RW, I
took a poke at literary festivals and how they distract writers
from the business of writing, so this time I'll have a go at
mega-hyper-super-bestsellers. Friends - intrigued by
the soaring runaway sales of the Grey trilogy -
have asked me how I feel about it. Depressed? (Why not my book?)
Elated? (Bookshops full of punters.) Astonished? (Nobody saw it
coming.) None of the above.
Freaks happen. Back in the 1930s, someone wrote a song called Yes,
We Have No Bananas. It swept the country. People were
singing it everywhere Music publishers must have looked at each
other and said 'No Bananas is a hit? World's gone
crazy.' Well, every now and then it does go crazy, and publishing
is no exception, especially when word-of-mouth gets into the act. Many
years ago, a New York publisher put out a novel called Jonathan
Livingstone Seagull. Without enthusiasm, and with
no hopes of making a dollar from it, because the story was about a
bored seagull who seeks perfection in flight and finds wisdom, together
with two other radiant and loving seagulls. Well, somebody liked
it, told his friends, and the rest is history. Also economics, because Seagull
not only topped the New York Times Best Seller List, for two years it
was the best-selling book in the USA. It became a movie. (Neil
Diamond sang the songs.) Critics panned the book - one said
that, by comparison, The Little Engine That Could was
'a work of some depth and ambition' - but who cared?
It was everywhere. It was a freak. These things happen.
fact they've been happening ever since the 1890s, when publishing
stopped grinding out three-volume sagas to amuse the rich and idle and
began offering cheap fiction to the masses. The sales of Mrs
James's Grey trilogy aren't particularly huge, compared with
the scores racked up by the literary giants of Edwardian times and the
years between the wars. When Edgar Wallace was going strong, it
was reckoned that, apart from the Bible, one in four books bought in
England was an Edgar Wallace thriller. Ethel M.Dell, the Mills
& Boon of her day, almost matched him. But for really big
money and colossal ego, nobody got near Marie Corelli. In the 1900s,
her novels earned her (in modern money) a million pounds a year, and
she had the longest entry in Who's Who. She lived at
Stratford-on-Avon in a style that makes our own dear Barbara Cartland
seem like a shrinking violet. Marie had a coach pulled by two
Shetland Ponies, in which she progressed around Stratford every day,
with the coachman perched above and behind . Her Venetian gondola
took her on the Avon, with a genuine Italian steering it. Why
not? The eggheads said her books were sentimental junk, but she
claimed to be the most widely read writer, in English and in
translation, in the world. And she probably was.
not forever. In 1908, Hall Caine's novel was (he said) the first to
sell a million copies in Britain; and then came Nat Gould's
prodigious output - 130 novels, all about horse-racing. By
1927 he'd sold 24 million copies and was still going strong. Corelli
had fame, but Nat had more readers. So where does the Grey
trilogy slot into this pantheon? Modestly, when you look at (for
example) Terry Pratchett's 45 million sales - and he's just
one of many in the record books. Thomas the Tank Engine
has sold 200 million copies. So has Enid Blyton's Noddy.
Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason books have reached 300
million. J.K.Rowling's Harry Potter series tips the scale at
450 million. Vast forests have been felled to make the paper for these
blockbusters. So why don't I feel jealous? Two reasons.
One reason is that
those authors did things their way, and I do mine my way. I can't crank
out a book a year. It takes me two or three, sometimes four or five
years to write a book. The other reason is that I have different
expectations. I don't aim for the bestseller market (although I'd
be happy if it happened). I aim to put all that blood, sweat and ink
into writing a book that will stick around for ten or twenty
years. The readers who are willing to pay good money for my stuff
are probably a minority - a discerning and
demanding minority, but too few to generate sales in the
millions. Part of my reward is knowing that Goshawk Squadron,
for example, is still in print, forty years on. (MacLehose Press's
reissue will appear in January 2013.) I hold nothing against Mrs
James and the ballistic sales of her Grey books. Good
luck to her, especially as a big chunk of the income will go to
H.M. Treasury. Meanwhile, I take pleasure in the kind of email
that money can't buy, from a fan in Fairfax, Virginia.
Fred, who is one of the discerning and demanding minority, "drifted
back" to my website "after a long absence" and, he says, "I'm glad I
did. I am stoked, stoked about A Splendid Little War. I
am assuming that some of our friends from the RFC trilogy will
appear." Not many, Fred. The year is 1919, and very few of
my RFC characters survived what was known as the Great War. But 'the
whiff of battiness and brimstone' (in the words of one reviewer)
is still there.
Fred being in the U.S., I regret to say that the American edition of Splendid will not appear when the book is published
here and in the rest of the English-speaking world, in January 2013.
MacLehose Press/Quercus are still sorting out their relationship with
North America. You'll know the outcome when I do. Incidentally,
Fred's refreshingly new adjective, stoked,
is surely one to note. My guess is that it means 'over the moon'.
I look forward to its appearance on this side of the Atlantic.
From the opposite side of the globe, Liam in
Darwin, Australia sends a short but bracing note. He teaches history.
One of his 10th grade students was reluctant to read books of any kind,
so Liam gave him War Story, my yarn of the RFC in 1916.
"He is powering through it and enjoying it immensely," Liam
says. Liam and other teachers "plan to use some historical
fiction as sources when we teach WW2." And already, Piece of
Cake is going down well at the school. Brilliant idea.
My thanks to all who wrote.
Write #27 October 2012
Peregrine Delancey gets his comeuppance,
boos and cheers for HRGE,
and barnstorming over
I live close by a large
university, and if I'm driving past it when the lectures end and the
streets are suddenly flooded with students, I have learned to
avoid the deaf and the blind. These are students wandering across
the road, with an i-pod in an ear, a bottle of water in one hand and a
mobile phone in the other. They are texting the entire world,
oblivious to traffic and obsessed with junk. That's just my opinion, of
course; but I wonder whether any text message is worth the risk of
getting turned into strawberry jam. Especially when you consider the
damage already being done to the English language by the galloping
impatience of text talk. If enough people go on texting 'u', will
the day come when they don't know whether it's spelt 'you' or
'yew'? Good English matters. It can make a big difference to
anyone writing to impress as well as to inform. If you don't know the
difference between 'discreet' and 'discrete', or between
'affect' and 'effect', or between 'exercise' and 'exorcise', you run
the danger of looking like a total moppet instead of the hot stuff
you're trying to be.
I mention this because I've just had a letter
from a firm of private bankers. I'll call them Peregrine Delancey
because that's not their real name
- which sounds as if they're waiting to be knighted,
and so does Peregrine Delancey. (If there really is a Peregrine
Delancey out there, I apologise in advance.)
P.D. made me an interesting offer. They
would manage my wealth and take a minimum fee of only £1,250 a
year. Now, the writing game is precarious (today, steak and
chips; tomorrow, bread and cheese), and by sheer bad luck I not only
have no loose wealth but also no spare £1,250. Still, it was nice
of P.D. to offer. Then I reached para 3 of their letter, where
they talk about 'principle partners', and suddenly their letter turned
to ashes in my hands.
'Principle partners' is gibberish. All
partners in any bank have principles; it's what keeps them out of
jail. What Peregrine Delancey meant was 'principal
partners'. Simple mistake - but a
bank that plays fast and loose with the English language is never going
to gets its hands on my wealth, if I ever have any. That letter
was worse than a waste; it was a reason not to trust them. It was an
unbusiness letter. Good English matters.
OK. End of pontification. On to readers
write. Bad English is about the only thing that Paul (somewhere in UK)
didn't find wrong with Hullo Russia, Goodbye England.
He felt that I skimmed the surface of the Cold War, produced characters
who are two-dimensional and glib, and treated the real issues in a way
that was almost meaningless. Also, I made a poor job of explaining the
workings of the Vulcan bomber, the book is too short, and in general it
descended to the level of juvenile fiction such a Biggles. He's an
'avid lover' of my other stuff, but he rates HRGE as a dud, and hopes
I'll do better next time.
This was a comprehensive demolition, and it
proves a point I've often made, which is that no book is for
everybody. That (and a lot more) is what I said in my reply to
him. I mentioned that some readers, including ex-Vulcan aircrew,
enjoyed HRGE very much; but I can't, and don't, hope to please
everyone. I talked about an old friend who told me that Goshawk
Squadron would be a much better story if only I would get rid of
that bloody awful Major Woolley. And Paul replied to say that
Woolley is 'probably my favourite character', and maybe if he
(Paul) had read the prequel to HRGE, Damned Good Show
- which introduces Silko - then he
might have felt differently about the book. Turns out that Paul
is a playwright. (We wordsmiths have strong feelings about
stuff.) We parted company amiably. He looks forward to A
Splendid Little War, out soon. Will he like it or loathe
it? Every book is a gamble.
Then I got a 'quick note of appreciation for
HRGE' from Gareth, here in the UK, who 'just finished the ebook and
enjoyed it immensely'. He declares an interest: his father, a
Vulcan pilot, was actually sitting in one of the QRA Vulcans, ready for
action, during the Cuban missile crisis. His dad -
who, at 85, plays three rounds of golf a week - has
no doubt that he would have 'actually pressed the button over
Moscow', because he would have known that all his family, in
married quarters near the runway, would be dead from a Soviet first
strike. Makes you think.
The madness of Mutual Assured Destruction is
at the heart of HRGE, and yet there is comedy too. Gareth writes: 'I am
pleased that you managed to reflect some of the humour of the pilots.
My recollection (as a small boy) was that they were always laughing.'
The novel mentions the black eye patches issued to pilots, to protect
one eye if the other was blinded by a nuclear flash. 'Very glad you got
the eye patches into the narrative,' Gareth adds. 'I can recall finding
one of these and my father telling me that it was for a Captain Hook
fancy dress costume he was going to wear to the mess!'
Martin in London has already pre-booked a
copy of A Splendid Little War - and 'pre-booked a
day off in early January to read it from cover to cover'. And says 'I
love the front cover', which is on view on the Quercus website. And an
old pal, John in New York State, tells me that he was in Iowa recently,
flying a 1934 Aeronca C-3. 'Cows disturbed, probably made
butter, and horses none too happy with the thought of a plane that's
about 80 years old buzzing just overhead at 500 ft.' Here's what
the Aeronca looks like on the ground. Sporty little model.
John can fly almost anything. In the
summer he joined 'a barnstorming tour of the MidWest along with
14 other guys in planes from 1928-1933 (I got to fly a 1932 Fairchild
22)' which they flew 'in our own little dawn patrol over the
trenches of Wisconsin'. When he's not flying, John is expert at carving
propellers for RFC replicas; right now he's working on four props
(birch) for Sopwith Snipes and two (mahogany) for Sopwith Pups.
During the barnstorming, someone stole his copy of Piece of Cake
(I don't think he travels anywhere without it). 'So please tell
the powers that be to get off their asses (or fingers out) and make it
available in the U.S. sooner rather than later.' I keep poking
Quercus in the ribs, John.
Cue Garth in Manhattan, who keeps re-reading Cake
and A Good Clean Fight, and has a couple of
questions. (1) 'How did Baggy Bletchley survive being strafed on
the bog (while trapped by his knackers) in Piece of Cake?
Re-reading the sequence I can see it's just barely possible, but the
mobile lavatory is described as being bowled over and over by German
fire. (2) There's a scene in AGCF where Pip Patterson breaks down while
remembering an old pal, a guy who saved his life and was such a good
pilot Pip was certain the Germans would never get him. Then, of
course, they did. Fanny Barton listens quietly, he's seen this
again and again.....Once, the narrative tells us, it had even happened
to him. So what I'm wondering is, is Fanny thinking about
the ultimate fate of CH3?'
My answer to question one is simple. Baggy
Bletchley's predicament is based on a true story, involving the master
of a freighter, caught with his pants down in a rolling sea; and
Baggy survives the attack because, after a quick strafe, any lowflying
Me109 would seek out more rewarding targets on an airfield. And air
commodores are tougher than they look. Question two sent me to
page 264 of AGCF, where Pip's sad memories and Fanny Barton's thought
occur. Bear in mind that all this takes place in the spring of
1942. Who knows what has happened to Fanny in the 18 months since the
Battle of Britain? Almost certainly, he has known good pilots who
got the chop. Maybe he was thinking of CH3. Seven American pilots flew
in the Battle and six were killed in action afterwards. The final
lines of Cake describe Barton and CH3 emptying their
guns on German bombers. After that, anything was possible.
To close, a word about stoked, which cropped
up in my last RW when an American reader used it to express his large
enthusiasm for the coming publication of ASLW. I wondered at the
strangeness of this adjective. Now, a kind and anonymous pal
tells me that 'stoked' began life in Southern California, where surfers
and skateboarders use it as shorthand for saying they're completely and
intensely enthusiastic, exhilarated or excited about something.
For example: "I'm stoked about going to California!" The
word has reached the East Coast, so it should appear in the UK
soon. Tell me if you hear it.
My thanks to all who wrote.
Readers Write #28 January 2013
Halley's Comet strikes again,
The high price of Norwegian literacy,
and 'stoked' spans
A Splendid Little War is out, and the Daily Express gives it 5 stars (for full
review, click here). The launch took me to a gathering of booksellers the other
night. (What is the collective noun? A volume of booksellers? A sequence? A
binding?) I made a very brief speech, just four minutes - there was food and
drink waiting - about how and why I wrote ASLW. The novel tells the story of an
R.A.F. squadron during the Intervention in Russia of 1919. Before I discovered
it, I'd never heard of the Intervention. I did some pseudo-scientific research
in my local pub, and none of the usual suspects had heard of it, so I reckoned
that nobody else had, either.
It seems I was slightly wrong. This happens
as rarely as a visit by Halley's Comet, but when it does I'm willing to admit
Mike, having been 'thoroughly entertained
by ASLW, writes that it reminded him that 'I studied the conflict between the
White and the Red Russians when at school'. (Sounds like a better school than
mine, where the history syllabus said nothing much happened after the Boer
War.) Mike goes on: 'I found it fascinating then, but was not old enough to
understand the wider implications which come to life so well in ASLW.'
Steve also enjoyed ASLW, in his case all
the more so because back in the 1980s he'd read a John Harris novel, aimed at
teenagers, all about the Intervention. It was called The Interceptors,
and its cover showed a Camel flying low over a line of cavalry. (The book must
be pretty rare today - a used copy costs £45 on the Internet.) Steve especially
enjoyed ASLW for 'the way you've blended real and imagined events', and he got
'a real sense of what life was like for those men (and one woman!)'. Which is
what a novel should do: take the reader somewhere he would otherwise never go.
Speaking of money, my eyebrows jumped an
inch when Jon Gunnar in Norway
told me that, 8 years ago, the only way he could find his missing middle volume
of my R.F.C. trilogy was by coughing up £74 for a used copy of Hornet's
Sting. I'm happy to say he liked the book a lot, along with War Story.
He writes: 'What must be the most memorable passage ever written, is when
Paxton loops his plane and the sandbags fall out.' And now ASLW gives him the
same pleasure on Kindle: 'I particularly love the superb mix of new and
familiar characters, such as Brazier.' He also explains why books cost a lot in
- 'Here, all publishers own the book-store chains.' He asks me to tell
MacLehose Press that 'it is a pleasure buying quality books for the Kindle at
such fair prices'. I'll pass the word.
Just across the Baltic, Erwin in the Netherlands
placed his order for ASLW and expects 'it will be as much fun to read as your
other RFC/RAF novels' - all of which are on his bookshelves. Further across the
water, in what was once New Amsterdam and is now New York, lives Garth, an old
pal who got quite a kick out of ASLW: 'A real cracker, easily my favourite
since the Hornet's Sting/A Good Clean Fight era. Sometimes grim,
sometimes very funny, occasionally extremely moving.'
Down in Fairfax, Virginia,
Fred came back from New Year's holiday to find ASLW waiting. 'I didn't exactly
attack the book,' he writes, 'more like went at it in a series of forays,
rationing the pages. I had the same tug/push emotions as I did when reading War
Story and Piece of Cake. Couldn't wait to see what happened
next... As you may guess, I thought it was your usual great job: funny,
riveting, sad, thoughtful.'
Graham in the UK had similar thoughts. He wants
some 'quality reading for an April holiday and part of me says, "save it
for then" while another part says, "you know you won't be able to
wait". What you might call a happy dilemma. Paul, on the other hand, has
had his cake and wants more: he 'thoroughly enjoyed' ASLW and says, 'I hope the
next one will be along shortly.' (You and me both.) Paul is an example of what
browsing in a hotel book-swap will do to you. He picked up a 'dog-eared
secondhand copy of Piece of Cake', and now he says 'you remain my
favourite author'. His good luck, and mine too.
Something that several people mention is
their pleasure at coming across familar faces in ASLW, meaning Lacey (the
former Orderly Room corporal) and Brazier (the adjutant). They first appeared
in War Story and then played a larger part in Hornet's Sting. Lacey,
the least warlike man in the books, believes that war may be hell but that's no
reason why the squadron shouldn't live in black-market luxury. Brazier is the
opposite: a warhorse who breathes fire and reads King's Regulations for
pleasure. I've enjoyed their contribution to three novels. Who knows? They may
live again in a fourth.
A last word about 'stoking'. We traced the
origin of this cheerful adjective to the beach boys of California. Then it travelled to the East Coast.
Now Jon Gunnar reports that he first heard it three years ago when a colleague
went snowboarding in New Zealand
and came back very stoked - excited - about his experiences. So the word is out
My thanks to all who wrote. Derek Robinson Return to Homepage
Readers Write #29 March 2013
Forgotten epics: boosting the Spits,
welcome back the irrepressible
and lost and found: a broken Tomahawk.
Doing the research for Piece of Cake took me four years, so I
thought I had mastered the story of the Phoney War and the Battle of Britain;
but I was wrong. I've just come across the remarkable account of de Havilland's
constant-speed propellers and their nick-of-time contribution.
In the 1930s the company made two-pitch propellers (coarse and fine)* and
constant-speed propellers.* The R.A.F. believed that two-pitch suited fighters
while bombers flew better on constant-speed props. Came World War Two, and
fighter pilots soon learned that their Spitfires and Hurricanes were being
out-performed by the Luftwaffe's Me-109s with their multi-pitch propellers. The
enemy could out-climb and out-dive them (helped by their direct-injection
engines). On June 9 1940, a month after Dunkirk, an engineer officer at an
R.A.F. fighter base phoned his contact at de Havilland with a simple question.
Could a Spitfire prop be converted to constant-speed "without a lot of
paperwork and fuss"? The answer was yes. Four days later, D.H. engineers
arrived and made the conversion overnight. In test flights, that Spitfire
climbed faster, manoeuvred better, and had a an increase in ceiling of 7,000
feet. Suddenly, every pilot wanted a constant-speed prop.
The quick story is that on June 22, D.H. got verbal orders (no time to draw
up a contract) to convert all R.A.F. fighters at their airfields. On June 25,
twelve D.H. men drove to twelve Spitfire stations. Each man met a picked crew
of fitters. He instructed them as he converted the first aircraft, helped them
convert the second, supervised their conversion of the third, and if all went
well, drove to the next station and did it all again. Those engineers worked 15
hours a day, often more. By August 16, over a thousand Spitfires and Hurricanes
had been converted, just as the German air assault was beginning. During the
August raids, German losses averaged four times R.A.F. losses. An officer at
the top of Fighter Command told a de Havilland engineer that, but for the
conversion job, those figures might have been reversed. A tribute to initiative,
resilience, and sheer determination.
Okay. Onwards. A Splendid Little War continues to ring global
bells, and it made the day for Paul in the UK. He writes: 'You've got a new book
out...Obviously I'm going to buy the thing. I have a smile on my face I didn't
have half an hour ago.' Eric, in New Zealand, is also chuffed: 'I am SO glad
you've continued with the WW1 series - especially with one of my favourite
characters, Lacey.' Tony, via Facebook, comments: 'Yet another great read!'
Martin, in the Kings Road, London, writes: 'Completed at 1 a.m.! A superb
novel and what was so interesting was that it is an arena of history for which
there is almost no other information. Amazing stuff.' He welcomed the return of
'the irrepressible Lacey' and his 'leitmotif of sarcasm and the banality of
war', and found that 'Borodin obviously brings back memories of the (Russian)
Duke and Count in Hornet's Sting, but with a slightly softer side!' And
Graham Thorne in Essex ('I am a Robinson fan of long standing - I bought
Goshawk Squadron circa 1972') enjoyed ASLW and offered my publishers a
reader's review that just about says it all:
'A Splendid Little War' finds us in a new location but
back in recognisably Robinson country with our man on top form. A splendidly
varied cast, one or two of whom we have met before, fizzing dialogue and great
action writing make this a superb read. Derek Robinson is not a war writer but a
novelist who just happens to write about conflict as well as anyone I know. Food
for thought too about the morality of intervention generally and on what basis
it can ever be justified or successful.'
A couple of surprises. Steve, who 'read and enjoyed ASLW', tells me that
Marion Aten's 'Last Train Over Rostov Bridge', a pilot's memoir which I
mentioned in my Author's Note, has been reissued - about 70 years after he
wrote it. And even more amazingly, Mike writes to say that 43 years ago, in his
first year of secondary school (so he would have been 12 years old), 'We studied
the Intervention.Why on earth, I cannot say. It never appeared in any syllabus
again as far as I know. I haven't really thought about it since - until
ASLW came along.' And as a bonus, Mike mentions a pal of his, a former Vulcan
pilot and not in the best of health. Mike recommended 'downloading HRGE to his
Kindle. He gave it a resounding thumbs-up.' He told Mike that there were two
basic types of Vulcan pilot: 'those who had fought in WW2 and those who came
afterwards... The older types regarded the newer types as mere technocratic
button-pushers; the newer types regarded the older types as reactionary
Moving on: Jim in Alberta, an old pal and loyal supporter, writes that
'Hornet's Sting is one of my favourite novels of all time - along
with Piece of Cake. Classics!' And he send this memorable shot of a
long-lost Tomahawk, just found in the Western Desert and looking like a cover
design for A Good Clean Fight:
On the subject of cover design, the artist Tony Cowland (his excellent
aviation paintings decorate all the new editions of my flying stories) tells me
that 'the original for Damned Good Show (Hampdens) now hangs in a
public area of the R.A.F. Club in Piccadilly'. And so it should. It's a
My thanks to all who wrote. Derek Robinson
*For the technically-minded, there are two Wikipedia articles you might find interesting:
Return to Homepage
Write #30 May 2013
Rolling a Tiger,
and the truth about
April was a good month. Maybe newspaper editors have a soft
spot for authors who hit eighty with the pen still in their hands.
Anyway. The Times book section gave Goshawk Squadron (plus
all my flying novels) a half-page review, with a photograph that also shows,
hanging on the wall, a soft-focus picture of one of the Spitfires used in
filming Piece of Cake. (To read the review, click on the link in
the panel above.)
Meanwhile, a message arrived by cleft stick from Matthew,
who lives not a thousand miles from me. Having read Goshawk Squadron
years ago, he took the plunge and read War Story and Hornet's
Sting. (All my RFC/RAF books are now available as MacLehose
Press paperbacks.) 'Great stuff,' Matthew writes. 'Best novels I've read
for years. I gave a copy of Hornet's Sting
to a chum who used to command 2/2 squadron of the SAS and he
called me to say he'd finished it quicker than he had a book for years, and
praised in particular the pre/post fighting atmosphere.'
Then Matthew raised a question that gets to the very heart
of Hornet's Sting. 'Who shagged Dash?' he asked. Most
queries from readers are about the horsepower of the Sopwith Pup, or the
whereabouts of St Oscar's, an alleged public school where Woolley claimed to
have been educated. (He lied. Saint Oscar never existed.) Now Matthew
went straight to the nub of chapter 3. Charles Dash was a young RFC pilot who,
on horseback, got lost in a snowstorm as night fell. He found himself at
a nunnery, empty of nuns but occuped by six stunningly beautiful members of
F.A.N.Y., the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. They gave him a hot bath and a
delicious supper and a bed for the night, during which some kind lady entered
his room and relieved him of his virginity. Perhaps two kind ladies, hard to
tell when everything was totally black. All he knew for certain was that she
was, or they were, either Chloe Legge-Barrington, Edith Reynolds, Laura da
Silva, Nancy Hicks-Potter, Jane Brackenden, or Lucy Knight. Later, he returned
to the nunnery and was similarly rewarded; but by whom? And when he
planned a third visit, they'd all gone. Moved on. War is hell.
Now you know as much as I do. Chloe, Edith, Laura, Nancy,
Jane, or Lucy? You decide. I just tell the story. Nobody said
the author had to know everything.
DC, Paraag wrote to wish me a
happy birthday. He's read most of my stuff, reckons that 'a teenager
one of your RFC or RAF novels would learn as much (if not
more!) about the experience of the past than from reading just a dry history
textbook' - a point that some teenagers (and even their
teachers) have made in the past. Paraag is working on an RFC novel,
avoiding my style and seeking his own: a wise choice. I wish him
well. Another longtime fan, Jan in Johannesburg,
writes: 'You are one of the few novelists one tends to read over and over
again - and that is no mean compliment. I thoroughly
enjoyed your latest in the RFC trilogy' (that must be A Splendid Little
War, strictly speaking part of a quartet) 'and I dare say that I am
looking for more to come...' All my titles are available as
ebooks, and Jan has bought some -
'Convenient,' he reports, 'but I have a recurring nightmare of my dream
library with bay window, full-height bookshelves and rail ladder all-round,
empty but for one IPad lying on its side on a dusty shelf.' On
weekends, he 'potters about the sky in my favourite transport', which is
a Tiger Moth in excellent condition, as you can see.
I'd heard that the Tiger is a delight to fly but somewhat
lethal if you try to roll it, and Jan confirmed this. He gave
step-by-step instructions for attempting to roll the aircraft, including the
possible disastrous conclusion, but added: 'Having said that, I have been in a
Tiger with a guy that did everything. Slow rolls, barrel rolls, loops,
Immelmann's and even a slight tail slide and stall turn. But then there are
pilots and weekend warriors. You need to know which tribe you belong to
and stick with it.' Good advice.
Finally: I came across an old letter from Ernest (I
know not where) who said good things about my books and urged me to keep
going, which was rewarding since it came from a man who had flown
Hurricanes, Spitfires and even the Me-109 ('an uncomfortable gadget, designed
for nasty midgets,' he said, 'which changed its response from agile to
impossible to handle, depending on the flight envelope. I loathed it.') He
wrote that he didn't understand 'why people describe deflection shooting as
aiming in front. If you do that, you miss behind; you have to swing the
gun/aircraft/tennis racket/golfclub through from behind, fire when you
pass the target and keep swinging, on pheasant, grouse, ME's and golfballs. You
brush the target out of the air. Aiming with the gunsight means you lose the
enemy.' There you have it, from one who has been at the sharp end.
My thanks to all who wrote.
Readers Write #31 July 2013
Call me Lance, dear, you can trust me,
News from Nowhere: a Blast from the Past,
and a poke in the chops in total silence.
Moggy Cattermole continues to intrigue readers. A squadron leader
who actually did lead a squadron in the Battle of Britain summed him up very
well: "Bad for discipline but good for morale. Every squadron
should have one - but only one." Now Hugh, who
says he's enjoyed all my books and was happy to find A Splendid Little War
in e-book form (he was in Mexico
at the time) raises a question. What is Moggy's first name? The only help that
Hugh can find is in a scene in Cake where Moggy tells a French girl to
call him Lance. Hugh suspects Moggy gave himself something dashing and
exciting, to impress the girl; and isn't Lance a very American
name? The answer to the second question is no, unless you're thinking of
dodgy pro cyclists. Lance is short for Lancelot, Knight of the Round Table, and
exactly the sort of camouflage that Moggy would wear when he wanted to have his
wicked way with a wench.
David, an old pal (India,
Malaysia, now in Tennessee), is
re-reading all my RFC and RAF novels in chronological order, which is the best
way, and he has a query. War Story (set in 1916) ends with
Paxton upset because Frank O'Neill has gone west - but
in Hornet's Sting (set in 1917) O'Neill is writing postcards from London. What's happening?
It's rather like Baggy Bletchley's non-death in Cake. People
jump to conclusions. O'Neill crashed and was carted off, unconscious, to
hospital. The squadron assumed he was a goner. Nobody said in so many words
that he was dead, but he wasn't around, he'd been replaced. Exit O'Neill. It
happened a lot. There were many examples of missing pilots returning days
later to find that their kit had been auctioned off.
A word about readers' emails. Writing novels is an odd job.
For two years, maybe more, nobody sees the story but me. Then it's
published and vanishes. Who's reading it? Where? Is anybody reading it? What do
they think? Often, the Internet answers. The other day I got this
brief email from Rob, a Scottish librarian: 'I am delighted you have finally a
deal which enabled your novels to be restocked by our libraries. At the moment
I have 5 out on loan which makes me happy as a pig in shit'
- news that I found both encouraging and refreshing: three
cheers for Scottish librarians! Phil in Bath wrote simply to say: 'Thank you. You
have entertained me for many, many hours. I love your characters (and the way
they die so matter-of-factly)...' Steven, ex-Rhodesian Army and RAF
Regiment, writes: 'I think you capture the absolute essence of British-style
military banter. Your plotting is also spot-on, in terms of sheer unpredictability
of who lives and who dies...' Twenty years ago, Michael in Michigan
borrowed a copy of Cake, and clearly recalls 'the gloomy October day
when I first began to read it (most October days in Michigan
fit that description), thinking how much it brought to life your portrait of
He re-read it, and during his military service 'I encountered Moggys, CH3s,
Bartons and, sadly, even Rexs...I turned out to be Skull.' Now he teaches
military history at high school level, and says: 'I like to use examples from
your yarns when illustrating the point that where war is concerned, there is
little glamour and rarely a happy ending.' Too true, Mike.
That same week came an e-mail from Joseph in Kansas. Forty years ago,
as a young US Army 2nd lieutenant, he read Goshawk Squadron. He still
has the copy and to prove it he sent this picture of the cover:
(Pity about the cigarette. I'm a non-smoker, and so is
everyone in my novels.) Today, Joe is re-reading the trilogy,
discovering things he'd forgotten or never realised. What struck him was that
Mackenzie and Woolley first appear in Hornet's Sting; Mackenzie is
killed.and Woolley mentions his loss at the start of Goshawk Squadron
- which I wrote umpteen years before Hornet's Sting.
And that leads Joe to suggest that 'you must have had the entire RFC Trilogy
sketched out in your mind before you wrote the first line of Goshawk
Squadron.' It's a nice thought, Joe, but the truth is I wrote Goshawk
with no idea of sequels or prequels. All that came much later, out of the
blue. A quick note from Chris: having just read Goshawk and Sting,
'I am trying not to start reading War Story immediately. I suspect I
won't succeed.' Go ahead, Chris. Give in.
Then came an e-mail from Jim and his wife in Kansas, who lived in Oxford back in the 1970s. My books are on
their shelves,but what sticks in their memories is a series of talks which
I wrote and presented for BBC Radio, called (I think) 'News from Nowhere'. The
BBC let me go wherever I liked, so I picked places with familiar names
that most people never visited: the Wash,
Swindon,Wigan, Totnes, Tonypandy, Glencoe...
'Those travel monologues were amongst the most entertaining things I have ever
listened to,' Jim says. He'd happily buy an audio set, but I can't help
him there. The tapes have been long since wiped.
Now, I always pay careful attention to anything said
by anyone who was at the sharp end of ops. He was there; I wasn't. So I
looked up my research notes for Invasion 1940. John Terraine, a very
good historian of the RAF, wrote about its 'Y Service'. which listened in to
Luftwaffe transmissions and thus gave warning of an approaching raid; and
he added that the Luftwaffe had their own 'Y Service', called Horchdienst,
said to be more efficient than ours. But that was in 1940. Things change fast
I know the wiped feeling, because Gerry has sent me this
uppercut of an e-mail: 'Hullo, Mr Robinson. I have just read your
excellent book, Invasion 1940. One error in it. You stated that
Bomber Command wireless operators tested their equipment before take-off.
Not true. Radio silence was strictly maintained. How do I know? I was
Gerry and I exchanged notes, and I found that he served on
75NZ Squadron, largely manned by Kiwis (although Gerry is English), and highly
respected for its 'press on regardless' attitude. Not surprisingly, it
was also known as 'the chop squadron' - in all of
Bomber Command, it suffered the second-highest casualties. Bomber Command
was a huge organisation and the question of radio silence is equally big.
R.V.Jones, one of the most brilliant boffins in WW2, wrote that, in his
experience, Bomber Command (and indeed USAAF) was 'appallingly indiscreet in
its use of radio transmissions'. A lot of bombers, he says, flew with
their I.F.F. (Identification Friend or Foe) transmitting, and German fighters
detected this signal. And Max Hastings, in his book Bomber Command,
wrote about the Luftwaffe's 'Tame Boar' operations in 1943, and said: 'The
British discovered that the Germans could often predict a raid by monitoring
wireless operators' signals from all over eastern England during the morning
air test, and 100 Group began to broadcast fake test signals on days when
Bomber Command was not operating, to confuse the issue.'
In the end, Gerry and I agreed that we were both
right: on 75NZ Squadron, radio silence was total, but on other squadrons
it was a different story. War is never a simple business. And finally some good news: hardbacks of my latest
yarn, A Splendid Little War - published in
January - have all sold out. To celebrate this success,
publication of the paperback edition has been brought forward from January 2014
to November 2013. Whoopee!
My thanks to all who wrote.
Derek Robinson Previous Readers Write
Readers Write #32 November 2013
Never quit: portrait of a wartime pilot,
Flying in a Lancaster (earplugs needed),
And Baggy Bletchley versus the mobile loo.
The makers of the film A
Bridge Too Far, based on Cornelius Ryan's book about the paratroop assault
on Arnhem, held
a preview before general release. As they left, the audience were asked
to write their opinions. Many said it was a good film but the story was
farfetched. They simply didn't believe that the force sent to relieve the
paras would have to cross so many bridges. Yet the story was true. Arnhem was a
bridge too far for the Allied relief columns, and so the operation ended in
Things happen in war that any
writer would hesitate to invent. Take the career of Lewis Hodges. He was
21 in 1940 when his Hampden bomber raided Stettin, was damaged, and he made a
forced-landing in Brittany.
He and his gunner then walked across France
got arrested and jailed. Hodges escaped, stowed away on a cargo boat to Oran in
West Africa, got arrested and was returned to Marseilles, where he escaped yet
again, having used a potato to create official-looking stamps on a pass. He
travelled by train and taxi to the Pyrenees and into Spain. This time customs
officers arrested him. He spent five weeks in a prison camp before the
British Embassy secured his release and he went via Gibraltar to Britain
and rejoined his squadron. He'd been on the run for eight months. Asked
what he'd missed most, he said: 'My pyjamas.' Thereafter, when flying on
ops he always wore them under his uniform. He flew many ops.
A long spell of
night raids on Germany earned him a place in a squadron supporting SOE
operations in Europe flying Halifax bombers that dropped supplies and
agents to resistance groups. It was a lonely and dangerous task,
for a calm temperament and superb navigational skills. By 1943 (when
was 24) he commanded the squadron, now flying Lysanders and
Hudsons, small enough to land in fields. He flew SOE ops until 1944
went to the Far East, where he commanded a special duties squadron,
Lysanders, Dakotas and long-range Liberators to support resistance
groups inBurma, Thailand
and Malaya. These sorties lasted up to
20 hours, often in monsoon conditions. He ended the war with a double DSO and a
double DFC .
That's a brief account of the
extraordinary wartime career of the man who eventually became Air Chief Marshal
Sir LewisHodges, CBE, CB, KCB. His portrait hangs in the RAF Club, in
Piccadilly, and next to it is a picture of the first bombers he
flew, Hampdens, in a low-level raid over the North Sea.
It's the original that Tony Cowland painted for the new cover of the MacLehose
Press edition of Damned Good Show. Those three words are a
fitting description of both Lewis Hodges and the painting.
Onwards. I hear
from John W., an old pal in New
who has a rare (probably unique) angle on my latest effort, A
Splendid Little War. He enjoyed it immensely ("I am becoming a
fan of Lacey," he says), especially as he (John) has driven a World War
One Renault Whippet tank and also restored a Sopwith Camel, "so the
last chapter where one consumed the other and then committed suicide was of
particular interest." Not many people can claim such inside
More transatlantic info comes
from another good guy, Tibor, who is currently mentoring students of English at
the University of Tampa in Florida.
One of his class wrote a thoughtful critique on my output.
"Robinson," he says, "calmly narrates the Goshawk attack on the
Zeppelin and subsequent firefight without getting too popcorn and
relentless. It all goes back to straight reportage", which he
believes I do as well as Hemingway and maybe even slightly better. Well, I just
tell the story and hope for the best.
Meanwhile, Garth in NYC,
who is also in the military fiction business, has achieved the ultimate in
research by actually flying in a Lancaster
bomber. The Canadian Warplane Heritage in Hamilton,
Ontario has a Lanc, one of
only two still airworthy, and it's possible to take a trip on a 45-minute
flight. "Not cheap," Garth says, "but worth every
penny." The rear gun turret being out of bounds, he spent most of
the flight in the mid-upper gun turret "from where I reckon the best
all-round views were available " - and to prove it,
he sent me some shots.
Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version.
Very impressive. You can
see what a beautiful beast the Lanc was (and is). Garth reports that
he could move around reasonably freely, "although clambering over the main
spar that holds the wings on is a bit of a sod, so what it would have been like
in full flying gear doesn't bear thinking about" -
especially in pitch darkness. "The airframe creaks and groans and
screams and shudders, and the noise produced by the four engines is simply
unbearable", so passengers wore ear-protectors. In WW2,
aircrew endured the deafening noise, breathed oxygen, flew at 20,000 feet in
temperatures down to minus 60, and faced flak and nightfighters. Garth
concludes: "My respect for the men of Bomber Command, already high, has
Jumping from the Lanc to the
electronic age, Bob ("a devoted reader since Piece of Cake
in 1991") writes from somewhere in America
to ask when ASLW will be available as an ebook to my U.S. fans. All I can say is
the NY office of Quercus Inc is now up and running with plans to publish
all my flying titles, plus the Cabrillo quartet, as ebooks. When
exactly? Don't know, but I suspect the ASLW ebook will follow the
print paperback next spring. Meanwhile, friends in America tell me they have bought
print copies of Splendid via Amazon, although delivery can take
as long as a month.
Lastly, a couple of messages
from the UK.
Rob has read and re-read all my stuff again, "thanks to your latest
publisher who has seen the light in the quality and stark depth in your
writing. Like so many, I read and read again, and each time reveals another
layer in your characters. Some live, many die, but the reader truly cares
about each." Which leads him to wonder: what happened next to
CH3 after Cake and to Barton after A Good Clean Fight?
Fanny Barton's future is spelled out very briefly in the novel
- he goes to Rhodesia
and commands a pilot training base (which, personally, I don't think would
satisfy him for long). I can only guess at CH3's future, but
the hard fact is that six American pilots flew in the Battle of Britain and
five were killed later in the war; so CH3's chances of survival were not
And Phil joins the club of
those who re-read Cake every two or three years, and says:
"Liking Skull and Kellaway more with each reading.... I receive a sort of
holistic notice as I approach Baggy Bletchley's testicular battle on the
portable toilet. I know what's happening, more or less what he's going
through, and I still laugh out loud at each reading." I have a
soft spot for old Baggy. He survived tha Battle
to fight again in AGCF and in Hullo Russia,
Air commodores were made of tough stuff.
My thanks to all who wrote.
Readers Write #33 January 2014
13 boots on the ceiling
Love conquers all,
and pooch scoffs predator.
It's been said (probably by me) that fighter pilots take
nothing seriously except flying. An email from Richard gives an example
of this truth which made even my old eyebrows twitch. Back in 1985, when
he was a schoolboy, Richard got invited to visit RAF Binbrook. 5 and 11
Squadrons flew Lightnings from Binbrook, and the Lightning was the supreme
British postwar fighter. Its twin Avon engines
packed three hundred tons of thrust. It could climb to 50,000 feet
in a minute and its acceleration was startling. Richard's visit certainly
He met a Group Captain - presumably the
station commander - in the Mess bar. "On the ceiling,"
Richard says, "were nailed 13 flying boots. Next to the fireplace
was a gang of pilots. They were severely pissed. One of their number had
died after his plane had tangled with high voltage cables." (Always
a hazard of low-level flying.) The wake was in progress and strange things were
happening. Richard recalls that all the pilots' epaulettes, normally on
their shoulders, had been sewn to the cuffs of their shirt sleeves and were
hanging around their wrists. Perhaps this was a trademark, just as
fighter pilots in WW2 left the top button of their tunics undone. I'm
guessing. The wake,
now very severely pissed, began involving the non-flying colleagues in the bar,
until one pilot, who must have been utterly totally severely pissed, approached
the group captain and "grasping his epaulettes and with one swift tug,
ripped them off his sleeves. Completely unfazed, the Groupie handed me his pipe
and pint and laid out the pilot with a single punch!"
The havoc of the wake doesn't surprise me as much as those
thirteen flying boots nailed to the ceiling. The custom of decorating a
ceiling dates back to the RFC; but it was usually done with boots whose
soles had been blackened with soot. So - why
flying boots? Mementoes of thirteen fatal crashes? But that would assume that
the pilot's boots survived his crash, which seems unlikely. Spare
boots? But normally pilots owned only one pair. So it's a mystery.
No mystery about Steve's grandfather. Steve (like
Richard) "enjoyed all your books so far - got a few to do
yet." One that especially grabbed him was A Splendid Little War.
His grandfather served in the Hampshire Regiment and was with them in Siberia during the 1919 Intervention. "Lost
more men to flu than in action," Steve says. The Hampshires had been
abroad for some years, which explains why his grandfather's story "is more
dramatic in so much as when he returned home to Bournemouth
and went in the back door as normal, he was confronted by strangers. His mother
had taken in lodgers and died suddenly." News of her death had never
reached him. The strangers were a mother and two young daughters, and so
"he felt it was wrong for him to be living there as well. A very
neat solution was to propose to the more eye-worthy girl. They got married and
moved in." The Hampshires were good at making the best of a
bad situation, whether it was in Siberia or Bournemouth.
Here's another long-distance event. Ray sent me thanks
for "the wonderful reads - I have just finished
reading Goshawk Squadron. What a smashing
book." He read Hullo Russia,
with especial interest because his brother flew Vulcans on 617
Squadron - but "didn't tell me much about
it." (No surprise: security was very tight.) His
brother moved to Canada and
flew 747s for Air Canada.
"After reading your novel I rang him in Canada and he was amazed at how
much I got to understand what his task was. He's going to read HRGE for
himself." Another Steve, watching the recent BBC-tv Cold War series,
found it "dovetailed with all the themes you covered in HRGE."
Well, nearly all, Steve. The series failed to question the idea that
rapid response by Vulcans would always be a deterrent to a Soviet attack.
Arming and fueling a Vulcan took a lot longer than the two or three minutes
achieved by rapid-response take-off, and Vulcans could not remain permanently
armed and fuelled... Never mind, it's old history; and what
intrigues me now is that Steve has got more out of Piece of Cake
than I realised I had put in. He says: "I told the story of
Steele-Stebbing, Cattermole and the portable loo to my son to illustrate the
principle of 'Don't get mad, get even'." His son is ten and is
playing rugby. Amazing.
Which reminds me of the famous schoolboy excuse: 'A
dog ate my homework.' Stephen writes that he was reading Goshawk,
in front of a log fire, until the early hours. "I nodded off, and
when I awoke, a puppy had eaten the last pages." Either a hungry pup
or very tasty pages. Takes me back to the reader who wrote that he'd
dropped his copy of Cake in the bath... Stephen rates Cake
highly, but "it's the RFC trilogy which creates such powerful images for
me... Your skill as 'a painter of pictures on the inside of eyelids' (as
Pratchett says) is superb." He has special knowledge of the
period: he builds sets and props for film and TV. Right now he's building
a full-size SE5a. Photographs are promised. They'll brighten up this
Quick round-up, starting in New Jersey,
where Ralph much enjoyed reading Kramer's War, which is
set in the other (old) Jersey. Rob, who
is "currently reading/re-reading all your air war stories in chronological
order" found A Splendid Little War "a
tremendous read: Daddy Maynard's fate was utterly stark in its
pointlessness - but that was the point, wasn't it?" It
was indeed, Rob. A different Rob calls Cake
"the most I've enjoyed a novel in years." Meanwhile, Scott
praises the actor who read AGCF for Audible's Books On Tape:
"Michael Tudor Barnes has done such a good job that I'm really enjoying it
for a second time." And Quinton, hoping for more Cake sequels,
wonders about a novel set in 1941, when the RAF sent fighters on offensive
patrols over France - and suffered for it, much as the
Luftwaffe had over England in 1940. "A last hurrah for CH3 (my
favourite character) perhaps?" Maybe. Anything's
Finally, here - from Chris in the
Royal Canadian Air Force - is a review of ASLW
that he wrote for Soldier, a magazine of the British Army:
Robinson has once again exceeded (already high) expectations and has produced
another novel replete with tragi-comedy, education, cynical humour and
action. Set in the midst of the Russian civil war, the book follows the
experiences of Merlin Squadron, the RAF fighters sent to support the White
Russian army in the southern steppe. Robinson is master of character
development and he is able to capture the essence of the post-war British
Officer sent on yet another international escapade. A tight storyline
woven in a historically accurate rendition of the conditions and folly under
which the British airmen operated; this book cannot be recommended highly
As it happens, The Times also
recommended it highly - they included A
Splendid Little War in their 'Books of the Year' for
2013. Which was nice.
My thanks to all who wrote.
Readers Write #34 March 2014
Throttling a Camel,
And bouncing-bomb Mosquitoes.
a remarkable coincidence. Just when Mark (“always been a
fan of your WW1 and WW2 books”) learned about my latest, A Splendid Little War,
he was clearing out the family house, his mother having passed away. He
knew that his great-uncle and godfather John had flown with the RFC/RAF
in WW1 because he’d bequeathed Mark his medals
- the DFC, the Western Front and Great War campaign awards,
plus “a curious thing: the Order of St. Stanislav with Swords”.
Mark had been told that John had flown a Bristol Fighter “in the Middle East,
fighting against the Bolsheviks, hence the medal”. But on
clearing out the house “I found a raft of John’s stuff. His
presentation sword; a hideous knuckle-duster knife, a personal survival
weapon; a plywood good-luck mascot - a black cat with a
bomb in its paws - which I assume was screwed to the
fuselage; but most importantly his diary...” It starts in
early summer 1918 when John was in action against the Turks;
then, after the Armistice, “off they went to fight in the Russian Civil
War.” There are photos; one shows John in front of a Sopwith
Camel, which chimes in with ASLW. Mark is reading the novel and the
diary together. He’s promised excerpts. Sounds like fascinating stuff.
another regular fan, Steve, emailed me to say that in the early 1980s,
“as an impressionable teenager”, he’d read John Harris’s story The Interceptors, also based on the Intervention of 1919. Fast-forward thirty years and he saw a copy in anOxford bookshop.
It was from the original print run of 1977, so he snapped it up “for a
mere 99p. There are occasional underlinings and question marks,
and this rather priceless comment written in a shaky but clear hand in
capitals: "NONSENSE. YOU CAN’T THROTTLE BACK A CAMEL AND OPEN UP
AGAIN.” Steve adds: “It seems to have the authority of One Who
Knows - 1977 being 60 years after 1917 (when Camels went
into service) - so eminently feasible.” The
correction certainly has the ring of truth. The fact is that the Camel
had a button on the joystick, and to get the speed right on landing,
the pilot ‘blipped’ the engine by using the button to switch it on and
off. Get it wrong and make a crash landing (as described in ASLW), and
you bash your nose against the gun-butts and spend the rest of your
life with what was known as ‘Camel Face’. Not an improvement.
From Oxford to Kentucky.
Simon, living today not a thousand miles from here, has been reading my
stuff since the 1970s. His late father-in-law held the splendid title
of Charles E. Tripp Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Berea College, Kentucky. They shared a taste in books, so “I was unsurprised to find Goshawk Squadron on his shelves, but I then found Kentucky Blues
- what a small world.” I had to do a lot of
writing and rewriting with KB - about 25 years,
off and on - and at the end I was disappointed that it
didn’t find an American publisher. So it’s good to know that at
least one prof in Kentucky liked it.
Next, to Oz. Peter in Sydney spent several years doing what he describes as “chasing WW2 plane wrecks in Australia with
HARS”, which turns out to mean Historic Aircraft Restoration
Society. “We have 28 buried Corsairs,” he says. (If that
seems a lot, bear in mind that over 10,000 Corsairs were delivered to
the US Navy Corps in WW2; it was a very tough single-seat
fighter, easily recognisable with its inverted ‘gull-type’ wing
roots.) What’s more, Peter “located several bouncing-bomb
Mosquitoes”, which sounds like the art of flying low and skidding
a bomb into a tunnel. He “managed to get one to Glynne Powell in New Zealand, who now rebuilds Mosquitoes.” Who knows? Maybe a Mozzie will fly again. “Just finished A Good Clean Fight for the second time,” Peter says, “and enjoyed it just as much.”
More from Oz. I heard from Shannon, now in Chicago but as a 13-year-old Aussie he was living in Fiji. A friend let him borrowPiece of Cake.
“It made a deep, lasting impression,” he says; but being 13 he
forgot the author’s name, until “recently I stumbled across Goshawk Squadron and
thought: this has to be the guy who wrote that other book!”
He served in the Australian Army, and found that “the
‘world-in-arms' you painted so vividly: the cynicism, the black humor,
the ever-so-slightly dysfunctional camaraderie, was in every way real
and true. Not sure I would have coped quite so well without your
is good to hear, and another example of the unexpected rewards of my
job - once I’ve published a book I’ve no idea
where it might end up, who’s reading it, and how it affects them. Will,
almost certainly in the U.S., tells me he got clobbered by the fickle finger of fate and ended up feeling pretty low. A friend gave him Piece of Cake as
a sort of therapy. “I don’t know if healing is the right word,”
Will says, “but it was certainly distracting. I have to thank you
for Piece of Cake... it is such a book, and how.”
Back to the UK, where Steve, an old pal, dropped a note “to let you know I’ve re-read and enjoyed tremendously (more even than the first time) A Splendid Little War.
The Russian Intervention was absolutely of its time
- almost Steampunk in its fusion of trains, planes
and cavalry. Lacey steals the show, in my opinion.” Eagle-eyed as
ever, Steve noticed that Lacey shares a knowledge of Tudor Protestant
Sects (especially in Northern England) with Skull in Cake. I suspect that one of them was bluffing, and it wasn’t Skull.
Quick roundup. Nev has just discovered me and “absolutely loves” Cake. David in South Tennessee enjoyed Kentucky Blues,
looks forward to getting the paperback ASLW (it’s due out on
April 1st) and asks for any news about a non-fiction job that
I’ve been writing, on the causes of WW1.. Well, the book’s
finished. It’s titled Why 1914? and I hope to self-publish it very soon. Watch the website for info. Finally, a plea from J.L. in Canada,
who has an elderly friend (with no Kindle, no computer) who’s enjoyed
the first three books of my Cabrillo quartet and would dearly love to
read the final story, Operation Bamboozle.
Problem is it’s out of print. Even Amazon can’t help.
So...if anyone out there is willing to donate a spare copy and make the
elderly friend happy, then email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll arrange the deal.
My thanks to all who wrote. Derek Robinson
Readers Write #35 June 2014
Forget soccer. Brazil reads,
The Vulcan attack
on the airfield at Port Stanley during the
Falklands War was a brilliant operation. It deserved an impeccable book,
and it almost got one. Rowland White’s Vulcan 607 is a
gripping story. Pity about the submarine on page 77. According to
White, on 1 April 1982, HMS Splendid left Faslane, on the Clyde, at 9 a.m. ‘By lunchtime,’ White says, ‘they
were at periscope depth between Fastnet and the Welsh coast.’ Two
problems: (1) Fastnet is a rock on the extreme south-west of Ireland and so a
long way from Wales; and (2) even if we forget Fastnet and assume that Splendid
was off the north coast of Wales, she had travelled 200 miles in 4 hours, or 50
miles an hour. Supposing she was off south-west Wales, make that 300 miles in 4
hours, or 75 miles an hour. Either way, it was a hell of a lick for a
submarine, especially one at periscope depth.
How far and how fast Splendid sailed on that day didn’t alter the
Vulcan achievement, but it made a difference to me. An author needs to
make only one big factual mistake and he’s lost the reader’s confidence. I
research my stuff very thoroughly, and it’s good to hear from Steve in Cambridge (‘just finished reading Hullo Russia, Goodbye England, which I could not put
down’) that ‘there is nothing worse than factual error in a story and I
found not one.’ Nobody’s perfect, and sometimes I get an email pointing out
that I’ve made a mistake. If that’s right, I’ll willingly correct
it in the next edition. Occasionally the reader’s wrong. An R.A.F. veteran
wrote to me and said I’d got it wrong - there were no
Waafs serving on airfields in 1940. The fact is there were none on his
station, so he believed there were none anywhere. That’s what’s known as
assuming the general from the particular, a risky business.
Then came a message from Mark in Surrey about Robert Loraine, the sort of man that nobody
could improve on. Loraine was a 23-year-old actor in 1899 when he volunteered
for the Boer War, survived that, went back to the stage, then in 1909 he
learned how to fly. He was 33. Next year he was the first to fly across
the Irish Sea, or most of it - he
ditched and swam the last 200 feet. He was the first to fly to the Isle of Wight, no great challenge except for the
rainstorm that killed another pilot. Loraine also flew Bristol Boxkites
over army manoeuvres, pioneered the sending of radio messages from the air, and
invented the word ‘joystick’. He had a good war. Joined the R.F.C. in
1914 (bear in mind he was 38, married, with three children). Got the M.C. in
1915 for shooting down an Albatros; ran a drama society on his
squadron; was shot in the back (bullet exited his neck) and won the
D.S.O. in 1917. By then he was 41, probably the oldest pilot in the
war. Still full of life, he went on to star in Broadway shows and in
films. Finally kicked the bucket in 1935. Extraordinary man.
Next comes news from Steve, a regular
correspondent, about the Spitfire
Bridge in Hampshire. It
was built in the 1930s to carry the A31 over the Winchester Bypass, and
like all bridges it was catmint to fighter pilots. Richard Hillary’s The
Last Enemy describes how he (and others) flew under the old Severn Railway
- always tricky because of the great rise and fall of tide;
one pilot misjudged the level, pancaked onto the mud banks, broke both legs and
had to crawl to safety before the tide came in. In 1941, George Rogers flew a
Curtiss Tomahawk under the A31 and found himself competing for space with a
large truck that was travelling in the opposite direction on the Bypass. He
took evasive action, clipped the bridge, lost three feet of wing, got back to base
and crash-landed. As the saying goes, a good landing is one you can walk away
from, which George did, with minor injuries.
The locals called it Spitfire Bridge, Spits being the fashionable
machine at the time. It’s been rebuilt since then but the name survives.
Which takes me inevitably to Piece of
Cake. In the novel, the bridge is in France, the pilots are bored with
the Phoney War, and I never dreamed that it might be done for real. The
producers of the television series thought the same, until their chief pilot,
Ray Hanna, said that, given a flyable bridge, he would do it. (Well, he was a
former R.A.F. Red Arrows leader.) Months of searching found Winston Bridge
in County Durham:
the largest single-span bridge in Britain, with a long, straight run
for the Spitfire. The span makes a 100 ft semi-circle. Ray’s approach was
at 200 m.p.h. Even today, when I see that shot, I flinch a little.
From one war to another. Mike,
somewhere in the U.S., served a couple of spells in Afghanistan, where he read
(and re-read) Goshawk Squadron and Piece of Cake, especially
enjoying ‘the black humor and the dialogue...During my time as a tank company
commander, I often thought that anyone who had read GS might compare
me rather closely to Stanley Woolley.’ Well, there have been worse role models,
Mike, otherwise the book wouldn’t still be in print after 40-plus years,
and now being read, to my great surprise, in Brazil. Giuilia writes that
she found it when she was in England
and ‘it caught me right there and I’ve been a big fan of yours ever since (I’ve
just finished AGCF - what a splendid story). Funny
thing is, when I brought it home to Brazil, my friends became your fans
as well.’ War Story in particular scored with Giuilia: ‘I
loathed Paxton in his beginnings (pompous prick, as Piggott put it)...but
Paxton and O’Neill’s quarrels are very popular around here. Of all the elements
in your stories they’re the ones that hit me the hardest...Paxton’s epic quest
through enemy soil is one of my favourite moments - except the
ending. I mourned him. Truly did. Wept all over the book and nearly ruined the
paper. Paxton’s final chapters were like World War One itself - the
effort, the struggle, nearly reaching the end and then dying another
meaningless death despite everything.’
A round-up of readers who are also authors. Tor Idar in Norway (‘Quick note to
say how much I enjoy your novels...I use your books any time I need a good kick
up the buttocks to get back to writing.’)....John in the U.S.
(‘Stumbled upon your books recently and kicked myself for never having heard of
your work before...’)....Jack, now at Oxford
(‘My supervisor was slightly surprised when I borrowed/stole a copy of
AGCF before any of of his slightly more academic recommendations...’). And
finally, messages from Nev in the U.K. (‘Looking forward to devouring the
lot’), Josh in Texas (‘Huge fan of
your work’), and Bob in the U.S., who got the Kindle version of
A Splendid Little War and asked about doing the same with my older
fiction. Everything is now available as ebooks, I’m happy to
My thanks to all
Readers Write #36 September 2014
Not all over by Christmas,
and a hop in a Camel
a thought. Suppose MI6 had killed Adolf in the middle of World
War Two. Would that have improved the Allies’ chances? Probably
not. It would have made him a German martyr and removed the war’s
worst decision-maker, the man who invaded Russia and, seven months
later, declared war on America. Two colossal mistakes.
There were other blunders. The best way to defeat Germany was by
leaving Hitler in charge. The same might be said of Kaiser
Wilhelm II, supreme commander of all German forces in WW1. Kaiser
Bill was tenpence in the shilling (if you don’t understand that,
ask your dad). He believed he was appointed by God and therefore
saying something made it happen. In August 1914, just after war
was declared, he told his troops: ‘You will be home before the leaves
have fallen from the trees.’ When the leaves fell, his troops
already knew that they faced a long, hard fight. Confidence in the
Kaiser took a knock.
Sometimes - not often - war can be very simple. When I was writing my latest effort, Why 1914?,
I used my secret weapon: simple English. Everyday words, short
sentences, brief chapters. Too many histories are written to
impress other historians, and they make hard reading. I
wrote Why 1914?
for people who never read history but who want to know what caused the
Great War. Like all my stuff, I tried to make it irresistibly
readable. (Some critics despise that word. What do they
want? Unreadability?) So an email from Gritings in Sweden pleased
me. He told me that writing in English is difficult for him.
‘It’s more easy to read,’ he says, ‘and you are the reason for
that.’ Of my novels, only Goshawk Squadron has
been translated into Swedish, ‘so I have with help from my son’s
dictionary struggled through all your other books.’ That probably
means the other seven flying novels, so it was quite a journey. ‘I like
your writing very much,’ Gritings says, and he’s looking forward
to reading the new book.
thousand miles westward, Maggie - a Brit now living in
Connecticut - is introducing her 16-year-old grandson to my
work. ‘To say I’m a fan of your books would be putting it
mildly,’ she says. ‘I’ve read Piece of Cake 6
or 7 times, and I’ve watched the mini-series many, many times’, most
recently with her grandson. What she hasn’t read is on
order. ‘Goshawk Squadron is
one of the finest pieces of writing it has ever been my privilege to
read,’ she says. ‘Major Woolley is brilliant.’ Meanwhile
Jeff in Tel Aviv ‘stumbled across Kramer’s War in
a bookshop in Johannesburg, way back in 1979’, and now he says
‘I’m quite probably the only person in Israel who owns your
novels - some of them repeatedly, since I keep
thrusting them on people who I think will enjoy them...’ When he
reads my stuff, he pictures specific actors for the characters
(Malcolm McDowell as Woolley, for example) and wonders whether I write
with actors in mind. No, I don’t. By the time they get to
be famous, actors are all too old to resemble aircrew who had an
average age of 21. The Cake TV
series scored by casting young unknowns as pilots. And in any
case, every reader has a different mental image of a character.
That’s fine by me.
An example of this comes from Jim in Lichfield. He was persuaded by his brother-in-law to try War Story,
says ‘I could not put it down’, went on to read the rest of the
R.F.C. trilogy and ‘currently I’m on the Russian Steppe with Merlin
Squadron, it’s a great read...I liked Griffin, albeit his time was
short-lived.’ Which I didn’t expect, since Griffin, the C.O., is
permanently angry. But then Woolley is no rosebud. Nor is Moggy
Cattermole, in POC, or O’Neill in WS, or Skull in DGS,
and they all have their admirers. None of my business. I
just write the books. Jim adds: ‘So enthralled am I by your
description of these early flying exploits, I have asked my wife for a
Sopwith Camel flying experience for my 50th birthday.’ Good for
you, Jim, and a good excuse for a picture.
so it’s a Sopwith Pup. We couldn’t find a Camel in flight.
(This excellent shot is courtesy of Darren Harbar/Focal Plane
Images.) Jim’s account of the trip: ‘Over and done in 30
minutes, but hopefully more successful than some R.F.C.
aviators!’ Too true. More than half of all R.F.C.
losses were in training, before the trainee had a chance to fly a
Pup or a Camel.
in Kent (‘Now back to having a full house of your output’) lives
near Biggin Hill airport, where several Spitfires are kept. ‘They
fly with delightful regularity... On 11th November last year, four flew
above us in formation.’ He tells the story behind one of his
prized possessions. In 1978 he went to the unveiling of a painting by
the aviation artist Frank Wotton, bought a paperback of his prints, and
persuaded Douglas Bader to sign it. He had the same success with
Bob Stanford-Tuck ‘who carefully inscribed his signature above
that of Bader, along with the message: “It’s altitude that
counts.” Adolf Galland also signed the page.
Richard’s conclusion: ‘So you’re in good company on my book
a round-up of messages. Edward, in London, writes: ‘My late
father is responsible for my discovery of your writing! Urged me to read Goshawk Squadron -
haven’t looked back since.’ Bill in Ontario, a longtime fan, says
he believes that ‘good black humour is one of the most difficult forms
of literature to write and you are a master of it.’ Chris in
London is thoroughly enjoying A Splendid Little War (‘Bennett’s is a cracking intro’). Graham in Essex (‘constant reader since I bought the Pan edition of Goshawk Squadron in
1971’) has now bought ‘the full set of the RFC/RAF books in their
splendid uniform covers... begging me to read them through’. And
when Nick in Kent ordered a copy of Why 1914? he
added: ‘Can’t wait - you’re a bloody brilliant and
exceptionally gifted writer.’ I must try to remember that the
next time I get writer’s block.
Readers Write #37 November 2014
death in the desert,
and the Tsar rides again.
a surprise. Product placement has infiltrated the writing game. It’s
been part of the Hollywood economy for many years - if your hero
drinks beer, make sure he always has a bottle of Old Frothenslosh and
the brewery will write you a fat cheque. Even fatter, if you you can
get him to say he likes it because it’s old, stale, and has the head at
the bottom, that being their slogan. Absurd? Look at what Popeye did
for the sale of spinach. And now Land Rover has handed six figures to
someone so that he’ll write a new Bond yarn about which I know nothing
except it’s a safe bet that a Land Rover has a supporting role, and
you can be sure it starts when Bond turns turns the key.
Which makes me look back at my career of missed opportunities. In Goshawk Squadron,
Woolley drinks nothing but Guinness, and what did I get?
Not even a free crate of the stuff. Lacey, in A Splendid Little War,
keeps Merlin Squadron well stocked with Gentleman’s Relish, Cooper’s
Oxford Marmalade, and Earl Grey tea. I’m still waiting for a
complimentary hamper from the makers. That’s my failing: too generous
to the food and drink industry.
Meanwhile, my non-fiction Why 1914?
attracts readers from all over. Bill, from a military postcode in the
US, ordered a copy and said he’s ‘very much enjoyed everything from Kentucky Blues to Kramer’s War’
and especially ‘your dark, fighter pilot humor’, which is good to hear
from a man who flew F4 Phantoms and F-111s. He adds: ‘Nothing you
write is forced or false. If you wrote a procedure manual on how to
teach dogs to bark, I’d read that too.’ As it happens, Bill, I once
wrote a book explaining the laws of Rugby Union. Believe me, what goes
on in the front row of the scrum is enough to make a dog howl at the
moon. Kathryn, in Harrogate, is a big fan of my stuff; so is her
sister and father, both of whom got a copy of Splendid for Christmas last year. Having ordered a copy of 1914, she’s eyeing up the MacLehose Press reissued favourites: ‘The new covers are superb!’
Copies of 1914
also made their way to John in Iowa, an old pal currently rebuilding an
even older (1929) DH Gypsy Moth; to Meryl in Bunderim, Queensland; to
Alex in Kaiapoi, New Zealand; and to readers scattered over the UK,
including Geoffrey in Pembrokeshire, who borrowed a copy and then had
to buy one (‘Masterly stuff and a compelling read’). Finally, I had a
postcard from France, where Grant (another old friend) read 1914
on holiday and summed it up in one word: ‘Terrific’. The postcard has
a splendid picture of a French WW2 pilot in full gear - mae west,
oxygen mask, goggles, radio link, white-spotted blue scarf, sheepskin
jacket, chiselled features and a steady, confident gaze.
Another copy of 1914
went to Paul in Oxfordshire, who describes himself as ‘a regular
re-reader of your excellent books’. For several years in the 1980s he
worked in north-east Libya (I’m guessing he was with an oil survey
team) and ‘I came across a lot of WW2 debris in the desert:
unexploded mines and bombs, bullets, helmets, and a couple of aircraft
including the Lady Be Good.’ This was a USAAF B-24D Liberator that
disappeared after a bombing raid on Naples on 4 April 1943, assumed
lost in the Med. In fact the crew overflew their air base in a
sandstorm, couldn’t make radio contact, and finally ran out of fuel
when they were 440 miles inland. The survivors of the crash-landing
died trying to to walk to safety, and the wreck of the Liberator
wasn’t found until 1958. There are echoes of my Desert Air Force
story, A Good Clean Fight, which - unsurprisingly - Paul finds worth re-reading.
More surprises. ASLW,
set in the Russian Civil War of 1919, mentions the last of the Tsars,
Nicholas II, who was killed with his Romanov family at Yekaterinburg.
I’d always assumed that their bodies were lost, but then a couple of
good friends, Stephen and Jean, read the book and brought me up to
date. They were in St Petersburg in 1998 to see The Hermitage, a great
Russian art gallery, when they came across the climax to the huge,
three-day ceremony for the reburial of the Tsar and his family in the
cathedral. There were military cadets lining the streets, officers
carrying the coffins, a requiem service, church bells tolled, guns
fired a 19-volley salute, Boris Yeltsin paid his respects. Even more
surprising was the presence of three members of the Royal Scots Dragoon
Guards: a Lieutenant-Colonel, the Adjutant, and the Pipe-Sergeant-Major
in full Highland dress, playing a lament. Later, Stephen and Jean met
them and asked why they were there. It was because the late Tsar had
been Honorary Colonel-in-Chief of the Regiment. You can just make out
the piper. What the Russians made of his piping, history does not
a quick round-up. Fred, in Fairfax, Virginia, found a review in a
U.S. thriller writer’s blog that puts my ‘sharp, cynical dialogue by
today’s premiere war novelist’ on a par with Philip MacDonald’s
writing, and he is no slouch with the pen. And Ian, somewhere in the
UK, having finished both of the aviation series and The Eldorado Network,
reached this conclusion: ‘I don’t care what anyone says, you’re the
best thing since they started slicing bread.’ I think that was 1928.
My thanks to all who wrote.
Readers Write #38 March 2015
Much angst in Op Bam,
Texas air force sale,
and what makes Skull tick.
motto of all authors should be: Check Everything, Trust Nobody.
Especially Yourself. I remember a book by a well-known
author that mentioned a scientist, eminent enough to be knighted,
now dead. It exposed him as a Soviet spy. Two things
wrong with that: he wasn’t dead, and he wasn’t a spy. The book
got pulped, and the knight got large damages. It pays to look in
Who’s Who before you rush into print. When Philip Roth published
Portnoy’s Complaint (not the kind of thing you discuss at dinner
parties), he first looked in the Greater New York phone books and found
nobody of that name. Later, a man named Portnoy, living in France, sued Roth for defamation, and lost.
when Robin, an old pal, read my Cabrillo novel Operation
Bamboozle a couple of weeks ago, he was curious about the medical
condition around which the con trick revolved. ‘Neurostatic
hypostasia.’ he said. ‘Is there a lot of it about?’ I
assured him that the B strain, which causes such angst in Op Bam, is
almost entirely non-existent. I’d like to say entirely, but
you never know what Big Pharma is capable of discovering in its
labs. However, I feel pretty confident that you can’t go down
with neurostatic hypostasia, because I invented it. The ‘B
strain’ tag got added to give Luis Cabrillo something to say in the
stunned silence that followed his announcement of the malady.
(I’m not going to explain the con. Read the novel. It’s
available as an e-book.) Sometimes Luis juggled the syllables and
it came out as hypostatic neurostasia. Nobody noticed. Still,
Robin’s question made me wonder. Novelists sometimes think
they’ve invented something when the truth is they’ve remembered it. So
I searched the medical dictionaries for neurostatic hypostasia (or its
twin brother) and came away with a clean bill of health.
Apparently there is a condition called hyperplasia. Nothing to do
with me. Luis Cabrillo rides again.
But mistakes can creep in, and I’m very willing to hold my hands up when I make them. Andrew in Cheshire read Why 1914? and
‘as usual when reading your books I’ve been entertained and learned
some new things’. One key point he underlines is that the Great
War began with the willing support of most people, convinced it
would be a great adventure, all over not by Christmas but (as
Lieutenant Bernard Montgomery predicted) in a matter of weeks.
Andrew knows the family trees of the various royal families better than
I do. I said a granddaughter of Queen Victoria ‘married
Tsar Nicholas II, which eventually made him and King George V
cousins’. Andrew points out that ‘they were born
cousins. as their mothers were sisters - the common
ancestor being King Christian IX of Denmark.’
In those days it was hard for monarchs not to be cousins.
It was a royal network that proved to be as fragile as cobwebs in 1914.
Not like some World War Two planes. A friend pointed me towards an amazing collection in a Texas barn (which, like everything in Texas,
is big). Connie Edwards owns them and wants to sell them.
He’s a former movie pilot; he flew many aerial scenes in The Battle of
Britain; often the producers paid him with aircraft, and now he
has a Spitfire that flew in the real Battle,
plus half a dozen Buchons (Spanish-built Messerschmitt Bf 109s), a P51
Mustang and two PBY Catalinas, and truckloads of spare
parts - all for sale. ‘People can either
pay my price or go to hell,’ Connie says. ‘I don’t really care
which.’ To inspect the goods, go to http://www.aopa.org/News-and-Video/All-News/2014/August/Pilot/f_talltale Includes clips from Connie Edwards’ career with his comments on the performance of fighters.
Messerschmitts in their heyday...
...and now in Connie Edwards' barn
David in Cheshire got introduced to Piece of Cake (‘thought-provoking
and thoroughly enjoyable’) by a former RAF pilot who has flown
WW2 planes and reckons my stuff to be ‘the most accurate
representation of the reality experienced by RAF pilots of the
period’. It’s always good to get endorsed by the professionals.
Neil in Nottingham,
a lo-cost airline captain with a whole career in aviation behind him,
found five of my novels ‘extremely enjoyable’. He says Skull Skelton
‘often pops into my thoughts...when someone on the flight-deck makes a
Daily Mail-type proclamation, all I do is calmly offer an alternative
view...even if it’s in conflict with the consensus.’ Just as
Skull would. Also good to hear from Andrew in Norfolk,
a librarian enthusiastic about the MacLehose reissues of my
stuff - ‘I’ve been a pusher for your novels and
created a number of other addicts amongst our customers.’ My warm
Readers often mention with pleasure the streak of irony
in my books; which makes me wonder. What is irony?
Certainly, Skull would not regard his words as ironic. He
simply points out the facts. Irony has nothing to do with
coincidence. If Bloggs, a soccer player, gets transferred from
club A to club B, and then he scores a goal in a match against
club A, the kneejerk reaction is for commentators to say:
‘and ironically the scorer is Bloggs.’ There’s nothing ironic
about it. Bloggs did what he’s there to do. True irony
involves a double layer of meaning. Here’s an example from the time of
the Troubles in Ireland. A helicopter pilot told me he served in South Armagh, bandit country. The IRA tried hard to destroy the power lines between Eire and Ulster.
Finally they did it. Blew up the pylons. That was when they
discovered the electricity didn’t go from Eire to Ulster. It went from Ulster to Eire.
Or rather, it didn’t. And there’s the double layer of meaning. The IRA
succeeded in making an impressive explosion, but their own lights went
My thanks to Michael in North Carolina, to John in Missouri, and to all who wrote.
Readers Write #39 May 2015
The crashes that never were,
the Fortress that tried to fly backwards,
and Kaiser Bill's painful pranks.
In the filming of Piece of Cake,
the man in charge of the Spitfires and their pilots (the real pilots,
not the actors) was Robert Eagle, a most appropriate name. Many years
later, Robert has switched careers and now runs an art gallery.
We met up and he gave me a couple of items for this column. The
first involved two flying helmets. He’d had them made for Cake;
they were replicas of the original R.A.F. issue, complete with radio
headset components. They were worn during the filming, more
by actors than by pilots, so they are genuine parts of the
history of the production. When Robert offered them on
eBay, they attracted not only offers but also warm
memories, which is impressive when you consider that it’s 26
years since the TV series was shown. Brian, an ex-R.A.F. Aircraft
Technician, emailed that ‘it’s a fantastic production and has not
aged...the acting and the sets’ attention to detail are superb. I
particularly liked the inter-relationships between the
characters - it was so well written and
cast.’ eBay customers felt likewise. After some brisk
bidding, one helmet went to a buyer in Britain and the other to a
Norwegian enthusiast. Here’s a shot of Moggy Cattermole
(Neil Dudgeon) wearing the gear.
Then Robert told me how, in February, he was reading the Daily
Telegraph when he saw an obituary for Air Commodore Cooper, its
aviation correspondent for many years. Robert read on. At
the end, the obit said that, even in retirement, Cooper had supplied
the paper with aviation items, including (so the obit said) ‘the
revelation that several aircraft had crashed during the making of the
television series Piece of Cake.’
This surprised Robert. As flying producer, he, of all people, should
have known about crashes, and he knew there had been none.
Quick phone call to the obit editor at the Telegraph. The
man was extremely apologetic. The reference was immediately
deleted from the online edition. Well, every newspaper makes
mistakes. The trouble is that some readers remember the blunder
as if it were true. Not you and me. We know better.
Onwards. A year ago, Garth in New York had a flight in a
Canadian Lancaster over Niagara, and wrote to tell me how
memorable it was. Also deafening -
ear-muffs were essential. Now, thanks to the VE Day flypast over
Washington DC, he tracked down an airfield where flights were available
on a B-17 Flying Fortress, which he calls ‘the backbone of the US
8th Air Force’s campaign against Nazi Germany. Four engines,
twelve machine guns, three tons of bombs and ten men a long way from
home.’ Garth enjoyed ‘30 minutes of roaring, shaking
fury’ with freedom to wander anywhere except the tail gunner’s
position. He adds: ‘The famous Norden bombsight hangs in space just
inside the perspex nose, giving the bomb-aimer an extremely precarious
view of the world (probably terrifying if you imagine flying into a
flak barrage or onrushing enemy fighters).’ By comparison, he
found ‘the Lanc seemed more stable in the air but much
noisier - you can shout at each other in a Fort
and still be heard.’ Here’s his shot of the sharp end of the
B-17, with a good view of the perspex nose.
The artwork came about when a fighter pilot sideslipped under the
bomber from wingtip to wingtip and announced: “It’s like a
goddam aluminum overcast!” So that’s what they called it.
By coincidence, I came across a remarkable story in the journal
of the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust. When WW2 ended, a lot of
B-17s were available, and the Allison Division of General Motors
experimented by adding a turboprop engine and propeller to the nose of
a B-17. They hoped to boost the airspeed by an extra 100
mph. Bob Hoover, a test pilot, took the modified Fortress on a
test flight. An operator, sitting behind him, controlled the
turboprop console. At 5,000 feet, Bob told him: ‘Crank it up.’ He did,
and the B-17 slowed down. Bob gave more power to the four wing
engines, but the aircraft lost height. He shouted at
the operator to turn off the turboprop. By now the wing
engines were going flat out and still the B-17 was going
downhill. At 1500 feet, the operator managed to shut down the
turboprop. The B-17 recovered. Bob landed, the experts got
to work and soon discovered that the prop on the nose had been
installed in reverse. It had been dragging the B-17 back while its wing
engines tried (and failed) to pull it forward. The moral of the
story is - that’s why test pilots get the big
Here's a shot of the modified B-17.
Fast-backwards 101 years. My non-fiction book on the causes
of the Complicated Heroic Catastrophe otherwise known as World War
One, which I titled Why 1914?,
is still pulling in fans. Gunnar in Norway wrote: ‘Hey, I
wish we had had a book like this when I was in school.’ Norway, having
just gained independence in 1905, sat out the war as a
neutral. That meant Germans were free to travel through Norway to
Finland, while Finland - which had been a colony of
Russia - was fighting the Tsar for its freedom, when Russia
was, of course, an ally of France and Britain against Germany.
Hey, I told you it was complicated. Gunnar lent Why 1914? to a girlfriend from Finland. It would be interesting to know what she made of it all.
John in Colorado reckons that ‘Why 1914?
was the most informative book I’ve read on the cause of any war’,
which is not bad going for a slim volume of 200 pages. What
surprised and amused him was the Kaiser’s cockeyed meddling in affairs
of state. The man’s incurable taste for mild sadism didn’t help.
He liked smacking men on the bottom, quite hard. Show him a plump
rump and he smacked it, no matter who was watching. This was bad
enough when the victim was a Prussian Minister of State or an
admiral, but the Kaiser couldn’t resist spanking a visiting monarch,
which was not good for Germany’s foreign policy. I’m not
complaining. There’s a lot of Kaiser Bill’s funny ways in Why 1914? It’s hard to imagine WW1 without him.
Flying was hazardous in WW2, with or without flak and fighters, and Ron in Essex wrote to thank me for Damned Good Show, which does for Bomber Command what Cake did
for the fighters. His father, a rear-gunner in a Wellington, was
killed in 1944 when the aircraft was returning from a
photo-reconnaissance mission, lost an engine and crashed. ‘Your
novel has put flesh on the bare bones of the Air Ministry report,’ he
wrote. He’s now reading A Good Clean Fight.
‘I’m impressed with the research you must have done to get the small
details right. For example, Malplacket seeing Evelyn Waugh at a
party in Cairo and wanting him for a cricket team; according to
Waugh’s diaries, he was in Egypt at that time. Next on my list is Piece of Cake.’
Which I hope he likes, but every novel is a gamble. Simon, somewhere in the UK, first read Cake when
he was 21: ‘It blew me away, the humour had me in fits regularly, and
I’ve read it 5 times since then.’ He moved on toAGCF and was disappointed - ‘I expected a sequel to POC (I really miss CH3). A sequel it is not.’ But later he went back and re-read AGCF and
found ‘some fantastic observations of human behaviour in war and times
of great stress and pressure. Some of the aerial combat scenes
are as vivid as ever... I enjoyed it immensely, was very sad when it
was finished.’ Next he’ll read Kentucky Blues
- another standalone novel. Michael in
Alexandria, Virginia (he’s read all my flying stuff) asked about
goshawks and Woolley. He’d come across descriptions of the bird
- ‘visceral, feral and very well phrased - amazingly
evocative of Stanley Woolley.’ Why did I choose the bird and name
the character? Simple. Goshawk, small but fast, seemed
appropriate and was available (no other squadron had adopted it), and I
chose the name Woolley because it sounds unheroic and unromantic, just
like the man himself. Finally, an email from Gerald, who served
in the R.A.F. as a wireless operator in HQ Bomber Command at the time
when the Vulcan nuclear attack bombers were operating. ‘I greatly
enjoyed Hullo Russia, Goodbye England,’
he said. It took him back to ‘regular exercises where we prepared
to rain nuclear death on millions of Russians - and all
facilitated by Samuel Morse’s 19th-century signal code.’ If the
exercises had become reality, he believes ‘the planes would have got
there’ and attacked Russia. I’m not so sure. With no
England to return to, would the Vulcan crews have flown a suicide
mission? That question, of course, is whatHRGE is all about.
My thanks to all who wrote.
Previous Readers Write
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 andFrance 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?: “...an 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 neutralBelgium 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 Vosgesmountains, which he first encountered in Cake. So he bought the Kindle edition, scanned it for references toAlsace 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
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.
Readers Write #41 November 2015
The galloping submarine,
Skull's desert wear,
a left-handed Cake
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.
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,’
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
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 Cakeand 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.
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.
Previous Readers Write
Readers Write #42 Jamuary 2016
Trust nobody, that's my motto,
with a gong for Gunnar
and rocket-firing long before the Typhoons.
sometimes ask me why I don’t write plays or movie scripts, seeing as I have
something of a gift for dialogue. (It wasn’t a total gift. I worked on it
for many years, writing everything from radio commercials to magazine
articles. I churned out two disastrous and unpublishable novels, which at
least showed me how not to write. Goshawk Squadron was one of those overnight
successes that had twenty years’ apprenticeship behind it.)
trouble with scripts for plays and films is they’re not stories, they’re
blueprints. They need producers, directors, actors to bring them to life,
and often that life turns out to be not what the writer intended.
That’s too bad, and also too late. Once you’ve signed on the dotted
line, the production takes over and its momentum is unstoppable. That’s
not for me. I was born suspicious. I don’t trust anyone. No,
that’s not entirely true - I have to trust the reader,
because I rely on readers to do half the work, they picture the characters,
they identify with the conflict, they laugh (or maybe don’t) at the
jokes. That leaves me free to tell the story. As someone said,
there are no heroes in my novels and rarely any happy endings. Which may
explain why Piece of Cake is my only novel to get on the screen.
didn’t write the screenplay. Leon Griffiths, a very talented writer for
television, did that. He reckoned that, even with six episodes, each of
50 minutes, the Cake series used only a fraction of the book. He
concentrated on the spine, the essential elements in the novel. But
none of that spine could have existed unless I had been free to relate all the
wealth of detail as the squadron operated in the first twelve months of the
war. Which brings us full circle. I write novels
because nobody interferes. If the book succeeds, good for me; if it
flops, I’m the only one to blame. Has it been worth it? Well, I’ve made a
living. Read on, and you’ll see there are other rewards.
Erickson lives in Sweden,
and he’s probably my biggest fan in all of Scandinavia.
He wrote to me: “I have read all your books about the RFC quartet and the
RAF quartet.” That’s eight novels, some of them pretty hefty.
He’s also read Kramer’s War, Kentucky Blues, and three non-fiction books:
Invasion 1940 (the truth about the Battle of Britain), Why 1914? (how Europe stumbled into disaster), and Just Testing, a book
I wrote long ago about the British nuclear tests in the Pacific. Now he’s
heard about the Luis Cabrillo series. Cabrillo was inspired by the true
story of a man codenamed Garbo, arguably the biggest and best double-agent in
WW2. I introduced Cabrillo in The Eldorado Network, which went down well,
so over the years I wrote three sequels. (Postwar, Cabrillo applies his
double-agent skills to the gentle art of con artistry across the US.)
to Gunnar. “If you would send me all four books, I would be most
happy. I have more time now as I no longer drive a logtruck. Doctor said
shift-work is not good for me. And I would be most grateful if you would sign
course I’ll send the Cabrillo quartet. How many logtruck drivers in England can
write emails in Swedish? And read novels in another language? I’m
impressed. Authors like me need readers like Gunnar.
thousand miles away (or more) is Eric Driver, in New
Zealand, which is home to Sir Peter
Jackson, the man who has produced a whole slew of Hollywood
blockbusters and who has a collection of WW1 aircraft at the Omaka Aviation
Heritage Centre. This may explain why someone has written on a website
(‘the aerodrome.com’) to say what a great 10-part miniseries Hornet’s Sting
would make. Well, I own the screen rights, so all that’s needed is several
truckloads of money. When he’s not reading the Luis Cabrillo books, Eric
is “in the process of building (with the help of others) a Nieuport 16 replica
in the colours of the Imperial Russian Air Force, enhanced with some delightful
pictures of ‘nose art’ used at the time, and fitted with dummy Le Prieur
rockets...” And here it is.
artwork on the side is taken from an Italian painting entitled ‘The Sleeping
Venus’. (The Russians liked to show off their artistic skills.) Those
rockets are an authentic detail. Nieuport 16s had them as early as 1916,
and when Zeppelins began raiding England, Home Defence Squadrons of
BE2c and BE12 aircraft were armed with up to ten rockets. No record of a
Zeppelin being attacked with rockets, let alone destroyed, which is not
surprising: the BE12 took half an hour to climb to 10,000 feet, and by
then the enemy would have moved on. As you can see, the Nieuport 16 is a tiny
machine, with a 110 hp Le Rhone engine, and the extra weight of rockets can’t
have helped. It was Lt Albert Ball’s favourite aeroplane, and he
made many kills with it - but not by firing rockets.
it comes to aircraft design, everything depends on the powerplant. Most
WW1 designs were biplanes because the output of the engine was such that one
wing couldn’t generate enough lift. (You could always lengthen the wing
and mount two engines on it, but that created new problems, mainly
weight.) By the 1930s, engines had a lot more poke but fighter aircraft
were still biplanes, and if you were to peel off the fabric you’d see
that the framework was very reminiscent of WW1 machines. Ed Storo (somewhere
in the US, I suspect) is
building a replica Bristol Bulldog, backbone of Britain’s fighter defence from 1929
to 1936. (“Soooo many parts,” he writes. “Nobody told me there would be this
many!”) See for yourself.
news from Oliver in Tamworth: “I’m really
enjoying Piece of Cake - very good indeed.” He wears a 1943
RAF Omega (6B/159) wristwatch, so accurate that aircrew used it for
dead-reckoning purposes. His collection of aircrew watches includes a 1953
Omega “Fat Arrow”, as used in the V bombers of the 50s and 60s. “These
were made to such demanding spec that the cost was a bit more than the R.A.F.
were prepared for. The government asked for a better price, Omega refused to
compromise, so the MoD had all the WW2 1940s 6B watches (Omegas and Longines)
recalled or brought out of stores and re-cased by Dennison in
Birmingham - the so-called ‘56 Re-cases’.” Oliver
reckons “they’re nice, too, but primitive compared with this” - by which he
means his 1943 model: “Blued steel hands that catch the light like a
kingfisher.” That’s the historical background. His 1943 watch is
for sale. Very rare item, and the price reflects this. If you’re
interested, email me on email@example.com and I’ll put you in touch with
him. (Note: I have no part in any transaction. I’m just the
go-between.) Here’s the watch:
Finally, a literary ricochet. Mike, who is in
military, tells me: “Your technique of starting each chapter of Goshawk
Squadron with a level of the Beaufort Scale really stuck with me...In the early
90s, I wrote a high-level US Army doctrinal publication, FM 100-8, The Army in
Multinational Operations. I began each chapter with quotations. I caught
a lot of flak from Colonels and, so far as I knew then, it was the only FM
written that way...So, you can say that you’ve influenced US Army doctrine...”
More strength to your elbow, Mike. My distant memory of military protocol is
that when I began my National Service with the R.A.F., the first order I got
amounted to ‘Go forth and multiply’. That’s certainly what it
implied. They speak a different language in the military
Readers Write #43 May 2016
The hazards of fiction,
‘Why 1914?’ rides again,
and a big polar bear in Detroit.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
sometimes my stuff prompts a reader to write a book. Margaret, somewhere in the
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
something to revel in: a Spitfire in flight, so close and so clear you
feel you can reach out and touch it.
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.
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
All the pix shown here are in a book, Spitfire
- The Legend Lives On - published by
My thanks to all who wrote.
Readers Write #45 September 2016
Luck, good and bad,
Eye-opener in Fiji,
And another blunder for the hit list.
sometimes thought of writing a book about the influence of luck on
war. Paddy Ashdown (who was in the SAS) once said: “The
first casualty of war is not the truth. It’s the plan.”
Given the violence of combat and the way it can make nonsense of
detailed plans, it’s likely that some of these unforeseen casualties
will be labelled as good luck by one side and bad luck by their
enemy. Sometimes what looks like luck turns out to change the
course of war. Norway was an example.
Hitler invaded Norway on
15 April 1940. Admiral Donitz, commanding German submarines, sent 31
U-boats to protect the invasion against British warships. On 17
April he ordered them to return home. His U-boats had made 43 attacks
on British warships and transports. All failed. German
torpedoes were to blame: they were useless. Meanwhile, the
Royal Navy sank half of Germany’s destroyers in the fjords.
but the naval events (or non-events) made a huge
difference. Five months later, Hitler cancelled Operation Sealion, his
plan to invade England by
sea. It was a wise move: the Norwegian campaign had
disarmed his submarines and sunk so many of his destroyers that the
Royal Navy (ten times stronger than the German navy) would have
battered an invasion fleet (mainly river barges) to death. (All
this is in my non-fiction book Invasion 1940.)
Then there was the Falklands war
of 1982. The British fleet had a screen of RN frigates and destroyers
to guard the big warships. Much has been written about Exocet
missiles, but Argentine Skyhawk A4Bs carried bombs. They flew
very low, arrived at high speed and bombed many ships in the screen.
The bombs failed to explode. Their fuses had been wrongly set.
Later, Argentine pilots reckoned that, with the right bombs, they would
have sunk 8 or 10 British ships. Without that stroke of luck, the Falklands war might have had a different ending.
Lastly, a little-known fact about the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.
The worst statistic from that day was that more than three thousand
people were killed. Their loss had a huge impact on many lives.
Much later, it was realised that one third of the Frequent Flyers on
Concorde had died in the attack
- many bankers and financial leaders had offices in
the Twin Towers.
By then, Concorde was running out of time and there were good arguments
for retiring the airliner. The 9/11 statistic didn’t help. Luck
had thrown a spanner in the works.
There’s a lot of luck in publishing too, and Shannon (now living in Chicago) is a case in point. He writes: “I first read Piece of Cake in 1984. I was 13 years old and living in Fiji as
a child of Australian teachers... The book made a deep, lasting
impression, and for years I’ve been trying to find ‘that
fantastic WW2 RAF book’ because, of course, I didn’t remember the name
or the author’s name!” Thirty-one years passed, and then:
“I stumbled across Goshawk Squadron.
About halfway through I thought: this has to be the guy who wrote that
other book, and of course I started digging and it was/is.”
the Australian Army in 1994. “My service taught me that the ‘world in
arms’ you painted so vividly - the cynicism,
the black humor, the ever-so-slightly-dysfunctional
camaraderie - was in every way real and
true. Not sure I would have coped quite so well without your
help. So let me simply say thank you. I strongly feel that Piece of Cake,
while possibly too ‘old’ for a boy of 13, prepared me in very important
ways for adult life. Fiction is often more ‘true’ than
One of the surprises of writing is the discovery that a book has
travelled far and influenced lives. Another reader in America,
J.P.M. in Connecticut (“Have been a fan for decades”)
ordered copies of A Good Clean Fight, Operation Bamboozle and Why 1914? “Keep on writing,” he urged. And Kieran in Buckinghamshire emailed me: “I have just read Goshawk Squadron after
more than 20 years and enjoyed it even more this time around... your
books recreate the merciless, raw and terrifying experience those young
men went through better than anyone else, in my opinion. And they
are hugely entertaining!” And he too ordered a copy of Why 1914?.
Which made me wonder why there is ongoing interest in this short (200
pages) book. Maybe it’s because the torrent of thick
volumes on the Great War have stimulated a question that they failed to
answer. Why did the catastrophe happen?
At the start of Why 1914? I quoted what Liddell Hart, a respected military historian, wrote in 1930. His History of the World War said: “Fifty years were spent in the process of making Europe explosive.
Five days were enough to detonate it.” That’s a slick, memorable
opinion, and I don’t think it gets anywhere near the truth. What
do Hart’s words mean? Exactly who made Europe explosive? Why? Who detonated Europe in
five days? How? (Why not a month?) Liddell
Hart’s statement suggests a purpose that did not exist. Only a
maniac would plan a suicidal disaster; only a lunatic would make
it happen. So what caused the Great War? Some say Europe sleep-walked
into it, but in every capital there were cheering crowds who
welcomed its announcement. Each of the combatant nations
confidently expected the impossible: a short war, a quick victory
and buckets of honour and glory. What everyone
knows - that Gavrilo Princip
triggered the slaughter when he assassinated the Archduke Franz
Ferdinand in Sarajevo
- is total fallacy. (Political murder in the Balkans
was commonplace; Princip had not the slightest intention of starting a
war.) And if you want to know more.... read the book. Eight
quid including postage in the UK. Email me on: firstname.lastname@example.org
more on my hit list of blunders by TV and movie directors. In the
last RW, I condemned the practice of filming corpses with
their mouths firmly shut, and of cops who get into a house with a
single painless kick. (In one of Raymond Chandler’s books,
his private eye Philip Marlowe tries to kick a locked door in, and
fails. “I should have known better,” Marlowe said. “The
front door is about the only part of a Los Angeles house
that you can’t put your foot through.”) What now
irritates me is the routine scene that’s shot from in front of a car’s
windscreen so that the driver and his passenger can exchange
dialogue. The car, of course, is being towed. It’s hooked onto a
camera truck, its front wheels are off the ground, and the driver is
pretending to steer - and he
usually oversteers, just to show us dummies that he’s in
charge. It looks ridiculous. Unless he’s cornering, a real
driver just nudges the wheel from time to time. Actors don’t
nudge, they manhandle the wheel as if they’re slaloming through a
chicane. I’ve seen movies where they guy swings the wheels so
dramatically that, in real life, that car would have been ricocheting
off both kerbs. All that carefully written and rehearsed
dialogue is lost on me. I’m waiting for the inevitable
collision. Moral: It’s time directors grew up and realised
that less is more.
Last word: I’ve finished another novel. It’s called Holy Smoke and it’s a heartwarming comedy of deceit, deception, power-seeking and revenge set in the liberated Rome of 1944. Should be out next year. Watch this space.
My thanks to all who wrote.
Readers Write #46 November 2016
Bats in the bomb bay,
crashed in the bush,
and Garbo in jail (maybe).
may be stranger than fiction, but writers like me learn to handle it
carefully. Something can be totally true and yet unbelievable to
the punter. Bizarre things happened in WW2, for instance. One
night in England, an RAF pilot named Warren took off in a Whitley bomber to raid a German airfield in Holland. Foul weather rubbished their navigation, they mistook the Thames for the Rhine,
and bombed the runway of an RAF fighter field in
Cambridgeshire. Nobody hurt, not much damage. Thereafter
the pilot was known in the mess as Baron von Warren. Supposing
I’d used that incident in a novel, would it be acceptable?
Probably not. Yet worse things happened. In July 1943, a U.S.
Army Air Force plane, sent to drop practice bombs on a training range,
bombed Boise City, Oklahoma instead. Hit a church and a garage; no casualties. In the Blitz of 1940-41, Luftwaffe bombers twice bombed Dublin, mistaking it for Belfast, even though Dublin, being neutral, was lit up. In November 1943, in the Atlantic, a U.S. destroyer accidentally fired a torpedo at the U.S. battleship Iowa,
which was carrying President Roosevelt and several high-ranking
generals to the Terheran Conference. The torpedo exploded with an
enormous bang, well astern of the Iowa.
But if it had hit... No, not acceptable. True, but not credible. How
about the secret leaflets, a contradiction in terms? RAF
Bomber Command dropped millions of them over Germany,
yet the aircrews were strictly forbidden to read them. Even their
boss, ‘Bomber’ Harris, wasn’t allowed to know what millions of Germans
were reading. Idiotic but true. Credible? Just about.
I took a chance and included it in Damned Good Show. Then there were the incendiary bats.
I came across them when I was researching my new novel, Holy Smoke (out next year). It involves the wartime American intelligence service, the OSS, and its curious idea of recruiting bats to burn down Tokyo. Much later I heard from Richard Snow, a talented military historian in New York. He told me the remarkable background to the project:
discovered that you could freeze a bat and then thaw it again with no
evident harm to the bat. Leaping from this to the fact that many
Japanese buildings were made of paper, some scientist came up with a
foolproof idea. Freeze a bunch of bats, wire tiny incendiary
devices to their feet, and drop them from a high-altitude plane. “Bats
away!” As they fell through the warming atmosphere they would
revive and, with the gimcrack buildings of Tokyo rushing up beneath, fly into them for shelter and there ignite a firestorm.
This loony project was put to the test at an Arizona Air
Force base, and it worked. That is, the bats did revive, but
their subsequent actions were less satisfactory. One flew into the
Packard belonging to the general observing the exercise, burst
into flames right on schedule, and destroyed the car. That
brought an end to the experiment.'
It seems there is no limit to what some people will believe. In WW1,
large numbers of sober, intelligent English folk believed that a
Russian army had been rushed across England by train, the proof being
that someone had identified them by ‘the snow on their boots’.
People today still believe in ‘the Angel of Mons’, a supposedly divine
apparition that allegedly saved the British army during its retreat in
1914. If you want the truth about these (and other) myths, read my narrative history, Why 1914? Only £8 post-paid in the UK. Email me at: email@example.com
The really big question, of course, is what caused the
catastrophe? I offer some answers. Steve in Middlesex, Philip in London, Wayne in New Zealand, and Leigh in Ohio, each recently bought copies.
So did Liam in Darwin, Northern Australia (who
has used the book when teaching senior high school history). He
tells me the story of a rescued Spitfire pilot in a corner of the world
usually overlooked by military historians: the Japanese attack in
1942 when 242 bombers raided Darwin.
The city was lightly defended; the attack sank 3 warships and 6
merchant vessels in the harbour. This was the first of 97
air raids on Australia.
Soon afterward, Flight Sergeant Colin Duncan arrived from England to join an RAAF Spitfire squadron in Northern Australia.
They saw a lot of combat. They were intercepting a Japanese raid when
his Spitfire’s engine caught fire. He baled out of the burning
cockpit and landed in what is now Litchfield National Park.
The escape might have killed him. Litchfield is vast: it covers
about 1500 square kilometres. The temperature gets up to 50
degrees. Liam knows it well: “It’s stunningly beautiful but
hot, harsh and unrelenting. Surviving a crash here would be only the
start of one’s survival ordeal.”
lucky: other Spitfire pilots had seen him fall and they dropped
some supplies. Even so, rescuers took five days to reach
him, and the wreckage of his Spitfire wasn’t found until
2016. Here’s what it looked like:
Liam has read my Desert Air Force story A Good Clean Fight, and he writes: “Your description of the heat, the isolation and the stench of the pilots in North Africa translates
to these poor guys as well....Imagine if no-one had spotted his
chute... He’d have died within days, and he’d be another pilot
whose fate we could only guess at.”
From Oz to Holland,
where Robert - once the intelligence officer on
a U.S. Orion squadron - writes to say my RAF quartet (he’s
just read Piece of Cake for
the fourth time) rings true for him. “The combination of
historical accuracy, humor and just plain good writing reminds me of
Evelyn Waugh.” (For my money, Waugh was the master of English
fiction.) My experience is that fighter pilots everywhere
take nothing seriously except flying. Cake is
a serious novel about the first twelve months of WW2, but humour
is an essential colour in the spectrum. Robert writes of the
“many moments that my wife looked quizzically at me when I laughed out
loud, which happened a lot in the messroom backchat scenes.” But
his favourite moment is when, at the height of the Battle for France,
the pilots get a meal at a French cafe and the owner refuses
money, saying the bill is far less than the debt he owes the squadron.
“Moves me deeply,” Bob says.
Not all my stuff is about aircraft, and Steve in Oxford liked
my “highly entertaining four-volume romp through the life of Luis
Cabrillo”. I based Luis on the double-agent codenamed Garbo,
arguably the best con artist of WW2; he certainly fooled German
intelligence superbly. Recently, BBC News splashed what they said
was a scoop about finding secret MI5 files that revealed how Garbo’s
wife threatened to expose him, and his handlers had to scare her into
silence by pretending to jail him. But it wasn’t a scoop. The story was
sixteen years old. The whole incident was told in a book about
Garbo, published by the Public Record Office at Kew,
in the year 2000. I know, because it’s on my bookshelf. Well,
maybe it was a slow news day. Or maybe nobody at BBC News reads
word: I urge movie directors to stop making an actor take his hat
off at a moment of high drama. If it’s meant to indicate how
surprised the guy is, it fails. I saw a film about
Krakatoa. Local fisherman were on the island when the volcano
exploded, and one immediately took his hat off. Not a wise move
when lumps of hot lava were falling all around him.
My thanks to all who wrote.
Readers Write #47 January 2017
Inscrutably yours, Tokyo,
books as big as bricks.
and Casablanca, Bertie Wooster and Spike Milligan.
Let’s start with a test. Here’s your question: Which nation was Japan’s
major opponent in World War Two? United States,
obviously. A year ago, that’s what I would have said.
Recently, I discovered that, for most of that war, the Japanese
military treated China as their major battlefield. They had been trying to conquer China since
1932; more Japanese divisions were fighting there than anywhere
else. It was only when American troops captured theisland of Saipan, which had an airfield from which B-29 Fortresses could bomb the mainland, that the raids on Tokyomade the Japanese generals reluctantly recognise that America was a superpower which, with Britain in Burma andAustralia in Papua-New Guinea, was turning the tables.
But from 1941 to 1944, Japan thought she had more to lose in China. Russia had a neutrality pact with Japan, and in 1944 there was even talk of a Japanese invasion of Soviet Manchuria, while Russia was still pre-occupied with fighting Germany. It came to nothing, but - as Wellington said
- in war it pays to know what is on the other side of the
hill; that is, what the enemy is thinking. If the Allies had
realised that Japan could easily pull its armies out ofChina for the defence of the mainland, the prospect of an invasion of Japan would have been fearsome. As it happened, of course, things turned out differently.
might be said that Japanese leaders were suffering from wishful
thinking. There is a lot of that stuff in war. In 1941,
when Air Ministry planners assumed that RAF Bomber Command’s raids
would panic the German public; in 1941, when Hitler ordered the
invasion of Russia without winter clothing; in 1942, when
Mussolini shipped his white horse to North Africa in readiness for a
victory parade in Cairo; in late 1944, when U.S. generals assumed
that the German army was no longer capable of an offensive, only to be
hit by the Battle of the Bulge - all were
guilty of wishful thinking.
Enough of that. From the sublime to the gorblimey... The new novel, Holy Smoke,
is now being prepared for the printer. With luck, copies will be
available in a couple of months - watch this
space. (If you wish to book a copy, email me on firstname.lastname@example.org).
Meanwhile, encouraging messages arrive from readers. It’s always
good to hear from a fellow-author, and Tony Park writes from Australia. He’s just re-read Goshawk Squadron:
“I loved the mix of fact, humour and history in your books, and I look
forward to tracking down those I haven’t read.” He adds:
“It was writers such as yourself who inspired me to give it a
go.” His 14th novel comes out this year, so he
made the right decision, Hamilton, in Texas, having watched the DVD of the Piece of Cake series,
bought the book and found “that it’s even more engrossing than
the DVD...I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the RAF Quartet,
and then it’s the RFC trilogy. And, with luck, Why 1914?” Benjamin, in Victoria, Australia, also got a kick out of Cake, especially as his grandfather flew Spitfires in France and Kittyhawks in Papua New Guinea in
WW2. Ben bought the entire RAF Quartet, signed by me, as a birthday
gift for his father (and a salute to his grandfather).
on: here’s a caveat. Novels are a matter of taste, like
fruit: I like apples, you like pears. It’s always
dangerous to recommend a novel; the other person may find it
unreadable. No book is for everybody. OK, now that
we’ve cleared the decks, here comes a broadside. I find
that many of the current batch of novels are unreadable. Often I go
back to re-reading novelists who may be dead but were fine
craftsmen when they lived. Many contemporary authors haven’t
taken time to learn their craft, and too many of them seem to
feel that a novel that’s 600 pages long must be twice as good as one
that calls a halt at 300 pages; what’s more, it’s even better if
it hits 700 or 800. Drop a book like that and you could break a
toe. It’s especially dangerous with thrillers, action stories,
detective fiction, where what is essential is pace. I’ve
just dumped a 623-page whodunnit - highly
praised by the quality press on three continents
- because its pace was so sluggish that by page 119 I was
struck down with narcolepsy and the tome slid from my nerveless
fingers. Also the plot had more holes than Swiss cheese. It was
written by one of those authors who can’t pick up a phone without
telling us that he put it down again. Don’t publishers have
editors any more? That novel cried out for a bucket of red ink.
By contrast, here’s some good news. Dogs are smarter than we are. Tony, an old friend of mine, told me about his boyhood days in London,
in 1944, when V1 doodlebugs were blowing up houses. (If you
don’t know what a doodlebug was, ask your Dad.) Tony’s family had
a dog. After a doodlebug exploded nearby, the dog became
restless and whimpered, often 20 minutes before any V1 could be
heard. That dog was so accurate that the family believed his warnings
and took shelter. Amazing. But there’s more. A week
later, I read about Gunner, a dog that was rescued from a bombed
building in Darwin, North Australia, after a Japanese air raid. (Darwin got
raided a lot; you may remember Liam’s story, in the last RW, of a
rescued Spitfire pilot.) Gunner was another canine early
warning system. He became agitated, whining and jumping at his
master, long before anyone detected approaching Japanese
bombers. Gunner knew they were coming twenty minutes before they
arrived. He was so reliable that the commander of Darwin air
force base gave his owner a portable air-raid siren. There were 60-plus
raids in 1942-43, and Gunner did his stuff almost every time. He
saved a lot of lives. Man’s best friend.
Lastly, here’s a couple of oddities I found in my research. (1) When the German army planned the Battle of
the Bulge in 1944, one of their tricks was to infiltrate soldiers in
American uniform, driving captured jeeps, whose task was to spread
panic and confusion behind the Allied lines. Americans and
Germans had different ways of holding a cigarette, so the men were
coached in the right manner by watching the movie Casablanca. Strange
but true. (2) Malcolm Muggeridge (who served with British
Intelligence) wrote of one example of an authentic contribution
by P.G.Wodehouse to the war effort. It involved the Abwehr’s efforts to
get spies into Britain:
“The Germans, in their literal way, took his works as a guide to
English manners, and actually dropped an agent in the Fen country
wearing spats.” Spike
Milligan would have enjoyed that. I miss him, if only because, in
his last years, he said: “I want to go to heaven, but if Geoffrey
Archer is there, I want to go to Lewisham.”
Readers Write #48 April 2017
and the Mystery of the Bone-dry Brolly
Journalism, so it’s said, is the first rough draft of history. But
it was a journalist who said that, and sometimes what is printed in
those first rough drafts develops a life of its own, even when it’s
untrue. The Times is one of the few newspapers that - to its credit - publishes corrections of its misreportings, and
occasionally the Old Thunderer gets caught out by somebody else’s
blunders. Recently it wrote about an American financier who (it said)
had, in 2014, bought a house in Los Angeles for
$102 million; and it then had to apologise because, back in 2014,
someone had invented the purchase. The American never bought the house.
Every news medium should be so honest, starting with the BBC. Nothing makes a journo check his facts more carefully than being exposed on his own front door. Yet the question remains - how many people read the correction? How many still believe the first story? There
is something to be said for printing the correction in the same
type-size and in the same place on the page as the original
War, of course, is a great creator of fake news. A
reporter on a quality newspaper once asked my opinion on a story he’d
come across, about an RAF pilot in WW2 who allegedly stole a Hurricane
fighter and flew it to a Luftwaffe airfield in Belgium. I gave him four reasons why it was full of holes, starting with the claim that he flew it right across Belgium instead
of putting it down on the first airfield he saw. The reporter spiked
the story. If I’d told him it was a hell of a scoop, would he have
printed it? I wonder.
Often time is a factor; for newspapers, tomorrow is too late. But journalists can be sloppy. I
was the defendant in a longrunning lawsuit when the Sunday Times ran a
big piece, with colour photographs, about the plaintiff’s having to
sell her late husband’s medals in order to finance the action. No
mention of the fact that she had the benefit of Legal Aid, so there
were no legal bills for her to pay. The reporter missed a trick there. (Eventually, I won the case; no mention of that in the Sunday Times, either.) So much for junk. But, once in a while, the truth comes out, and newspapers get it right. Take the story of the umbrella man in Dallas, caught on film when Kennedy was assassinated.
The man put up his umbrella as the motorcade was passing. Why? It was a clear, dry day. Was it a signal to the gunman? The umbrella man must be a suspect. Nobody could trace him. That looked bad, too. Then,
15 years later, somebody did. The truth came out. The umbrella was a
political gesture, meant to remind Jack Kennedy that his father, when
he was ambassador to Britain, supported the Munich agreement with Hitler. Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella symbolised appeasement. It was a joke, not a conspiracy.
Another joke was the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) at the outbreak of WW2. SIS operated agents in Holland, which was neutral. One of them was, in fact a double agent, working for the Gestapo. Two SIS officers in the Hague,
Captain Sigismund Best and Major Richard Stevens, ran the agents. One
day, they drove to the border, expecting to meet a German general who
was opposed to Hitler, and were kidnapped at gunpoint by German agents. They
spilled the beans about their operations and spent the rest of the war
in a prison camp. Not surprisingly, the reputation of SIS plummeted,
especially when it emerged that Sigismund Best, who wore spats and a
monocle, had invented thirteen of the sub-agents which he had claimed
to be running. They were fictitious. Their expenses ended up in Best’s pocket. (Later, when Rudolf Hess parachuted into Scotland, SIS was in such bad odour that the government refused to let it question the prisoner.) When I wrote The Eldorado Network, which was based on the activities of Garbo, probably the Allies’ best double agent in WW2, I created a whole raft of non-existent sub-agents, all paid by German Intelligence. Now I can see that Garbo was merely carrying on a fine old tradition in the espionage game.
Onwards. It’s always a pleasure to hear from a feminine fan, and Meredith in South Australia writes that she has “greatly enjoyed all your novels since I first discovered War Story some years ago.. . Thank you for many, many hours of enjoyable reading and re-reading...” A small thing that has puzzled her is the reference to Mackenzie’s cane chair in Hornet’s Sting.
Aircraft cockpits in WW1 had no purpose-built furniture; cane
chairs for the pilot were lightweight, simple and cheap. Also handy in
a two-seater for swapping cockpits in mid-air, one of the batty ways
aircrews amused themselves.
Another longtime fan is Adam in Wisconsin. “You are a damn good writer and write damn good books.” No ifs or buts there. “Please keep them coming.” Well, Holy Smoke is now blowing in the wind. Wayne, in Bethlehem, New Zealand, enjoyed Why 1914? (“What a fantastic narrative”) and is deep into a new Cake, his first copy having been half-inched by a pal. Michael, an old friend in Virginia who used to read my stuff when he was off-duty in Afghanistan, has begun a memoir of his experiences there. He also researched the aircraft used by US Navy carriers, and found a sporty little scout plane called - surprise, surprise - Goshawk. It’s in an air museum in Pensacola, Florida. Here is a small picture of it:
A larger photo and more details at: http://www.navalaviationmuseum.org/attractions/aircraft-exhibits/item/?item=bfc-2_goshawk
Readers Write #49 May 2017
Hello Hitler, goodbye Britain?
the SE5a flies again,
and the glider-bomb is late again.
thinking leads to bad writing, just as lazy writing points to a
bungalow mentality: nothing upstairs. There are world leaders who
sometimes rush into print and reveal that their ability to handle words
is that of a not-too-bright ten-year-old. Churchill had greater
respect for the English language. After the British army’s escape
he told the House of Commons: “The whole fury and might of the enemy
must very soon be turned upon us. Hitler knows he will have to break us
in this island or lose the war.”
weasel-words there. No spin-doctoring. Churchill did not
say - as so many politicians instinctively
do - “We must address the issue.” (Which means
nothing at all.) He told the truth. We could do with
politicians today who tell us, not what they think we want to hear, but
the hard truth, no matter how unpleasant. Back in 1940, the grim
prospect was Hitler’s plan to destroy a free and independent Britain. Was he serious? In 1945, the contents of the German embassy in London were auctioned. They included four large swastika flags, each embroidered with the name of a part of London:
north, south, east, west. The embassy had been holding them in
readiness for the German HQs which would govern those areas
- preparations that had been made long before war broke
Anyone who still thinks invasion was just one of Hitler’s daydreams
should read SS General Schellenberg’s Invasion Plan. Recently,
the BBC showed a television drama called SS-GB (about a German-occupied Britain).
Compared with General Schellenberg’s plan it looked like
candyfloss. The drama got a lot of flak because the actors
mumbled. Schellenberg never mumbled. His plan was a detailed and
thorough blueprint for the total occupation and exploitation of Britain.
All opposition would be suppressed, which meant killed.
Everything useful would be seized, men of working age deported as slave
labour, and six death squads (Einsatzgruppen, soon to be
notorious in Russia) would liquidate unwanted elements, such as the
300,000 Jews. Then there was the Special Wanted List of Names.
Schellenberg identified 2,820 prominent men and women to be eliminated.
Politicians and journalists, obviously, but also actors, film
directors, singers, musicians, authors. Peter Ustinov’s father
was on the list; also Paul Robeson, Paderevski, the cartoonist David
Low, Bertrand Russell, Robert Baden-Powell, Sigmund Freud, Jacob
Epstein. Noel Coward and Rebecca West were there too; after
the war she wrote to him: “My dear, the people we should have
been seen dead with.”
is a relief to turn to Operation Sealion, codename for Hitler’s planned
invasion, and read that it was to be ‘a surprise crossing’ of the
Channel. The reality was that, by the time his invasion fleet was ready
to sail, there was no possible surprise. The Royal Navy was ready to
smash and sink the slow armada of river barges. (My Invasion 1940 gives
full details.) To pretend that it could be a surprise
crossing was lazy thinking. Hitler had a fatal habit of believing
that by saying something, he made it happen. He sent his troops to
conquer Russia without winter clothing. Sloppy.
Which brings me to Nick Garton’s new book on the WW1 fighter, the SE5
and its many variants. This book is the reverse of sloppy.
It’s a hardback, 160 pages, superbly illustrated (many in colour),
brilliantly researched and written with the utmost clarity. Here’s a
taste of the pix:
Nick tells us everything about the design, building and combat flying
of the SE5, including many things you would never imagine. Its airframe
was wood - Douglas fir and Sitka spruce,
well seasoned. He demolishes the notion that RFC aircraft were
just string and canvas; the SE5’s fabric was Irish linen, and
Henry Folland used a windtunnel to help his design. Nick profiles
Frank Goodden, the test pilot who made an immense contribution to the
machine, until in January 1917 he put an SE5 through its paces, the
port wing collapsed, and Goodden was killed -
which led to a redesign of the wing and the survival of many future RFC
pilots. Nick’s book is called an ‘Owner’s Workshop Manual’,
but don’t be fooled: it’s full of gems, from a photograph of
Albert Ball’s SE5 windscreen with a bullethole in the middle, to an
appendix that gives the recipe for the plum cake that Ball’s mother
used to send to France.
And - surprise, surprise - there’s an interview with me, all about Goshawk Squadron,
which Nick says inspired his book and ‘was a novel that changed popular
perceptions about World War One for good’. He quotes my reason
for equipping the squadron with the SE5a rather than the Sopwith
Camel. It was ‘the same reason that Woolley gives in the book: it
was a compromise that was most effective in accomplishing the purpose
of the pilots being up there, namely to kill the enemy’. As for the man
himself, Nick writes: ‘Then there is the magnetic appeal of
Woolley, Robinson’s uncompromising, Guinness-swilling anti-hero, drawn
with significant influence from two former ‘camp rats’ who rose to lead
SE5a squadrons: Mannock and McCudden.’
Nick’s book is priced at £25. It’s published in England by Haynes Publishing, Sparkford, Somerset BA22 7JJ, and in the USA by Haynes North America Inc., 859 Lawrence Drive, Newbury Park, California 91320. The ISBN is 978-0-85733-846-4. Believe me, it’s a classic.
Meanwhile, emails keep arriving from all over. Lars in Denmark
was with UN forces in Cyprus and ‘stumbled upon Piece of Cake and
have been a huge fan of yours ever since...Just read the two
books with pilot Silk for the third time and will certainly read them
again...’ Alan in Maryland, USA, writes: ‘I have no doubt
whatsoever your existing books are going to delight readers for
decades, and perhaps even centuries, to come.’ It’s an
encouraging thought. Most art is of its time. Things date
quickly. If any of my books is still in print 50 years from now, I’ll
look down (or up) and hope they’ve spelt my name correctly. Alan
adds: ‘Books like yours are not just adventure stories and not just
interesting historical records; they are appreciations of people
who risked and often sacrificed their lives for the good of
humanity.’ I can’t argue with that.
David in Glasgow has, in the past two years, read all of my RFC and RAF quartets, including Goshawk Squadron:
‘Read it half a dozen times...I still remember the horrible sinking
feeling in my chest when I first read the ending. It’s an impressive
skill to make an ending so painful even when it’s obviously
inevitable.’ He adds: ‘Hornet’s Sting is
the one screaming out for an adaptation to television.’ If only,
Dave, if only. There are more entries for my
Mile-High Club, awarded to members who re-read Piece of Cake and then read it again (and again). Robin, a New Zealander in the Netherlands,
bought a copy in 1984 and has read it so often that he’s listed the
qualities he admires: acute observation of men at war;
action, grippingly presented; a lot of humour; plenty of quirks that
may change the outcome of a man’s life in seconds; wonderful
description of clouds and weather. ‘I cannot remember having read
a war novel that is so three-dimensional and insightful as Piece of Cake,’ he says. Well, a lot of ink and sweat went into writing Cake. It’s good to know it paid off - although not, at first, financially.
Timing is everything in life. Take Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It
came out in 1851, got badmouthed by the critics, sold a yearly average
of 27 copies which earned him an average of $37, and was already
out of print when he died. It was forgotten until the 1920s, when
a different generation discovered its epic qualities. Too late
for Melville, of course. I know a little of how he felt. Piece of Cake was
first published a couple of weeks before the Booker Prize for fiction
was announced. All the London literary critics had their eye on
that ball, Cake got lost in the
shuffle, sales were feeble, and the book was rapidly
remaindered. For me, four years’ work down the drain.
Then, by sheer luck, it found a backer and today the old warhorse is
From Moby Dick to
Adolf Hitler is a big jump, but I keep finding examples of how
the Nazi leader missed a trick. In 1942, the prototype Messerschitt
262, the world’s first operational jet fighter, had its test
flight. Soon, with the Allied strategic bombing campaign
hammering Germany, the Me 262 was exactly what the Luftwaffe
needed: a rocket-armed interceptor that even the Mustang couldn’t
catch. Instead, Hitler tried (and failed) to develop it as a
bomber. Result: Me 262s arrived too few and too
late. Hitler often backed the wrong horse. He
demanded enormous weapons (giant tanks, colossal artillery,
massive six-engined transport planes) which didn’t work and
wasted valuable resources. His interference may explain another
flop: the German glider-bomb.
This weapon has a walk-on rôle in my new novel, Holy Smoke.
(The book has other deadly weapons: exploding mule droppings,
lethal bicycle pumps, incendiary flying bats.) In
1940, the German propaganda radio station NBBS (Lord Haw-Haw’s
outfit) broadcast a warning that London would be destroyed by
‘aerial torpedoes carrying many tons of High Explosive and guided by
radio’. That sounds very much like a glider-bomb
- yet three years passed before the first
models appeared. Same old story: too few, too late.
Lastly, an email from Wayne in New Zealand. He enjoyed Holy Smoke (‘Once
again you have presented a tale reflecting the times in a truly
entertaining and informative manner’) and comments that, at a time
when ‘false news’ is bandied about, ‘it is remarkable to be
reminded that, in living memory, one man’s entrepreneurship’
(meaning Virgilio, the anti-hero of the story) ‘could give so many
authorities the run-around.’ Virgilio was a remarkable
man. You have to read him to believe it.
Readers Write #50 July 2017
the secret chequebook,
and three forgotten heroes.
Mussolini was a bad joke, especially for the Italians. He has a
walk-on part in my new novel, Holy Smoke, along with the
Mafia, exploding mule droppings, and the vanishing act of Italian
fighters in the Battle of Britain.
His Fascism was rule by terrorism: he suppressed opposition with
the castor-oil bottle and, if that failed, murder. He made
speeches from a balcony, promising his nation triumphs, but
he left nothing except fresh ruins in Rome. He aimed to make a
new Roman empire by attacking his weak neighbours
- Libya, Albania, Abyssinia. He lied by
instinct. When WW2 began, he boasted that his army had 150
divisions when in fact it had ten. He banned divorce
in Italy to strengthen the family, yet he fathered fourteen children,
nine of them illegitimate. (Rough sex was his pastime.)
Failure increased his vanity: when he sang the Fascist marching
song in the Chamber of Deputies, they all rose, saluted him, and cried
‘Hail the Duce!’. The alternative was castor oil.
When the Allies invaded Italy, Mussolini was deposed and he ended up in
the north, failing to raise an army. Partisans found him in bed
with his long-term mistress, Clara Petacci. She fumbled under the
bedclothes and they stopped her, thinking she was reaching for a
gun; instead she was looking for her knickers. Later, they shot
them both. In A.J.P. Taylor’s words, ‘There has never been
a dictator who threatened more and achieved less.’ Yet Italy was
a major power in the inter-war years. This is hard to
Partly it was because Italy had fought alongside the Allies in
WW1, taking heavy casualties, and everyone hoped for a good
recovery in peacetime. Mussolini seized power in 1922, claiming
he had 300,000 blackshirts supporting him; the truth was he
had less than a tenth. But his propaganda was good and many
European leaders were bluffed. At first, Churchill admired
him, and George Bernard Shaw was a permanent fan. In 1938,
when Hitler threatened war with Czechoslovakia, it was Mussolini
who stage-managed a summit conference in Munich, for which Europe
was grateful. In those days, Italy sat at the top
table. This may help to understand the strange case of
massive bribery which an old pal, Graham Thorne, has unearthed in the
diary of Sir Henry Channon, known as ‘Chips’.
Chips was an MP from 1938 to 1953 and was keen on
gossip. In January 1939, he dined with Sam Hoare, then Home
Secretary, who reminisced about his time in Italy in 1917.
Italy had just suffered a massive defeat at Caporetto and its people
were demanding a ceasefire - not what the
Allies wanted to hear. At that time, Mussolini owned a newspaper
in Milan. He offered a guarantee that Milan and the north
would keep fighting - “if sufficiently
bribed”. Sam Hoare bought the newspaper “for a very considerable
sum indeed”. Mussolini kept his bargain, thanks to his
“gangsters and thugs” on the streets of Milan. The deal was a big
boost for Mussolini, and Chips claimed that “English Government funds
did much to create the Fascist revolution.”
That, of course, was Chips’ speculation. Hindsight is a great
advantage for a diarist. Whatever the bribe, it was money well
spent: Italy fought on, the Allies survived the crisis, Germany was
defeated. Money has always been a weapon of war. Britain bribed
Spanish generals to keep their country out of WW2, which
worked. Hitler paid huge sums to his generals to buy their
loyalty, which was less successful.
So much for Mussolini, who believed he was superior to Napoleon but showed himself to be worthless. Holy Smoke is
about a very different man, an anti-hero who made the most of his
talents. Readers agree. Jon - a
Norwegian on vacation - reports that the novel
is “excellent reading on the beach in Santa Monica” and
adds: “Nothing is discovered by staying indoors!”, which is
a quote from the story. Graham, whose review is above, said: “I
loved the book”, and points to the fact that my chosen subject is
the military and their intelligence, which “is full of examples of the
ridiculous which one couldn’t make up”. The Author’s
Note - “punctilious in making clear what
is truth and what is false,” he says
- also helps.
Dictators rarely see combat, so it’s refreshing to remember the quiet
courage of men who simply did their job. Three stand
The first was Ian Neilson. He was 26 in 1944 when, on the evening
of D-Day, he rode a motorbike across the battlefront in order to
find a site for the first British air observation post.
Then he led a working party to blow up obstacles and make a landing
ground for Auster aircraft. He flew 55 sorties in Austers,
directing the fire of the warships offshore to targets inland. The
biggest shells weighed almost a ton, the Auster was in the firing line,
and there was always a risk of being hit. “I only saw German
tanks on two occasions,” Neilson said. “I think we had
quite an effect.” He finished the war as a lieutenant-colonel,
The second was Eric Worsley, RN. In 1940 he was 26, stationed at
Portsmouth as a bomb disposal officer. During a raid, a 250 kg
unexploded bomb was buried in the middle of a naval station where 4,000
trainees were in the shelters. The tail fin was visible but not
the fuses. Worsley wrote: “I knew that German
clockwork fuses had a time delay of between an hour and up to 96
hours.” The bomb could not be hauled out in case anti-disturbance
devices exploded it. “I decided to dig...In less than half an hour a
circular moat was excavated...I could now work away with the
spade.” Soon he could read the fuse number. He ripped off
one of the bomb’s tubular struts, placed one end on the fuse and the
other end to his ear. “Was that a sound of ticking, or was it my
imagination?” He went in search of a stethoscope. “I was lucky,
the stethoscope made the tick sound like an alarm
clock.” Much work still remained to be done. Four
hours after the bomb fell, Worsley had extracted two fuses, unscrewed
the primer and disarmed the bomb. “The clock setting was for seven
hours. Hallelujah.” It was the beginning of
eight months of bomb disposal, in which he was twice
The third was a civilian, Bill Penley, 22 years old in 1940, with
a PhD in electrical engineering. His job was to climb the lattice
towers of the Chain Home early-warning radar system. They were
360 feet high. “Each ladder was 50 feet, with thick ice on the
rungs, it was really a foolhardy activity...The platforms had
protective rails around them but as those in front of the
receiving aerial would interfere with reception, they had to be
removed.” Then, hundreds of feet above ground, he adjusted the
electrical connections and worked out how to avoid power loss in the
cable to the top of the tower. His success meant that when the
Luftwaffe attacked, Chain Home enabled the RAF to scramble its fighters
in time to intercept the bombers. Penley retired with the
CB and CBE.
To sign off, here’s Bob Hoover, an American aviator described by Jimmy
Doolittle - who led the first raid on
Tokyo - as “the greatest stick-and-rudder man who
all the ballyhoo about test pilots and ‘The Right Stuff’.
Bob Hoover was polite, calm and the opposite of gung-ho. He knew
precisely what he was doing and what his machine was capable of, and at
air shows he was a master of that understanding. He demonstrated
it by performing so-called ‘dead stick’ landings with engines shut
off. He could land with one wheel on the runway, then the other,
making the aircraft dance from side to side. One of his
best-known tricks was to pour iced tea from a jug into a glass as he
executed a roll with his left hand. He also had a remarkable war
career, but that’s another story.
Readers Write #51 August 2017
Bang! You're dead.
Sometimes the job of the novelist is to think the unthinkable. Years ago, I wrote Hullo Russia, Goodbye England, about the men in a Vulcan squadron. Vulcans were a large part of Britain’s policy of nuclear deterrence. They aimed at neutralising the Cold War by warning a possible aggressor, Russia, that any attack would trigger retaliation and therefore would be suicidal.
those days, atom bombs would be delivered by aircraft, and the
Vulcan was the ultimate bomber - a
four-engined, delta-shape masterpiece that flew fast and high and
handled like a fighter. But there were three problems. One
was the obvious (but unspoken) fact that any Vulcan crew sent to
retaliate would never return, because the Britain they
left would soon be a smoking desert. The second was the certainty
that some, perhaps most, Vulcans might be intercepted by Russian
defences. The third problem was the sanity, or otherwise, of the
world leaders whose fingers would be on the red button. It all
came down to human judgement. What if the person making the
decision was demented? World leaders have been known to be
unbalanced. When, in 1956, Anthony Eden led Britain into the Suez fiasco,
he was a sick man. Pol Pot, Colonel Gaddafi and Adolf Hitler all
behaved in ways that were lunatic. The constant stress that any world
leader feels might be enough to cause him suddenly to lose his marbles,
think it’s all impossible, and blow the world to
official answer to that scenario was that an impetuous action could not
happen because any nuclear strike would be preceded by a State of Mounting International Tension
(S.M.I.T.). This would make world leaders realise the hard
truth that Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) means what it says. In HRGE,
Silk (a Vulcan pilot) discusses this point with Skull (an Intelligence
Officer) and Freddy (an old pal from Air Ministry). Silk suggests that
a Soviet leader would have to be a maniac to order a first strike
during a S.M.I.T. They agree. Then he
“Therefore it follows than an intelligent maniac would strike when
there is no diplomatic crisis? No S.M.I.T.? A bolt from the
“Why would he do that?” Freddy asked.
“Silly question,” Silk said. “He’s a maniac. He can do what he likes.”
“World leaders aren’t maniacs,” Skull said. “Nuclear war kills everyone.”
“Maniacs don’t think they’re maniacs,” Silk said. “Maniacs believe
they’re doing God’s work.”
course, times have changed since the days of Vulcans. The great
advantage of manned bombers was that they could be recalled. Now
we have missiles. In all the bluster of Trump and Kim Jong-un, it
is worth remembering the only other occasion when the superpowers
verged on full-scale nuclear war: the week beginning 22 October
1962. Nikita Kruschkev had loaded Cuba with
nuclear missiles, and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff
unanimously urged President Kennedy to order an immediate air strike
against all military targets in Cuba. The most belligerent advice came from General Curtis LeMay, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force.
LeMay had often talked of annihilating the Soviet Union, and he believed that Cuba offered an irrresistible chance, because he was sure that the U.S. had overwhelming nuclear capacity and that Russia could
be quickly obliterated. Kennedy thought otherwise. In World
War Two, he had served in the Pacific and seen at first hand the
decisions of American admirals, and he was not
over-impressed. He knew that top officers could be wrong.
We should be grateful that Kennedy ignored LeMay and that diplomacy worked. The Cuban crisis was resolved, and the world was spared. From what?
It’s worth spelling out what nuclear oblivion meant in 1962. The American arsenal that made LeMay confident
of victory contained almost three thousand strategic nuclear weapons,
targeted on Soviet cities, with yields totalling more than seven
thousand megatons. (A megaton is fifty times more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb.) Seven thousand megatons would have burnt Russia to
a crisp and killed a hundred million civilians. It would also
cause a lethal nuclear winter over the Northern Hemisphere, freezing
and starving countless more millions in Europe, Asia and North America. If LeMayknew this, he never spoke of it. When he retired in 1965 he ran for Vice-President of the United States.
He might have been elected, in which case he would be a heartbeat away
from the Presidency. Stranger things have
A nuclear crisis is not a poker game. Curtis LeMay planned to play poker with Russia, trusting his belief that Russia was
not ready to retaliate . What LeMay, and indeed any American, did
not know (until a Soviet-U.S. conference revealed it in 1989) was
that in 1962 - contrary to CIA estimates
- the Soviet forces in Cuba had some twenty medium-range
ballistic missiles armed with one- to three-megaton
warheads. They could be targeted on cities as far north as Washington. Also, Cuba had short-range tactical artillery rockets with nuclear warheads. If the U.S. had invaded Cuba
- which an air strike would indicate -
the Soviet field commanders were authorised to use the rockets
immediately. The missiles would have been launched as well.
Nor was that all.
A Soviet submarine flotilla was in the area. The U.S.Navy was
aware of their presence and had been troubling them with small depth
charges. What the Navy did not know was that the submarines were
armed with nuclear torpedoes. The Navy’s harassment persuaded
some of the Soviet officers to believe that war had started, and
they voted to launch their torpedoes. Fortunately, their
commander, Captain Arkhipov, an experienced man, decided to wait and
see. Arkhipov was the Soviet equivalent of President Kennedy. If
the nuclear weapons in Cuba and those at sea had been launched, many millions of Americans would have died.
In the Napoleonic Wars, General Wellington urged his officers
always to try to know what was on the other side of the
hill - in other words, what the enemy was
thinking and planning. General LeMay had no time for that, and
many other American generals and admirals agreed with him. He
knew only one action. When the Cuban missile crisis was over, he was
furious. “We lost!” he said. “We ought to just go in there today and
knock 'em off.”
I have a lot of friends in America.
In many ways, it is an admirable nation. What worries me is the
American appetite for violence. There is a belief among Americans
that a good sock on the jaw solves most problems. Better yet, a
gun in every household. This is not a formula for preventing
World War Three. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the creators of the
atom bomb, summed up the confrontation of two powers, each in a
position to make nuclear war on the other. He likened it to “two
scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at
the risk of his own life”. Total war means we all lose. I
wonder whether Mr Trump realised this when he threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”.
****** Finally, it is a relief to turn to the relative sanity of Readers Write. David, in Halifax, Canada, first read Piece of Cakewhen
he was 14, and since then has worked his way through all my flying
stuff. He says: “It takes quite a bit to make me laugh, and
laugh aloud, when I’m reading a book, but you’ve done it quite a few
times... The ease of transition between the funny and the grim is
perhaps what impresses me the most; I’m sure it can’t be an easy
thing to do, but you certainly make it looks like it is.” Then an
old pal, John in Colorado, emailed me that he felt the need for a Robinson fix and “resurrected Rotten with Honour. I surprised myself by laughing out loud, something I’ve almost never done while reading.” (RWH , written
nearly 40 years ago, was a Cold War spy story; all I can remember
of it was that the Russian agents, usually depicted in fiction as
stolid types, had a fine sense of humour.)
Laughter seems to be in the air, because Robin (in, I think, Holland) bought Cake in
1984 and has just read it for the fourth time. “Besides the great
characters and the action, there’s a lot of humour. Some of it
had me laughing out loud...I have read quite a few war novels but I
cannot remember one that is so three-dimensional and insightful as Piece of Cake.” Lastly, there has been a small rush of interest in Holy Smoke, with orders from old friends in Dallas, Kansas City, New Jersey, South Carolina and Florida - plus several in the UK.
My thanks to all who wrote. Derek Robinson
Readers Write #52
Beefeaters and ballyhoo,
life as a travelling blacksmith,
and me and Bill Gates.
Here’s a question. How would you like to have the International Socrates
Award? You don’t speak Greek? Okay, you want to have the Manager of
the Year Award? Or get the Queen Victoria Commemorative Award? Or the
Best Cities Award? Or join the International Club of Leaders?
Listen, you deserve it. A man of your skills and achievements needs an Oxford certificate on the
wall. No hassle, no sweat, just sign the cheque. £3000 for the award, or if you
want to push the boat out, there’s a VIP package with lots of exciting add-ons
for only £9,300.
Look, don’t thank me, and certainly don’t try
to thank the University
of Oxford, which has
absolutely nothing to do with this circus. Thank Anton Savvov and his son Ivan,
who run the Europe Business Assembly from an office in Kharkov,
Ukraine, which is a
long way from Oxford.
That didn’t stop them hiring Oxford
Town Hall for a black-tie
gathering where contributing guests from far corners of the globe flew in to
enjoy the Socrates Award Ceremony. The decor was reassuringly
British. There was champagne, a red carpet, a Scots bagpiper, and a man
in a Beefeater costume. You get a lot of ballyhoo for £9,300. And,
of course, a certificate on the wall. What you don’t get is any
recognition from the University
of Oxford. It
doesn’t sell awards.
Many of the recipients came from
developing countries, places where you can often buy credentials for
cash. If they think the awards are from Oxford and that means the University, don’t
blame Anton Savvov. He’s running a legitimate business. That Beefeater’s
costume was 100% genuine. Take it from me. I’ve been swatting away
big-money certificates all my working life. Some of the awards I turned
down make Kharkov’s
finest look like chickenfeed. And at a fraction of the price.
It all began in 1971. In that year’s
Booker Prize I came second, or so Saul Bellow, one of the judges, said.
No money for me, of course, but I was briefly a minor celeb, and suddenly the
International Biographical Centre (IBC), based in Cambridge, wanted to
include me in their International Who’s Who in Poetry. Two
problems: the book cost £18, which I didn’t have, and I hadn’t written a
line of poetry.
Their entry form was a bit of a
challenge, too. My education lacked the sparkle that you expect a
top international poet to have, so I spiced it up with a spell at the Spanish Academy
That’s where they train those Lipizzaner horses to prance on their hind legs.
Next came Positions Held. The truth was none, so I wrote: ‘Self-employed
travelling blacksmith’. Let’s face it, not enough poets are out in the
countryside, practising the noble art of the farrier and dreaming up rhymes for
‘horseshoe’. I added a few more inventions and mailed the form.
IBC printed the lot. Now I was a registered
poet. I scraped together a fiver and bought their Certificate of Merit (‘For
Distinguished Contributions to Poetry’) and hung it in the loo where it
covered the damp patch and impressed the hell out of visitors. And it
spawned a steady supply of letters from other publishers, all keen to
celebrate my expanding celebrity. (Maybe they swap mailing
IBC wanted me for their book Men of
Achievement. Debrett’s urged me to be included in People of Today,
Burke’s Peerage liked me for World Book of Robinsons, and the American
Biographical Institute reckoned I was ripe for their Personality of
the Year, and - flatteringly - Great
Minds of the 21st Century.
All those wonderful people had one
thing in common. They wanted money, usually at a special saving. I could
get into Debrett’s People of Today for a very reasonable £99. A
place in Men of Achievement would set me back £75 or, with my name on
the de luxe cover, £295. Rubbing shoulders with Great Minds of the
21st Century meant coughing up $395 for the book, which would give details
of ‘how your great mind has worked to influence and pave the way for many
individuals’. Or I could order the Great Minds Medal, ‘finished in a radiant
golden tone’, at only $595.
The mail kept coming, year after
year. Some I binned. Some got the Walter Mitty treatment. My employment
record flowered: I had been a roustabout, crop-duster, bit-part actor,
plumber’s mate, football referee, bartender and demolition worker. Under
‘Creative Works’ I listed five novels, one each in French, Dutch, Swedish,
Spanish and Greek. For ‘Honours’, I created the eminent Theta Phi Omega
award. If it doesn’t exist, then it ought to, and I deserved it as much
as the next poet. Or non-poet.
No publisher ever questioned my claims. Several
reference books listed them. Nobody quizzed me about my career as a
private secretary to Lord Lucan. I even told them I was an expert in
literary fraud, and no eyebrows were raised. Finally, I almost bought a
book from Baron’s, a highpowered American business publisher. They
offered me a full page in The Baron’s 500: Leaders for the New Century,
with a portrait photograph; and to make me salivate they sent a sample
page. It showed a smiling Bill Gates. Hey! Bill and I were two of
500 leaders taking the world into the 21st century!
Me and BIll: a dream team. Just one
hitch. Baron’s wanted $895 in advance. No cash, no book.
Another great idea got the chop, and world leaders were the poorer by
one. They’ll be sorry.
Meanwhile, in the real world, copies of Holy
Smoke have been flying to all corners. (A few are left. When
they’re gone, they’re gone.) Books have gone to readers in Canada, Australia,
Joe in Texas
sent an order and added: “Just to say again I have enjoyed many of your
books. I am glad you continue to share your talent with us.” Well,
writers are nothing without readers, Joe, so you have my thanks.
Not surprisingly, most orders are from within
James in London
read Holy Smoke and emailed me: “Thoroughly enjoyed your book. I
suspect it was quite entertaining researching it.” (True: life in
1944 Rome was highly improbable.) He wrote: “I like the comment at
the very end regarding Rome
traffic lights. I remember my mother returning from a trip to Rome when I was about 18 - “You should go to Rome, they drive like
you.” Neil in Nottingham not only bought
two Holy Smokes, he also told his friends and colleagues about
it. Steve in Middlesex sent an order and added: “My favourite author by a long
chalk.” Julia in Hertfordshire asked for a signed copy to go with her
complete collection of my novels. Which is nice to know.
And - surprise, surprise -
Tilman, a 16-year-old student in Regensburg,
reading my War Story. He’s writing a paper on it for a seminar.
He asked, in excellent English, some questions about the story. I was
glad to help, and I look forward to his thoughts.
Readers Write #53
This isn’t so much about Readers Write as about Author’s Slant on war and
its peculiarities. If that doesn’t interest you, move on.
Hitler spoofs are a brilliant idea. Someone took a scene from
The Last Days of Hitler and changed the subtitles. Instead of
raging at his generals, Hitler savages a local problem - the latest
spoof has him blasting the bus service in my home town. Very funny, very
professionally made, and it cost peanuts. Hitler becomes the voice of
democracy. Nice twist.
Surprise is the key to this spoof. Suddenly a horror story is inverted and it
becomes a joke. Which is fine as long as we don’t forget the
horror. Hitler was a monster who brought death to millions. He
gambled with the future of Europe, and
often he bluffed. In 1939, after telling his admirals that there would be
no war before 1943, he invaded Poland, knowing
that his fleet was outnumbered ten to one by the Royal Navy. An even
bigger bluff happened in September 1938.
was the time of the Munich
crisis. Hitler demanded the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia, or he would
invade. Claud Cockburn, one of the great journalists of his century, was
in Prague at
the time, and he saw what happened. His memoirs, Cockburn Sums Up,describes
that last act of appeasement. There was still a chance that the League of
Nations or Britain, France and Russia
would support the Czechs against Germany. The Czech army was ready
to fight, and Cockburn, who was on good terms with the Russian Legation, knew
that the Soviet Union had sent a force of fighters and bombers to an airfield
This was an advance force to be massively reinforced if Germany
snippet of information has never, to my knowledge, appeared in the histories of
the period. Nor has the opinion of Ulrich Steinhilper, one of the
few Luftwaffe pilots who were sent to the Czech border at that time and who
survived the war. He has rejected the historians who claim the German threat
was real and Czech resistance was pointless. “We were just a hotch-potch
of personnel of very varied experience and training,” he wrote in his memoirs, Spitfire
On My Tail, “in aircraft which either belonged in a museum or weren’t
armed anyway.” He made no mention of the Soviet aircraft in Prague. Was France or Britain aware of them?
Cockburn doesn’t say. In the event, nobody backed the Czechs, so the
Soviet planes left and Germany
marched in. Chamberlain flew home to wave his sheet of paper as proof of
peace. As Steinhilper wrote: “Another gigantic bluff had come
is a lot of bluffing in world politics, and in some cases men are
bluffing themselves. The Vietnam war would never have begun if
Eisenhower hadn’t made a speech about the ‘domino theory’. This
was the belief that if Vietnam went communist,
then all of south-east Asia
would be lost, even the Philippines and maybe Australia or India.
Kennedy inherited the domino theory. (American government knew almost
nothing about that part of the world because all its experts were fired during
the McCarthy witch-hunt.)
Vietnam posed no threat to America, but with the arrival of Communist
China, the U.S. feared that China would expand to the south, via Vietnam. And so
the war began. It lasted sixteen years, cost untold billions, wrecked Vietnam,
Laos and part of Cambodia, left South Vietnam poisoned with Agent Orange and
left North Vietnam pitted with bomb craters after the U.S. Air Force dropped a
greater weight of bombs than fell on Germany in all of WW2 (and killed two
million Vietnamese civilians), and - after the White House
had repeatedly bluffed the American public with predictions of
victory - America lost. As LBJ’s Secretary of Defense
Robert McNamara discovered, far too late, the domino theory was rubbish.
Even worse, it was the opposite of truth.
never in danger of becoming a Chinese province. For centuries, Vietnam and China had been enemies, often at
war. If China
had tried to acquire its neighbour, the Vietnamese people would have fought
them as hard and as long as they fought the Americans. Their leaders
were, above all, nationalist. They saw the Americans as occupiers.
McNamara admitted: “We were wrong.”
Cold War had persuaded America
to believe the Communist boast that they would conquer the world. It was just
words, a bluff, a dream, usually meant for home consumption. When
the history of the last century comes to be written, the Vietnam war may
well be seen as a Communist triumph, not because Vietnam
won but because it led the U.S.
to waste its blood and dollars and self-belief in a colossal blunder.
McNamara lists eleven major causes for the disaster. They should be essential
reading for every world leader.
bluff was based on force, of which he had enough to frighten people. One of the
great what-ifs of history revolves around the timing of his V1 and V2 assault
in 1944. What if he had launched it a year earlier? What if it had been
twice the size? Would it have forced the evacuation of London, perhaps postponed D-Day?
We shall never know. But we know that the V1 attacks (the
Doodlebugs) were meant to hit cities other than London. Here is a German map that was
captured during the Normany invasion.
It shows the
firing lines planned by the Germans from launch sites across the north of France.
Those in Normandy - captured
before they could fire - were aimed at Plymouth
which was exactly where I went to school in 1944. Who knows? If Hitler had had
his way, my home town would have suffered a second blitz.
A gloomy thought. To end with I’ve found a couple of WW2 believe-it-or
nots that I came across recently.
Fairey Swordfish was a slow but tough biplane that the Fleet Air Arm inherited
at the start of WW2. It cruised at 80 knots, so it was useful as a carrier
plane, and also as a torpedo bomber. A Swordfish attack sank a large part
of the Italian fleet in Taranto
harbour, reportedly because the Italian gunners overshot because they couldn’t
believe that any warplane could fly so slowly.
torpedoes or bombs, and towards the end of the war they were fitted with rocket
projectiles. One even sank a U-boat with them. The plane’s nickname
was ‘Stringbag’, after the housewives’ shopping bag, because so many
armaments could be stowed aboard it. The Swordfish was the only biplane to fly
on ops throughout the war. American flyers couldn’t take it seriously.
One asked: “Where did that come from?” A British officer said,
“Fairey’s.” The American said: “That figures.”
Finally the humble barrage balloon, fleets of which flew above British cities
like silvery whales. They frightened German bombers into flying higher,
where their bomb-aiming was less accurate. There was a problem.
Strong winds might snap their cables which, dragged across country, could do
damage. Somebody had a bright idea. When the wind was right,
barrage balloons with long cables were released. They drifted
and caused all kinds of havoc. One balloon tangled with a power station
and knocked it out. Not many people know that.
Readers Write #54 December 2017
and 21 million jerrycans.
Stick your neck out and people will try to chop it off. It happened to me. I knew when I wrote Goshawk Squadron that
the book would draw blood, and when the Society of RFC Veterans
denounced it, I wasn’t surprised. Then Alan Gibson reviewed it on
BBC Radio and he summed up its central character, Stanley Woolley, in a
four-letter word that is one of the few curse words which, even today,
is never heard on the air. Well, Gibson won a first in history at Oxford and
he’d been President of the Oxford Union. so he was no mug.
Skewering a first novel by saying it was about a **** might have
deflated the author. I survived.
No book is for everybody. The reader has bought it; he’s entitled
to hate it. But Gibson blundered when he called Woolley a ****. Goshawk Squadron is
still in print, almost 50 years later. Half a dozen different
publishers have taken it on, and it’s been translated a few
times. That doesn’t happen to a story about a ****, a character
who by definition is stupid, selfish and unsuccessful. Woolley is
none of those. He rubs people up the wrong way in order to teach
them a lesson that might, just might, save their lives. He knows what
That first novel taught me to expect attacks, and they came. Kramer’s War was about the German Occupation of the Channel Islands, and Jersey’s booksellers immediately boycotted it without bothering to read it. (Today it’s in their public library.) Piece of Cake annoyed one former pilot so much that he sued me. (He lost.) I got an item of hate mail about Cake which
was such a gem that I framed it; it hangs in my loo. It’s
unsigned, of course, and written in sprawling capital letters. It began:
Do brothels have doormen? He sounded very confident. Maybe he knew more about the subject than I did.
His message hangs on the wall as a reminder that, whilst some readers
can’t wait for my next book, others chuck it at the cat. A reader
wrote to say that, after a chapter or two, A Good Clean Fight bored
him rigid. Maybe he expected aircraft and what he got was
soldiers. (The airmen arrived later.) After a couple
of years, he wrote again to say he’d given it a second chance and was
gripped. Same story, different frame of mind. I just write the
book. Sometimes it’s a square peg that gets read by a round hole.
Life is a gamble.
Now David, an old pal living in Tennessee who has read most of my stuff, writes to say that Holy Smoke got
two cheers - at first. “I both liked it and didn’t
like it - perhaps because it seemed so
different from your previous work.” (Right. It isn’t a Ripping
Yarn.) “I thought it started slow, but when it did get going, then I
immediately enjoyed it and thought it worthy of your canon. No one
writes ‘dark comedy’ as you do...”
Which takes us to the heart of the story. Holy Smoke doesn’t
start with a bang because it’s about a shadow of a man, a nobody,
a jobless yesterday. But he never gives up and life has dealt him a
hand with one ace. It turns out to be a joker. He plays his
ace, and by great good luck it makes a little money. Then -
unknown to him - it grows into a huge swindle that leaves
an American intelligence agency with egg on its face.. The novel
is based on fact. (I have the paperwork.) It’s a slow
burner, which explains the opening. Sometimes I think it
would do no harm if everyone in the CIA, MI6 and whatever the KGB is
now called were to read Holy Ghost. Even a nobody can make them look foolish.
Time for a picture. Here’s a rare photograph of the German retreat after D-Day.
The vehicle is a military wagon, towed by horses and camouflaged with
foliage against rocket attacks by Typhoon fighter-bombers. In Normandy,
the Wehrmacht had 70,000 horses in 1944. Even their artillery was
sometimes horse-drawn. Few survived the Typhoons. This is where
war reporting tells only half the story. Cameramen like action
shots. They don’t waste film on horses or footslogging infantry
when they can get shots of dynamic tanks and aircraft. But the
German shortage of trucks was a big reason for their defeat
- Army Group B, occupying Normandy, had fewer than 15,000 trucks and their fuel was rationed. Here is a picture of one the many Allied fuel depots in Normandy. Those are 5-gallon jerrycans, part of the 21 million that went to France.
For the invasion of Normandy,
the Allies sent more than 300,000 vehicles. When the advance
began, their armies were using a million gallons of fuel a
day. These pictures illustrate a fundamental truth of war:
courage without supplies spells defeat.
Lastly, an email from Dave in Melbourne. Australia is
big, and bookshops are not on every corner. Dave rates my stuff
highly but, he says, “very hard to find in Aus”, which was why he
ordered Why 1914? and Holy Smoke, and
was surprised when I replied in person. This happens:
a lot of people don’t realise that I’m not a corporation. (I
once received an order that began Dear Sir or Madam...)
With me, what you see is what you get: a one-man band. Sometimes
publishers want a new book, sometimes they don’t and I bring it out
myself. The reward is when a novel give pleasure to a fan like
Dave. He’s just re-read Piece of Cake, one of my longer books that follows a fighter squadron through the first twelve months of war, and he says:
“ It strikes me that most writers would have been bogged down by the
narrative...Instead, you’ve kept the events as obscured as they would
have been for the participants...You’ve woven the characters
beautifully. They face each day, each event as it comes...Events
such as Eagle Day (when the Luftwaffe launched its assault on
England) aren’t signposted as such; they’re just especially hard
days at the office... It would have been so easy to get bogged down
with hindsight and the big-picture view. I’m very glad you
too, Dave. One of the great strengths of the novel is that it can
take the reader to places he would otherwise never go. Cake puts
him in the cockpit and let's him see what happens. Often it's not
what he - or the reader - expected.
My thanks to all who wrote. Derek Robinson
Readers Write #55 January 2018
Woolley rings bells,
there’s nowt so queer as folk,
and Hornet’s Sting rides again.
first novel featured the SE5a biplane, After that, I worked my way
through the Sopwith Camel, the Bristol Fighter, the Hurricane, the
Tomahawk, the Hampden, the Wellington, and eventually the Avro
Vulcan - all of which are now museum pieces, if
they survive at all. So it’s good to hear from a pilot who has read my
stuff and has known the trials of military flying at first hand. Since
he’s a serving officer, I’ll call him Peter (not his real name).
Operational security, he tells me, is the flavour of the month.
Peter tells me he “first encountered Piece of Cake via
the TV series when he was still at primary school.” He next came
across the book at the age of 18, when he joined the University Air
Squadron. He recalls: “Reading Piece of Cake for the first time as an adult was a game-changer for me, and immediately I bought the sequel (A Good Clean Fight) and
your RFC trilogy, which I also loved.” He flew with the Fleet Air
Arm. Fast-forward a few years. Now he’s still flying but he
has a son and they’re both deep in aviation history. He says: “A large
part of that is due to the influence of your writing... Please accept
my sincere gratitude for your thorough historical research combined
with your incredible flair for storytelling, and for writing things the
way they were rather than the way many people think they were.”
has sometimes been at the sharp end of military aviation and he knows
the symptoms. He writes: “I was intrigued by Woolley in the
RFC trilogy - the fact that he ends one book (Hornet’s Sting) as a level-headed, approachable good egg, and then begins the next book (Goshawk Squadron) as
a complete bastard. I liked this transition
- particularly that there isn’t any obvious and telegraphed
reason why - because it is a fascinating and
realistic depiction of a man suffering from the effects of real fatigue
and stress, and the reader needs to work that out for himself. Whilst
the reasons why have changed over the years, the symptoms are exactly
the same and we occasionally still see those transitions in aviation
today - although thankfully for us the
understanding and care provided in the industry in this day and age
have come on leaps and bounds.”
on. One of the problems of writing fiction is that some readers
think a character is unbelievable while, in real life, people are
even weirder. I’ve been looking back at previous editions of
Readers Write, and examples sprang out. There was Stephen, reading Goshawk Squadron in
front of a log fire until the early hours, when he nodded off,
“When I awoke, a puppy had eaten the last pages.” People have
been known to steal my books. One man read Hornet’s Sting
in the bath, dropped it and all the pages stuck together. Jim was
so obsessed with my RFC quartet that his wife gave him a flight in a
Sopwith Camel for his 50th birthday. A chap in New York read Red Rag Blues and
laughed so much that he ended up in hospital. (Mind you, he
already had a bad chest cold.) I sent him a copy of the
sequel, Operation Bamboozle, and he said he would read it “with a pacemaker handy”.
And various people have told me that my stuff helped them survive being in the army, or fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan,
or even recovering from a nervous breakdown. One fan wrote to tell me
that I was his role model; but I knew he was a former rugby
player and so I assumed that he’d taken too many knocks on the
head. But sometimes I wonder whether my books might have damaged
a promising career. Martin told me he couldn’t put down Hornet’s Sting and ended up reading it in the office, “surreptitiously, almost under the table.” And Pete, in the Isle of Wight, remembered that he bought Cake after
work, took it home, went to bed and reached the last page by 2
a.m., so he began it again and was still re-reading at 8 in the
morning. “Phoned in work to call in sick so I could finish it,” he
said. A real test of stamina. Or chutzpah. Maybe I should
put a health warning on the cover. “I’ve bought 4 or 5 copies
over the years,” Pete says, “and given them away to friends, in the
firm belief that they will find them as fantastically entertaining as I
did.” All is forgiven, Pete.
Time for a picture. Here’s a clue: it’s 100 octane, and don’t light a match near it.
used to get a bit of flak, mainly from the top brass, about the amount
of alcohol drunk by pilots in the RFC quartet. Especially in Hornet’s Sting.
When you look at the cover illustration -
Bristol Fighters battling with a thunderstorm, painted by the
brilliant Anthony Cowland - you get a taste of
the everyday dangers that those aircrew faced. Patrols were
hazardous, with or without the enemy, and a pilot’s life might be
short. While it lasted, it was celebrated for all it was
worth. In the book (it’s on page 136 of the paperback),
Cleve-Cutler, the CO, knows how to revive the squadron on special
occasions, whether good or bad:
“He let whim and inspiration guide him as he emptied bottles
into a galvanised hipbath. Brandy and champagne were a good
base, followed by port, gin, apple juice, fresh ground pepper,
more champagne, a couple of bottles of Guinness, some rum,
a blast of soda water for fizz, a
splash of Benedictine for good luck.”
That was just the beginning. If you want to know what the results might look like, see above.
Garth, an old pal in Manhattan,
mixed up a batch of Hornet’s Sting for his New Year’s Eve party, using
the recipe in the book. Personally, I think it looks like oxtail soup,
but Garth says it turned purple when he stirred it. What matters
is his guests liked it, which may be because the temperature in New York on that day was 12 below zero and forecast to be 29 below at night.
Just time for another picture.
Curtiss built fifteen thousand of these Warhawks in World War Two, and supplied them to 28 nations. In Britain,
the fighter was known as the Kittyhawk or the Tomahawk. It was
often used for low-level ground-attack, one of the themes in A Good Clean Fight. Pilots liked it because it was rugged. Built like a brick, they said. Some said it flew like a brick, too. But America made a lot of them and in war you fight with what you’ve got. The Desert Air Force was glad to have them.
My thanks to all who wrote.
Readers Write #56March 2018
Viagra, let’s call the whole thing off,
A footnote from Finland,
and Charles Dash’s magic moment
In the United
States, it was usual for newly-wed couples to spend their
honeymoon at Niagara, and it was often
said that the sight of the Falls was the second biggest disappointment for the
bride. And perhaps for the bridegroom too. This is not to diminish
sex, which is essential; without it, none of us would be here. It’s
a question of balance. How much is enough? For instance, is there a
need for any sex in novels? A British magazine runs an annual Bad
Sex Competition based on extracts from recent fiction, and it seems that
a lot of successful, prizewinning authors like to play whoopee with their
fiction in order to stimulate sales. The results can be unintentionally
comic. In one fertile year, the entries included this description of sexual
“And then my body, like a cathedral, broke out into ringing. The hunchback in
had jumped and was swinging madly on
If you find that hard to imagine, try this:
“Her hands were all over me, four hands it seemed, or more than four, and as
me she made me weightless, lifting
me off the table in a prolonged
rite of levitation.”
Later, when things got steamy, she urged him: “Pray,
pray at my portal.” As euphemisms go, portal wins the
wooden spoon. Perhaps the wooden ladle. (And it wasn’t the worst
entry.) I keep a file of advertisements that amused the reader for
all the wrong reasons. In one ad, the makers of a vacuum cleaner claimed:
Nothing sucks like an Electrolux. And a magazine for church
furniture ran this ad:
Well, anyone can stumble, even me. Ian in Helsinki (an
Aussie who moved to Finland, married, and speaks Finnish, one of the most
difficult languages to learn) has a question about a rare episode of sex
in Hornet’s Sting, my RFC novel set in 1917. He finds it
difficult to understand “the significance of Dash’s affair with the nurses he
cannot identify and what they represent or symbolise in the story.”
Let’s start with Lieutenant Charles Dash. He arrives
at Hornet Squadron in France,
19 or 20 years old, fresh from training, no combat experience but very
keen. Everyone ignores him. This often happened. New pilots
came and went - why waste time with a recruit
who’ll probably get the chop on his first patrol? Dash is typical
of his class. He knows little about girls, never kissed one, and
now he’s living in a very masculine environment. He’s in prime physical
condition and, inevitably, sex is on his mind. He’d like to lose his
virginity before he loses his life but he has no idea how to do
One day the mobile cinema truck fails to arrive.
Probably stuck in heavy snow. Dash sets off on horseback to find it, gets
lost and ends up at a house where half a dozen English nurses live. They
are enormously pleased to welcome a handsome young RFC pilot, give him supper
and a bed where - in pitch-black darkness
- one of them introduces him to the excitement of sex. No
words are exchanged. For months afterwards he searches for the girl. In
The significance of Dash’s affair (a small detail in the
novel) is that it illustrates the innocence and ignorance of most men who
joined the Royal Flying Corps, as well as providing an example of the haphazard
nature of their life in a time of war. Many pilots were very young,
sometimes only months away from school, and sex was a mystery. At
the same time, they were flying high in a machine designed to kill, eager to
destroy a Hun aeroplane yet well aware that they risked being shot down. Dash’s
affair took this contrast to extremes. By day in the sky or by night with
a nurse, chance was everything. War is
Ian’s email reminded me that I had an unpublished memoir by
Dr Martin Herford, who was Medical Officer for the British Volunteers who
went to Finland
in March 1940 to provide aid for the Finns. This was one of the Forgotten
Wars of WW2. In 1939, Soviet Russia had invaded Finland (which
had once been a Russian colony) and the invaders got a bloody
made the classic mistake of underestimating the enemy, and sent in tanks
and artillery which the Finns - at home in a land of
deep snow, thick forests and few roads - promptly
destroyed. Churchill, who had encouraged British Intervention in Russia’s
Civil War in 1919 (see my novel A Splendid Little War), was
delighted: “Finland, superb - nay
sublime - in the jaws of peril, Finland shows what free
men can do...They have exposed, for all to see, the military incapacity of the
Red Army...” Then Russia
sent in a bigger, more competent army and the Finns were forced to sign an
seized a small corner of Finland
(to protect Leningrad)
and peace broke out. Herford’s
Volunteers were not needed.
Herford was sightseeing in Helsinki when he saw an
exhibition of military trophies taken from the Russians. The most prized
exhibit was the standard of the 18th Tank Division of the Russian Guards.
The flag was red with a black map of Europe
outlined in silver. It showed a red bayonet that went through Narvik in Norway, and a huge red sickle whose point cut
through Paris, and a red hammer whose head
rested on London.
Between the wars, Russia
created the Comintern - the Communist
International which would conquer the world. Clearly, the 18th Tank Division
took it seriously, until the Finns wiped it out. Dr Heyford went on to
serve in the British Army in North Africa and
was awarded a DSO and an MC - clearly a man of
determination, initiative and courage.
Fast-forward from then to now. Email arrives
from all corners as well as Helsinki.
Mark, who could be anywhere, has read all my flying stuff with pleasure,
and is about to tackle Hullo Russia,
“Too many authors portray rose-tinted versions of ‘heroes’,” he says. “Reality
and honest assessment is the best appraisal one can have.” Eric in Blenheim, New
Zealand, writes: “My only problem is: do I
finish re-re-reading Hornet’s Sting or do I delve straight into
Holy Smoke? Decisions, decisions!” Steve in Saddleworth says
he’s been a fan since he picked up a dog-eared copy of Piece of Cake,
“at which point I was hooked on your writing style”. And David in Ottawa, Canada,
ordered three copies of Holy Smoke (two for friends) and writes:
“It has been a pleasure for me to introduce friends and acquaintances to your
books. I’m a big fan. I colleague introduced me to Piece of
Cake and since then I have burned through what I have been able to
find...” His father and his colleague’s father flew in WW2,
one in Burma, the other in Europe. So my RAF quartet has an extra
Readers Write #57 May 2018
Bertha aims high,
and seeing nothing in the dark.
is a lot of World War One in World War Two. Nothing new in that
idea, but it helps to explain a few hoary myths, such as
the belief that machine guns were the most lethal weapon in the Great
War. The late John Terraine was a tireless myth-buster (he
did a good hatchet-job on the Angels of Mons) and he took a hard
look at the casualty figures. What he found was that
bullets caused less then 40 per cent of British casualties in
WW1. What did most of the damage? Artillery. Shells and
bombs accounted for nearly 60 per cent. Machine guns could kill men in
the open, but for most of the time the infantry was in the trenches,
safe from bullets. But not from artillery. A soldier who
survived it said: “Sustained shell-fire was the most trying and
terrifying thing to be feared by all.”
was an artillery war. In the third German offensive of 1918,
6,000 guns fired two million shells in a little over four
hours - and that was only part of the
attack. The tragedy of that war was that all sides
delivered ever-larger bombardments that caused massive carnage, and yet
for most of the war it made little difference; until the last
year, the Trenches survived. The generals, of course, were far
beyond the gunners’ range, which meant that, once the battle
began, they were out of control.
Hitler knew this, better than most. For almost the entire war he
was a messenger, what the British army calls a runner, in an infantry
battalion. He ran messages from the staff to the trenches and
vice versa: dangerous work. He took part in the Ypres campaign of 1914, and many of his comrades ended up in Kindermord,
the massacre of the innocents, when 25,000 German student soldiers were
buried in a mass grave. (Everyone in Hitler’s regiment was a
volunteer, with only a few months training.) He was wounded
three times, always from shellfire, and awarded the Iron Cross First
Class for ‘untiring and fearless activity’ under ‘conditions of
the greatest peril’. He always claimed that he knew more about
war than his generals did, and in front-line experience, that was
true. But one reason why Germany lost
the Second World War was because Hitler believed his own boast, yet he
was as remote from his fighting lines as the generals in the first
war, and since he alone was the supreme commander, he made even
more wrong decisions than they did.
The second war began with quick success in Poland and Norway and
the triumph of the Blitzkrieg: runaway victories that may have
confirmed his belief that he was infallible. They had
been the opposite of trench warfare, with tanks in the spearhead and
Stuka divebombers as mobile artillery. Hitler liked artillery,
the bigger the better. He probably remembered Big Bertha, Germany’s supercannon of 1918.
weighed so much that it could be moved only by rail. It had a
barrel of enormous length that could hurl a shell 26 miles high, which
put it in the stratosphere. Three minutes later it fell on Paris,
75 miles away. Nobody heard it coming. Everyone heard the
explosions, which were huge. The Germans began bombarding Paris with
Bertha in March 1918, to coincide with their offensive, and they
kept shelling the city for five months, killing 256 people. The
plan was to panic Parisinto surrendering, and it failed. One reason for this was the Coriolis Effect.
is well known to meteorologists and aerospace experts. If you
fling something high enough and far enough, it will eventually come
down - but meanwhile the planet keeps
rotating, and the missile will not land where you aimed it.
Bertha’s three minutes in the air meant that the shelling was never
accurate. The supergun was a terror weapon. Nevertheless,
after 1940 Hitler put a lot of time and effort into trying to shell London from France. His supergun never worked; if it had, the results would have been just as random.
Hitler never learned the lessons of history. He invaded Russia on
22 June 1941, which was the exact anniversary of Napoleon’s
invasion. If that wasn’t a coincidence, it suggests that Hitler
wanted to show Napoleon where he went wrong. Hitler sent German
troops into Russia without
winter clothing, which was a wild gamble on a quick victory
against a nation that is five thousand miles from end to end. Six
months later he showed his support for Japan by declaring war on the USA. Many Americans were isolationist; now they had no choice. Hitler had given Churchill a reason to cheer. With America as an ally, he knew that Britain could not lose.
believed that Russians, being Slavs, were inferior beings; they
would collapse in the face of his armies. (After only four
months he declared the war won: ‘The foe was broken and would
never rise again.’) He knew little about America but
he was convinced that its people were racially decadent and would not
fight. If his beliefs were proved wrong, he denied the
truth. When his armies were outside Moscow,
paralysed first by deep mud and then by deeper snow, his generals asked
permission to retreat. Hitler retorted: “Is it any less
cold fifty miles back?” Sarcasm from the comfort and
safety of a command post a thousand miles away was no way to fight a
war. In the words of John Keegan: “The physical isolation of his
headquarters ensured that he confronted reality only in
self-administered doses.” As the war went on, Allied
intelligence units argued about plans to assassinate Hitler. The
right decision, surely, was to leave him to blunder on as commander of
the Wehrmacht. His mistakes were an asset to the Allies.
This is not to diminish the stunning success of his Blitzkrieg. In 1940, Britain suffered the biggest defeat since the war over American independence. It is sobering to realise how unready Britain was.
Much has been said about the fine performance of Spitfire and
Hurricane squadrons in the Battle of Britain. They, of course,
were day fighters: their operations stopped when the sun went
down. Much less has been said about British night fighters during the Battle and the Blitz.
was a story of the wrong aircraft, poor equipment, and
frustrated aircrews. The first night fighters were
Blenheims, already obsolescent. There were a lot of
accidents - airfields had no homing
beacons, aircraft radios were feeble, blind-flying
instruments were unreliable. Night after night, the Blenheims
found no enemy bombers. “Our failure was due simply to our
inability to see another aircraft in the dark,” said an air
gunner. Eventually airborne radar sets appeared, and
they baffled everybody. They were subject to an infuriating
number of faults. When the Blitz began, the night skies were full
of enemy bombers; the Blenheims searched and always landed
empty-handed. Morale suffered. The hard fact was that London and other cities were taking a pounding and Fighter Command could do nothing about it.
times call for desperate remedies, and some strange solutions were
considered, including airborne searchlights, showers of magnesium
flares, minefields dangling on parachutes. Some wanted
anti-aircraft guns mounted on balloons. Others wanted aircraft to
fly above raiders and drop sand in their engines. At one stage,
Blenheim aircrew believed that they were losing radar contacts because
enemy bombers escaped with incredible speed. Then it was found
that their radar sets could show an enemy aircraft that was behind it
as well as in front. If the pilot believed the bomber was in front, and
he increased speed to catch it, the result was that he ran away from
the target behind him. With that discovery, the mythical
superfast bombers vanished,
radar sets appeared, and the excellent Beaufighter replaced
the Blenheim. On 20 November 1940, John Cunningham made a
radar contact and shot down a Junkers 88. This good news was
flashed to Group HQ, to Fighter Command HQ, and to Air Ministry. It was
very encouraging - but it was just
one bomber at a time when hundreds were raiding Britain.
When the Blitz ended, it was not because night fighters had
triumphed over German bombers. Such successes were rare in the
Blitz. Cunningham flew throughout the war and ended
up with eighteen night fighter victories. Victory came in
1945, and it was well deserved; but we should not forget
the grim struggle at the start of the war, when it wasn’t a
matter of winning the contest, but of not losing it.
Readers Write #58 July 2018
You live where?
the B-25 with nine guns,
and more cunning ack-ack schemes..
One of the pleasures of having readers in distant corners of
the globe is the unusual addresses they live in. For example:
Hamilton, in Texas,
lives in Coachwhip Hollow, and in Tennessee,
David’s town is named Timber Trail. There is a town in Australia called
‘The Gap’ (Keith lives there) and in Finland, Ian’s home town is Espoo, which
probably makes greater sense in Finnish; while a different Keith, in
Michigan, lives in the town of East China. (I wonder: is there a West China?) But for sheer improbability, the prize
goes to Peter in Norwich
who lives on Unthank Road.
This has nothing to do with ingratitude. Peter
explained the origin. Go back to Saxon times and the word meant ‘rough or
unclaimed common land, often settled illegally by squatters’. It happened
elsewhere; villages named ‘Unthank’ crop up in the North of
England. Then, in Victorian times, the estates running south-west from Norwich were owned by the
local Unthank family, and that is where today’s road exists. Can it be
that the family traced their ancestry to Saxon squatters? Nobody
Peter is one of many readers who discovered my books a
generation ago (sometimes two generations), and he values them because
they provided ‘enormous pleasure’ but also for ‘greater insight into the early
years of the RAF’ - where his grandfather served in
World War One, and after that in the Indian Air Force. Werner, in Vienna, writing in
impeccable English, also mentions ‘the pleasure of reading’ my books. ‘I don’t
know what to praise more, the characters you invented, the description of air
warfare, or the accuracy of detail.’ After the third reading, he rates A
Good Clean Fight as the best. What makes it outstanding is ‘the
description of the German enemy just as normal soldiers, not
bloodthirsty, stupid sadists, a trait you find in other war literature’. AGCF
seems to win more readers as the years go by. I always felt that the
portrayal of the enemy as dim squareheads did neither side any favours.
In that book, Major Schramm and Maria Grandinetti
- a German Intelligence officer and an Italian doctor exiled
- are the most human characters in the novel.
When I first published Piece of Cake, my American
publishers thoughtfully sent me a first sketch of their proposed cover
design. It showed RAF fighter pilots in England wearing khaki. I soon
got them dressed in RAF blue, but it was an understandable mistake.
The artist had assumed that, if US pilots wore khaki, everyone did. Here
is a group picture of US
aircrew to prove it:
The picture is from John Dill in Florida, a 30-plus year career naval officer
and sometime pilot, and it shows his father, standing on the right (his
head is next to the artwork teeth). The aircraft is a B-25, often known
as the Mitchell because Billy Mitchell led 16 B-25s in the first raid on Japan in April
1942. John’s dad’s crew flew on operations in the Pacific in 1944, and
got shot down, ‘mostly by friendly fire’, while supporting the invasion of Leyte Gulf. His dad must have been a good
pilot: everyone survived. His ops included low-level attacks, and
here is an extraordinary shot taken by his tail gunner (in the crew picture,
kneeling centre) while strafing an enemy ship:
The detail is astonishing. B-25s skip-bombed Japanese
ships; with no fins on the bombs and minimal fusing, this gave the aircraft
just time to escape the blast. Enemy ack-ack guns tried to track the
bombers; enlargements of the photograph show an individual Japanese
gunner on the bow, pointing at the plane. A bomb from a second B-25 has
hit the deck cargo and flung debris over the port side. In 1944 the B-25
was, for a twin-engined bomber, very heavily armed: this particular aircraft
had no less than nine 50-calibre machine guns. As John says, ‘They often sank
thin-skinned ships such as naval vessels by strafing alone.’
John collects military history and fiction; he’s read
my books several times. ‘My favourites are the ‘Hornet Squadron’ series, which
I’ve read to the point that they’ve fallen to pieces and I’ve had to replace
them... With authors like you, I get the benefit of very hard work without
doing the research myself.’ He ends with an invitation: ‘If you’re ever
in the Florida Panhandle, there’s a draft Guinness waiting for you.’ He
suspects that Stanley Woolley was a distant uncle.
In my last RW, I looked at Fighter Command’s failure to make
a dent in German nightly raids on Britain during the Blitz. The
RAF’s early night fighters had a lot to learn. I also looked at the
bizarre anti-aircraft ideas that the public suggested in 1940-41, things like
guns mounted on balloons and minefields dangling from parachutes.
Since then I’ve learned that, in World War One, far more
wild and wonderful solutions reached the Inventions Department of the Ministry
of Munitions. Suggestions for dealing with hostile aircraft
included: freezing the clouds and mounting guns on them; covering
the moon with a big black balloon; arming aeroplanes with scythes, like
Boadicea’s chariots; and attaching a searchlight to an anti-aircraft gun
and firing along the beam. Other proposals were dismissed as absurd, but
in essence they looked forward to a different war The WW1 suggestion of
getting cormorants to fly to Essen
and pick out the mortar from Krupp’s chimneys was not so far from the O.S.S.
plan in WW2 to send incendiary bats which would set fire to Japanese
houses. (Full details are in Holy Smoke.) And the idea of
hurling live-wire cables among enemy infantry is not so different from
Orders for Holy Smoke and Why 1914?
arrive from all over, the furthest coming from Shane in Australia. Jeff, in Minnesota, has ‘been a
fan for a long time’ but can’t locate Operation Bamboozle; I’ll
try to do something about that. Simon in Hampshire volunteers at the
local steam railway; they needed a copy of Why 1914?
as a prize for a quiz linked to their WW1 display in the waiting room.
Richard, in Essex, read Invasion 1940
and learned, to his surprise, that in WW2 that ‘the German army relied so
much on horses. I realised I was a victim of German propaganda: I had
thought their invasion force as being highly mechanised and unstoppable.’
(The reality was, of course, that the Royal Navy would have drowned not only
the German infantry but also the many thousand of horses in the invasion
barges.) Last but not least: Sue and her husband bought
Holy Smoke and Why 1914? Modesty forbids me to repeat their
praise, but she added that if I published my shopping list her husband
would read it avidly. Which made me think of the strange subjects
I’ve included in my novels. A Splendid Little War has (because
the plot required it) a detailed account of embalming as it was done in
1919. Not easy, but necessary.
thanks to all who wrote.