Previously in Readers Write...

 #1  March 09  

 News 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 218.  Hullo Russia 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 put.  

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 favourite remains Goshawk Squadron
 

Many thanks to you all. 

Derek Robinson          Return to Homepage


#2  May 09

Robbery in the Library, 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 and 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 Nicholas  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. 

 
   Some 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.

 

Derek Robinson          Return to Homepage


#3  June 09

Vulcan feedback,   the deaded P tube,  and the Snow White trick.   

Thomas Keneally 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.    

Derek Robinson      Return to Homepage


#4  July 09

No Guinness in Mongolia,

           a shrink's view of Silko,

                    and "Jag tycker om det," in spades 

 
       For 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.
 
     Peter was 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." 
 
    Vulcan aircrew 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 woman." 
 
   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 Donegal. 
 
     Peter "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.

Derek Robinson      Return to Homepage


Readers Write #5  August 09 
 Grand Theft Library,
           murder in the imagination,
 
                           and more kudos

            Amazing how many people steal books, especially books by me. I've heard from honest, upright citizens who wouldn't think of cheating on the golf course, but who 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 Africa got started with my stuff.  Then he bought the rest, has read and re-read them until they fell to bits, and now 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 fiction..."  

Am I?  Aren't most authors?  Before I wrote 'Goshawk Squadron', for instance, I worked hard on the research, and learned all I could about what the R.F.C. was doing in France in 1918  -  and also what the British, French and German armies were doing to each other. The book came out in 1971, when a lot of men were alive who had fought in that war, 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 any real 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 can't face reality," he told me. "They want to believe that nobody died in vain.  But a lot of war is waste." 

 Okay. 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 around 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 deciding 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. Will the proxy votes count in the vote on whether or not proxies should count? The judge is baffled.  Confusion reigns. 

 That episode  came partly from my imagination and largely from my experience when I was playing for the Manhattan Rugby Club in New York.  We had 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. 

 Quick round-up of some readers' messages. Ron in Walthomstow found 'Hullo Russia, Goodbye England' 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 for his 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 altered 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 section in my bookcase," he says, while James in South Carolina read 'Hullo Russia' without pause and liked it  -  "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 France simply confirms what 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 be done."   

     Many thanks to everyone. 

   Derek Robinson                                       Return to Homepage


Readers Write #6  October 09


              Heroics,   

                  Tin Pan Alley,  

                        and a First from Finland.  

   Someone remarked that there are no heroes in my books.  Plenty of courage, no lack of sacrifice, a lot of death.  But heroes?  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 tickertape 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 records, 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 it.  

   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 Eldorado Network'   -   which is  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 which 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 out loud so many times. My wife thinks I'm mad, The humour is fantastic, and the deaths 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 them it was lost (not true) but paid for it, and says: "I always enjoy recommending your work to fans of Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O'Brian, C.S. Forester,  etc. Absolute fantastic reads on all levels."  

   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 years 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 ordering 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 Story', wants a similar armful of what he calls my "delightful prose".   And Oulo, in case you're wondering, is in delightful Finland.  

My thanks to you all.  

Derek Robinson                   Return to Homepage

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Readers Write #7 November 09

 

 Viewers are smart,

          readers are far-flung,

                     translations are rare

 

   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 none.  

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.  

Derek Robinson                   Return to Homepage

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Readers Write #8 December 09

 

Rumblings in Cornwall,

                        the Forgotten War,

                                     and three 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 experience.   

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 homeland. 

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.

Meanwhile, my 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.

Derek Robinson                   Return to Homepage


Readers Write #9 February 2010

 

Barrel-rolling a Boeing, our forgetful MPs,  and a nice line in scams.

 

For the filming of  Piece of Cake, the Spitfires were flown by professionals, and they took it seriously,  which is understandable when (a) the aeroplane was worth half a million pounds (more now), and (b) it was irreplaceable, and (c) your life depended on it. 

Nevertheless, 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 lifted 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.  

I 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 the 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 office.  

Maybe that explains why quite a few working pilots like to read my stuff.  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."  (He's 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 (he's with Lufthansa) who keeps returning to Cake (now on his sixth reading).  "For me, it is maybe the best book about flying fighters I have ever read," he writes, "apart from being a very good book."  And 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 him back: "I just read the part where Squadron Leader Rex elaborates on fighter tactics in October '39  -  with Reilly (his dog) yawning and wandering away. That is so good."  Dogs often make useful contributions 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 discovering a treasure trove of undiscovered goodies."  (He meant the books, not my author's photograph, which a friend said looks like a benevolent Balkans dictator.  That's what friends are for.) Gordon passes on a 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 Bennett: "There 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 mind.  

Readers 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, somewhere in Oz, is reading Damned Good Show for the fourth time, and  -  because his dad flew in them  -  would like me to write about the dangerous, 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 ("I'm a 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 says, I supply the background to every main character  -  except Moggy Cattermole. Stephen wants to know more about him.  I'll give it some serious thought. 

Thanks to everyone who wrote.

             Derek Robinson                          Return to Homepage

** If you would like to see Karen's pictures, Click Here


Readers Write #10 March 2010

 Humour can be more dangerous than gunpowder. With gunpowder,  you get a choice of two:  either it explodes or it fails. With humour, the choice may be three.  Ideally, people laugh.  But some people may not see the point.  When that happens, the silence is deafening.  And yet others may find the alleged humour so unfunny that, for them, it backfires.  It offends them.  This is the risk you take, because there is no such thing as a joke that cannot upset somebody, somewhere.  So humour is a gamble.  Ask any stand-up comic.  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 humour keeps cropping up, even in the most desperate situations. It might be gallows humour.  In my first novel, Goshawk Squadron, a very young fighter pilot is so twitchy about going on patrol that he can't face his porridge at breakfast.  Woolley, the CO, comes in. "Are you going to eat that, Dudley?" Woolley asks.  "Or have you already?"   Nobody in the Mess laughs.  But I hoped the reader would at least smile, partly because the joke helps to tell the story and partly because it helps me  make a living. Richard Briers says much the same thing, and he should know.  

   Richard 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 put it, if you can still eat a boiled egg, you're an icon. I'm the third biggest icon in Bristol. The other two are Wallace and Gromit.) Briers says his talent for comedy has kept his family in comfort for more than 50 years.  Here's his advice to young actors:  "If you want to starve, go for Shakespeare.  But if you can be funny, lucky bugger, look at the bank balance..." Briers is no ham:  he's played King Lear on tour to 30 countries.  But being 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 Darren (in Western Australia) would have read and re-read all my RFC and RAF stories. 

    "My 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 him.  But what strikes him especially is the humour.  "Your wicked satire style is contagious, and I must control myself when dealing with difficult people for weeks after reading one of your books, lest I drop slightly too barbed comments in response to their 'unhelpfulness'." 

    Cut to Luxembourg.  Captain Jean-Marie, a retired pilot, tells me he reads and enjoys all my stuff.  Nowadays, the aircrew in all airlines must have a grasp of English,  which is good for me.  Martin in London SW6 (not a pilot) rates himself as "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 just finished Damned Good Show for the third time.  Now he's delving into Red Rag Blues and Operation Bamboozle, plus Hullo Russia, Goodbye England. ("Did Silk make it to the church with Zoe?" he asks.)

    Last 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 for his age, and never a pretty boy  -  turned out to be the only son of a minor Anglican bishop.  He had three elder sisters who spoiled him something rotten.  He soon rebelled against discipline and good manners (this often happened to sons of ultra-respectable families).  He found that he had a talent for getting his own way, sometimes by flattery, sometimes by bribery, sometimes by blackmail.  He was morally neutral but fairly brave. Liked flying  because civilians, especially women, treated him like a god.  Otherwise  -  no ambitions and no principles except having a good time at others' expense. If it hadn't been for the war he would probably have ended up in jail.

Thanks to everyone who wrote.

             Derek Robinson                          Return to Homepage

Readers Write #11 May 2010

Risky Hits,
                    Inedible Cakes,
                                            and the shock of Woolley's Twin Brother 

         When he was being interviewed on television, Stephen Sondheim remarked that, at the opening of  West Side Story on Broadway, many of the audience walked out. The show wasn't what they expected. Their idea of a good musical was lots of easy 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 changed for ever the way musicals were written. Sondheim (lyrics) and Leonard Bernstein (music)  -  with some help from Shakespeare  -  wanted to stretch their talents and challenge the audience's expectations.  They wanted to move on, to create something fresh and new and surprising

 This is satisfying but dangerous.  Bizet's Carmen was fresh and new and it got 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 company turned it down because, they said, people can't dance to five-in-a-bar music. Van Gogh 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 months. Cake is not in the same creative league as Stravinsky or Van Gogh (although some have said it's up there with Heller's Catch-22), but I was trying to make something fresh and original when I wrote it:  a novel about the Battle of Britain which showed that RAF fighter pilots were not all heroic, handsome and always victorious.  They were human. The strain on them was huge. Some behaved admirably. Some did not. Inevitably, the book was condemned by those who preferred to believe the myth. They said that Cake was wrong, bad, disgraceful.  I wasn't surprised, or even disappointed.  If you stick your neck out, chances are that someone will try to chop it off. One good friend urged me to rewrite Goshawk Squadron without Woolley who, he felt, was totally unacceptable. Another friend abandoned  The Eldorado Network after two 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 despise my terrible taste

This knowledge only goes to boost my respect for those big-hearted readers who strongly recommend my stuff to their children, wives, ex-wives, working colleagues, neighbours, librarians, and someone they met in a bar. Peter, in Wellington, New Zealand, falls into a slightly different category  -  his (adult) daughter takes his books and fails to return them, which explains why he ordered another Cake 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 and  Hornet's Sting, bought at various times against depredations by my daughter."  

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 simply says, "Big fan  -  keep doing it!" while D.E.W.  in Luton says, "I enjoy 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, informative and thought-provoking." Finally, Nathaniel, here in Bristol, has read everything of mine he could find, then bought Hullo Russia and finished it "at a sitting".   He also uncovered a rarity  -  a figure who was famous enough to get a big obituary which (surprise, 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 had). It was for Edmund Fisher, a brilliant figure in the publishing world, described as "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 Woolley, the RFC commander in Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson whom Edmund later published (and what a terrifying airman he would have made):  a brave, passionate, rebarbative officer, always seeking out the best in his men, a tireless inspiration to them, always minding about winning, having a huge appetite for combat, insufferable to his superiors, a rattler of cages, a hater of pretentiousness and snobbery, cutter of swathes, not going to be forgotten."  

Certainly not by me. Although he published Goshawk Squadron when he was at Sphere, I never met Edmund. My loss.

Derek Robinson                          Return to Homepage


  Readers Write #12 June 2010

Who 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 happened. 
 
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 nice touch. 
 
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 come!"  
 
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 back." 
 
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 impact." 
 
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. 
 
Derek Robinson                                         Return to Homepage
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Readers Write #13 July 2010

Shot down by Rex, 

   Lambs into Tigers in Arizona,

    and 'A man has to do what a man has to do' when he's Luis Cabrillo.

Some actors say they get inside the skin of the characters they're playing by first mastering the way that character walks. I knew an actor like that,  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 he was cast as a crude and selfish oaf. Every morning he would lurch downstairs, slump into a chair, curse the cat and demand a mug of tea in a voice made of gravel. Not easy to live with. 

   Actors live the part. When the TV series of Piece of Cake was being filmed on location,  Tim Woodward  -  a pacifist in his younger years  -  played Rex, the squadron CO, a hard, ambitious and arrogant man.  During a break in the filming I unexpectedly met Rex, in uniform, still looking hard, ambitious and arrogant.  For a second, my right arm wanted to salute him. (I'd done my National Service, and you can take the boy out of the RAF but you can never take the RAF out of the boy.) Woodward, as Rex, looked right through me. Quite right. He was a squadron leader. I was an erk.  

    With authors, it's often names that help to create the character.  Rex was perfect for the CO (we never know his first name).  Before I could begin Goshawk Squadron I thought a lot about that CO's name,  and until I settled on Stanley Woolley, I couldn't make him talk.  I didn't want to give him a heroic name like Beauchamp or Dalrymple or Carruthers (or Bigglesworth).  I wanted something that would cut against the grain of the usual romantic image of the RFC. Stanley Woolley.  

And then there's Moggy Cattermole.  I named him because he's lanky, and it helps if tall characters have long names.  I knew someone at school called Cattermole, always nicknamed Moggy, and the combination seemed right for someone who is  -  as a Battle of Britain 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 with Paxton. (I borrowed it from the name of a village in Scotland where I went to school.) David in Oro Valley, Arizona, wrote: "I've re-read War Story several times, and particularly enjoyed the very accurate evolution that you skilfully wove for Paxton. Does he 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 transition." 

    Which leads me to the Luis Cabrillo books, not so much lamb-into-tiger as the saga of Tell 'Em What They Want To Hear. It began with The Eldorado Network, inspired by the feats of a real double agent in WW2, codenamed Garbo. He was born in Spain, so I gave my character a Spanish name.  I kept it short and simple and easy to pronounce, partly because I was going to have to write it ten thousand times and partly because I can't read novels with long, complex, unpronounceable names (often Russian).  Luis is easy, and if you dissect Cabrillo, you'll find a popular kitchen soap-pad buried in there.  I once had a New York literary agent who said that US publishers disliked novels with Spanish heroes, so I rewrote the whole of Red Rag Blues with Luis Cabrillo from Spain changed to Guy Montgomery from England.  Turned out they didn't like Guy either.  Neither did I. Exit New York agent. 

    Enter a man who sees the true worth of Luis.  Graham Thorne, of Malden in Essex, sent me a sparkling little review of Operation Bamboozle, and here it is.  

"I loved the classic Robinson opening paragraph, which brought me straight into the plot and made me want to know immediately what was going on. I also loved the headlong twists and turns of the plot and the fact that, for ages, I could not figure out what on earth the map on the cover had to do with the book I was reading.

 

The rapid-fire and amoral style in which the book is written seems to me to capture perfectly what it would be like to know, and live with, Luis Cabrillo. He has immense charm and wit but also that whiff of danger  -  and borderline lunacy  -  that makes us ordinary readers secretly glad to know him from a distance.

 

It was a joy to meet the gorgeous Stevie Fantoni again and a privilege to be introduced to the Princess Chuckling Stream. Among the superb supporting cast of hoods and enforcers, I particularly liked the psychotic Vito DiLazzari.  He is the classic, indulged son of the tyrant, over-educated, so that he knows too much for his hereditary role  -  Fox instead of Hedgehog.

 

So where now for Conroy and Cabrillo? I hope we hear more of them. For, as Luis gets older and that little bit slower, and as the world gets more conformist 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 about a man running out of room, and Derek Robinson is the man to do it."

    Well, time will tell.  Are con artists an endangered species?  Recently, an unemployed lorry-driver conned a property developer out of £1 million by persuading him that the Savoy Hotel in London was for sale, cheap, at £250 million. (Real price: £500 million.)  The guy's in jail, but the con suggests that charm still parts many folk from their money. And Luis has truckloads of charm. 

    So:  thanks to Graham,  and to far-flung readers who recently asked for books  -  Anders in Sweden, David in Malaysia, Matt in Wisconsin, Fred in Virginia, Christopher in Spain, Lars in Denmark, Blair in Minneapolis, and many more.   

   My thanks to all who wrote.    Derek Robinson     Return to Homepage

 Readers Write #14 September  2010

The black widow rides again, 
          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 circuit..."  
 
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. 

My thanks to all who wrote.                    Derek Robinson             Return to Homepage

Readers Write #15 October 2010      

Snoopy dies again, 

         A 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 recalls. 
 
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.

   My thanks to all who wrote.    Derek Robinson     Return to Homepage 


Readers Write #16 December 2010      

Caesar's 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.  I got quite a bit of hate mail then, but this one was a classic, being not only 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 REFERENCE.  

       HANG 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 triple exclamation marks.  I keep it on the wall for much the same reason that Roman emperors who were making a triumphal procession used to keep a slave standing behind them whose job was to whisper: 'Remember, Caesar, you are mortal.' In my case, the warning is:  'Remember, Robinson, some of the 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 mention this because I get some very generous emails which may not be statistically representative.  Kieran in Buckinghamshire reckons that the RFC trilogy is '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 and I have spent years enjoying your books'  -  he bought some as gifts, always a clincher  -  'and I re-read them on occasions.'  Richard in Manchester has no doubts:  'They really are wonderful.'  And Marc in Essex says, 'Your books are brilliant,' especially the RFC and RAF series 'which I have re-read many times (as has my father, an ex-national serviceman who served in Malaya).  There's not many novelists, apart from George McDonald Fraser, that get it as right as you do  -  the laughter, the excitement, the selfishness and naivety of young men, the incredible physical and mental demands, the terror and the tragedy.' And Stafford in South Africa simply says, 'I devour your books,' and he bought three of the latest titles to 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 the pub instead.  I don't hear from them because they're not going to waste a 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 Forces, found depths in the novels that surprised even me. He recommends that Junior Air Force Officers under his command should read them, and  his analysis of Piece of Cake tells why: 

                   'Dark humour underscores a theme throughout that speaks to the individual character's means of dealing with the   realities of war. The strength of the book lies in its development of its characters and its insights into the human psyche.  The Commanding Officers and Flight Commanders struggle with the changes that war brings in their relationships within the Squadron between themselves and the young line pilots. Conversely, the line pilots struggle themselves as they grapple with the deadliness of their chosen profession.  Leadership strengths and weaknesses make themselves felt more keenly and shortfalls are quickly tolerated  less or are forgiven. This novel captures the essence of the effects of combat on unit cohesion and command.  It is stark and uncomfortable but it highlights lessons that are best learned and understood before the guns start firing.' 

 Which - as Chris points out - unfortunately doesn't always happen. 

 Finally, a double whammy of praise in another unsuspected place.  John Sandford is an American novelist, much read on both sides of the Atlantic.  He wrote a story called Dead Watch. The whammy is double because the central character is also an author.  Here he's in a college town, with some time to kill: 

 'The day was a nice one, the beginning of warmer weather, and the college girls were coming out of their winter cocoons, walking along with their form-fitting jeans and soft breast-clinging tops. 

 Excellent. 

 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 Robinson, and was anxious to get another. And, of course, university bookstores were the most likely place to find his own books; like most authors, he always checked.' 

 (True.  Jake finds a couple of his own books 'in what he thought was an obscure location', so he quietly reshelves them in a better spot.  He also buys a copy of  Goshawk Squadron.) 

 '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 reading about the Goshawks.' 

 Thanks, John.  Always nice to get an unsolicited testimonial from someone in the same line of work.  

   My thanks to all who wrote.    Derek Robinson     Return to Homepage

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Readers Write #17 January 2011  

Bristle with pride,

        The wide blue yonder in deepest Texas,

                and hilarity 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 professional cartoonist, illustrated it brilliantly. It was small and cheap (a lot of people sent it instead of Christmas cards). And many of the Bristle entries were about areas 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 they laugh at Staten Island.) 

Krek Waiter's 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 like an 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 way to 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, sand 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 books  -  was "excited to find your website" and decided to download  Hullo Russia from Audible,  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 with the Amazon company Audible.com, with the result that some of my books will be appearing on Amazon sites in the UK, the US and Australia and New Zealand, and probably in other areas. You will find the audiobooks listed in both CD and Cassette formats, and also as downloads under the name Audible. Which is good news. Here are pictures of the audio covers.  I like them.   

AudBk_GCF     AudBk_DGS     AudBk_GodhkSqdrn     AudBk_HRGE
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 all. 

Candidates 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 reading Piece 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 the French radio truck."  And there is similar laugh-aloud evidence from Edgewater, Florida, where Loraine writes that 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 bought 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 same. 

 My thanks to all who wrote.    Derek Robinson                                Return to Homepage

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Readers Write #18 March 2011  

Hornets in Yonkers,

        Hilarity and brutality in New Zealand,

                and Robinson-mania in the Netherlands.             

You 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 maybe Fang. 
 
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 powerful therapy.  
 
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 84-year-old mother-in-law, who loved it as much as I did!"  He bought copies of Damned Good Show and Hullo Russia, Goodbye England. He builds and 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 morning."
 
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."
 
Mail 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 blessing. 
 
Finally, how about this...   

                                                        Derek&Bill_EMQ     
 
I'm 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 meet him.
 

 My thanks to all who wrote.    Derek Robinson           Return to Homepage

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Readers Write #19 May 2011  

Going where no university dared,

        Matching Woolley Guinness for Guinness,

                and the Agony Aunt Flies Again.             

What 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 they survive.  
 
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.  
 
I realised the wider truth about that vacuum when I saw a review by David Aaronovitch of a book called 'Civilisation' by Niall 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.  
 
Equally impressive are the model-makers.  Keith in Leeds bought a copy of A Good Clean Fight.  This is a sequel to Cake,  and it 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. 
 
                                     desert1 with backdrop
 
What 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 young 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. 
 
Derek Robinson                                        Return to Homepage

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Readers Write #20 August 2011  

The 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 screen, so it's said, and nobody writes a real letter any more. But there's another angle.  The Internet has been good for books (if not for bookshops). Peter 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 that) "but I only just started reading your other novels, obtained secondhand or over the 'Net, as most seem to be out of print."  Too true, but I'm leaning on my publisher to revive them. Peter ordered copies of Hornet's Sting and Hullo Russia, Goodbye England. (Another round of applause for the man who invented websites.)  

Meanwhile, a longtime fan, David in Malaysia, tipped me off to something my publisher had failed to tell me, which is that their reissue of 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 dropped out 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 can now get (if that's your taste) my RFC trilogy (War Story, Hornet's Sting, Goshawk Squadron) as e-books on Amazon/Kindle. Swings and roundabouts. Or 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 Hugh Martin, a nice guy and a talented lyricist and composer. He died a few months ago, aged 96. During the Second World War he co-wrote several hits, including a number called The Trolley Song ('Clang, clang, clang went the trolley, Ding, ding, ding went the bell, Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings.  From the moment I saw you,  I fell...')  which, if you're one of the younger fellahs, you may never have heard.  But in 1944 Judy Garland belted it out in the movie Meet Me in St Louis, and it helped make her a star.  

Hugh Martin kept working and in 1957 he had another hit.  Bear in mind that by 1957 the world looked a grim and gloomy place. The Korean War had ended in stalemate. Nuclear tests were exploding in all parts. The Soviet Union had the first satellites circling the globe, including the USA.  So, no great 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 and 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 lines which he felt had expressed the world in 1957?  Probably.  But he was a professional. He was in the entertainment business.  So am I. First and foremost, I write novels that entertain.  If they also take the reader somewhere he might never otherwise have gone,  and make him think a little   -   what the film director Sidnet Lumet called "stimulating thought and setting the mental juices flowing  "   -  well, that's a bonus. Lumet managed it in 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 band) who first read  Goshawk Squadron as a boy, "while hunkered under the bedclothes with a torch."  Since then it's been with him in the first Gulf War, Northern Ireland twice, Kenya and the United States. No wonder his copy is looking rather fragile.  "I thoroughly enjoyed Hullo Russia, Goodbye England," he says. "What a fantastic slice of Cold War madness, articulated through perfect characters. I've read your books since I was a schoolboy and they never fail to entertain me."  (He also bought copies of Operation Bamboozle and my Summer Special.)    

When I finishd writing Hullo Russia I wondered if it would work.  Nuclear annihilation is not, after all, a barrel of laughs.  But it seems I needn't have worried.  Now I've finished a new flying story.  It has its share of triumph and disaster.  Will it work?  Will it entertain and make the mental juices flow? We'll see.

My thanks to all who wrote. 
 
Derek Robinson                                        Return to Homepage

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Readers Write #21 October 2011  

Literary lions stumble,

       Confessions 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 was 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 that I've finished a new novel.  Maybe the less-than-good news is that, although it's a flying yarn, it's not like any of the others.  Some authors can please their readers by performing the same trick again and again - sequel after sequel.  I can't.  I write because I want to go somewhere fresh, find different characters and report something surprising.  Often this involves aeroplanes; but there's a big leap from A Good Clean Fight (Libyan desert, 1942) to Hullo Russia, Goodbye England (Vulcan nuclear squadron. 1962). Different tasks, different mentalities, different outcomes.

And a different author.  I'm not the same scribbler I was twenty, thirty years ago, and what may seem worth exploring now was unknown territory then.  As someone once said: How do I know what I think until I see what I've said?   Except that, in my case, I often don't know what I've said until you, the reader, points it out to me.  Every novel is a gamble, and even the best writers stumble, once in a while. Robert Louis Stevenson and P.G.Wodehouse  -  two names you rarely see in the same sentence  -  each wrote a stinker or two.  They must have thought the yarns were a good idea at the time.  (Nobody sits down and thinks: I'll waste a year or two on a real turkey.)  But the end product was a big mistake.  OK, if you insist, I'll tell you the titles: Stevenson's Catriona (poor sequel to Kidnapped; David Balfour falls in love with the childish Catriona who, as Stevenson admitted, is "as virginal as billy-ho!") and Plum's Psmith, Journalist  (English toff flattens the New York Mafia with a straight left). Both books, for me, never got off the ground. 

 Back to the beginning.  Why do writers write? Bill, somewhere in the US, came across Piece of Cake in the library of the US Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, enjoyed it immensely, cruised through my RFC and RAF series and, he says, "to some modest degree, they shaped the man I am today."  He's seen life:  after the Navy he became a paramedic and a firefighter. He adds that "Frankly, after my father, you and Bernard Cornwell have been my biggest and most positive role models."  I was startled.  I take what you said as a compliment, Bill, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable being a role model.  After all, I'm the invisible man in the room.  I just tell the story and let the reader make what he likes of it.  Two characters I've invented   -   Stanley Woolley in Goshawk Squadron and Moggy Cattermole in Cake -  are not the sort of men you'd want your daughter to marry.  Yet they score strongly with readers.  I don't know where I found them.  Sometimes I think the door was left open and they wandered in.  That's how Skull arrived in Cake (and other books). 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 Inland Revenue taxes me by estimating what it reckons I'll earn next year,  which is total guesswork based on what I made last year.  Like most freelance writers, my income goes up and down like a roller-coaster, so the Revenue get it wrong as often as right.  If you want steady money, I'd recommend a career as a chartered accountant.

 What about fame?  It's not much of a reward. It certainly won't pay for the groceries. A good review in the newspapers is very welcome, as long as you remember that it'll wrap tomorrow's fish and chips.  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 from now?  Do I care?  Not much. I'm not writing for posterity (it never did me anything for me). And look at what happened to J.M.Synge, who wrote The Playboy of the Western World. The play's opening night, in Dublin in 1907, caused a riot.  The audience stormed the stage, and not to congratulate the actors.

 Synge's crime was to write a play without Irish heroes.  Ireland in 1907 was still, in effect, a British colony, and nationalism, independence, freedom were in the air.  Dubliners wanted a play they could cheer about.  Instead, Synge's Playboy gave them a man built like Woody Allen who killed his dad with a spade and was idolised by the feckless peasantry. The country was outraged.  Two years later, Synge was dead.  Quite soon after that, Playboy was acclaimed as a masterpiece, performed worldwide. It's still being revived, currently by the London Old Vic   -   a century too late to do Synge any good.  So why did he write it?  Why stick his neck out?  All we can say, with any confidence, is that he couldn't resist it.  The story was too good to miss.  He'd left the door open and it 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, now reports that his new copy is "banned from the bathroom".   Sam in Brisbane "first read  Piece 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 publishers, MacLehosePress/Quercus Books.)   Jimmy on Facebook sent more details of the amazing Rise of Flight, which creates Internet flight sims of WW1 combat 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 trilogy 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 Operation Sealion and the truth about the role of Fighter Command in the non-invasion of 1940.....a topic I've looked at in my Invasion 1940.  Meaty stuff.

 My thanks to all who wrote. 

 Derek Robinson                                          Return to Homepage


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Readers Write #22 January 2012

Ice cold in Kandahar,

a Goshawk with clipped wings,

and no good deed goes unpunished

The Royal Flying Corps is almost a hundred years old. A reader of my RFC trilogy today is in a comparable position to someone in 1912 who was reading about the Battle of Waterloo. And yet today's reader seems able to put himself in the cockpit of an FE2b or an SE5a with a great understanding of of the excitement and horror of flying over the Western Front. That understanding is sharpened when the reader has himself tasted a similar excitement or horror in combat. That's my theory, anyway. Patrick, an old friend and a U.S. infantry veteran of Iraq, is now on his second tour of duty in Aghanistan, where, he says, "Your books were a 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 is led 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 teammates show up in your books as well, but without the Wodehouseian banter of their WW2 British counterparts. I am looking forward to seeing whom I'll meet in the RFC series." He meant Hornet's Sting, which may take his mind off the cold "as I start to read, shivering in my billets near Kandahar."

Somewhat north of Afghanistan, in Bavaria, reading Goshawk Squadron caused Erben to start thinking hard about another war. His father, a WW2 veteran, told 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 a strategic war without having strategic weapons. I cannot understand how he or 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 not cunning planning," Erben says, and he singles out Operation Sealion (the planned seaborne invasion, largely in towed river barges) as an example of the improvisation that dogged the German war effort. "You wouldn't have needed 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 themselves) cannnot always be taken seriously. Now he's bought enough books to fill the gaps, and he seeks The Eldorado Network too - which, unfortunately, I can't supply. Maybe my publisher will reissue it. Rob, near Rotterdam, a "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 least once a year") discovered that there is a sequel. In fact there are three. I have no spare copies of the first, Artillery of Lies, but I was able to supply Cees with Red Rag Blues and Operation Bamboozle.

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 website 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 he "particularly enjoyed the RFC series. I have great respect for those airmen. I used the Vickers MMG when a member of my school Cadet Unit (late 1950s). Clearing a 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." (I can't imagine what those parts were, unless his dad took exception to the solitary section where Woolley forces a new fighter pilot to utter a string of profanity, in an effort to shatter the schoolboy decency that obstructs his hunger for the kill. In later years I was able to compare that section with translations of the book and learn how to swear in French, Spanish and Dutch.) Peter went on to read more of my stuff, ordered Hullo Russia and Hornet's 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 those years ago.

From Canada to England and Portsmouth, where Didier ("a huge fan") ordered Hornet's Sting and A Good Clean Fight. Robert in Tyne and Wear bought Invasion,1940 and Operation Bamboozle, and emailed me later to say, "I am sorry 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 as your 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 bought all of your WW1 and WW2 books and been so enthralled and impressed that I 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 (scheduled for March 2012). Elsewhere, David in Rochester, Kent, having enjoyed Operation Bamboozle, adds: "I hope you write many more." At least one more - called A Splendid Little War - will appear from MacLehose Press, probably in autumn 2012. After that, who knows?

One thing is definite. I shan't be doing any business in all of February 2012. The shop will be shut while the computer gets thoroughly overhauled, oiled and polished. So - please save your emails for March.

My thanks to all who wrote.

Derek Robinson

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Readers Write #23 April 2012  

A curtain-call for extras,

             gunplay 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 horse.   "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 has a 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 action, partly to remind myself that he had his bad days too, and partly to remember that what matters (especially in a crime story) are the extras, the minor characters whom Chandler crafted so beautifully.  In The Lady in the Lake, he has a scene where his private eye Philip Marlowe visits the Graysons, a retired couple who can probably provide some information.  Chandler wrote:

      'Grayson was a long stooped yellow-faced man with high shoulders, bristly eyebrows and almost no chin. The upper part of his face meant business. The lower part was just saying goodbye. He wore bifocals and had been gnawing fretfully at the evening paper.'

Chandler could have cut all that, and more like it, and got on with the plot, but the book would have been all the poorer.  There's a good reason why Chandler is still in print, 53 years after his death. It's not for his plots. It's for his 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 elderly perfume in it, like three widows drinking tea.'  Those last five words 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 fortune, Roger Machell was my editor   -   and Roger had also been Raymond Chandler's editor for his British editions. He told me that one day his phone rang and it was Chandler, calling from his home in La Jolla, California, and 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 story included a scene where a successful author, in a fit of boredom and depression, tries and fails to kill himself. Or maybe he doesn't really try, maybe he's just acting.  What's interesting is that Chandler wasted nothing.  Anything and everything he saw and heard got noticed and remembered, including his own misadventure with a gun in a bathroom. One day he might be able to use it. Every writer should have two mottoes.  One is: Trust nobody, check everything. The other is: Look and listen.  The book isn't about the author.  It's about the world he sees, even when (in my case) that's a 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 encouraging. (There is no limit to the flattery an author can absorb.)  Bill, somewhere in the U.S., himself a novelist, spent 25-plus years in the American Air Force, mostly flying Phantoms, so his opinion carries weight when he says of my flying books: 'I can tell you that the fighter-pilot humor is right on target.'  He re-reads Goshawk Squadron and is now 'in the midst of Piece of 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 Clean Fight in audiobook format. Bravo, is all I can say. I also listened to Hullo Russia, Goodbye England last year and thoroughly enjoyed that as well!'  (Much of the credit must go to the actors who made the readings, Michael Tudor Barnes and Nick McCardle, for their talented 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 more times since.'  Liam via Facebook 'cannot wait for the new book, A Splendid Little War, apparently due later this year.' (Publication is now planned for January 2013.)  He urges 'those of you not in the know' to 'get Piece of Cake, the greatest novel ever written'.  Another Facebook friend, John, 'just finished  Hornet's Sting. What a cracker!  I always had a soft spot for Paxton  - poor bugger. The development of his character from the first book  (War Story), and his relationship with O'Neill, was beautifully done. The end of Pax's story certainly shocked me.'

Then  -  surprise, surprise   -   a letter from Guy, a very old pal (we were at college together, back in the Middle Ages). Recovering from a rather nasty illness, he had time to re-read my flying stories   -   'Once again I was totally engrossed among the vivid characters. Their persuasive arguments and caustic banter make them so alive and such good company.'  Enter his wife, to give him a copy of my non-fiction book, Invasion. 1940, and he says 'to my astonishment I was so hooked by the reasoning that I finished the whole of it before returning to the interrupted novel.'  Well, I worked hard to make that slice of history as readable as any work of fiction, and I'm glad it paid off.  Guy spent his National Service on a Motor Torpedo Boat, dashing up and down the Channel, so he has personal knowledge of those hazardous waters.

I'm delighted to hear that Guy's gremlins have been zapped.  On the other hand, maybe the Luis Cabrillo quartet should have a health warning on the cover.  L.L in New York 'picked up Red Rag Blues, ran across Cabrillo, the Fantonis and Chick Scatola  (Mafiosi of varying competence) and began laughing so hard' that he ended up in hospital   -   although it's only fair to add that he was already suffering from a deep chest cold, so maybe Luis Cabrillo's con-artist doings simply hastened the doctor's decision. Anyway, I sent L.L. a copy of the sequel, Operation Bamboozle and he replied with thanks, saying: 'I look forward to reading BAMBOOZLE with a pacemaker handy.'    Both books were fun to write, and I'm glad they're fun to read. 

My thanks to all who wrote, and to the many who sent me birthday greetings on Facebook  -   too many for me to answer.

 Derek Robinson                   Previous Readers Write


Readers Write #24 June 2012  

        Plugs,

             Black Eyes,

                         And Other Occupational Hazards

Critics 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.

That's 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.

Nevertheless, 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?

He 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.

Authors 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.

Take 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 year.

Moving 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).

"Robinson's 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..."

It 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.

Well, 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 decide.

By coincidence,  as I was writing this column, an email arrived from an old fan, Martin in the Kings Road, London   -   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. 

Derek Robinson                    Previous Readers Write


Readers Write #25 July 2012  

      Stooging down The Mall,

          Strafing the literary festivals, 

              and Moggy on the analyst's couch. 


To London for a day, a trip that turned into something of a challenge.  I was aiming for The Mall Galleries in (obviously) The Mall. The challenge was because (1) it was raining, (2) it was humid and (3) every time I tried to get into The Mall my way was blocked by large scaffolding barriers guarded by men in hard hats and high-visibility jackets. Signs of pre-Olympics security mania, I suppose. Eventually I got in, found the gallery and its Exhibition of Paintings by the Guild of Aviation Artists, which included a series of paintings  done by Tony Cowland especially for all eight of my R.F.C. and R.A.F.novels, now being reissued by MacLehose Press. Arrived in time to hear the prizes being announced.  Must have been a hundred artists present, so competition was strong.  Tony won the Winsor & Newton Award for a Group of Paintings  -  i.e., our covers  -   and quite right too.  Here's his original, before the title and stuff gets laid on, for Damned Good Show. The episode he illustrated shows R.A.F. Hampdens on a low-level raid on German warships in the North Sea, winter of 1939-40.  This book, along with A Good Clean Fight,comes out in August 2012.  The R.F.C. trilogy follows.
                                                             Free For All_16Kb                                                      
    While Tony and I were looking at his award-winning group on the wall of the gallery and talking about odd things like contrast and perspective , a man in a well-cut dark suit and an R.A.F. tie  paused to admire the pictures.  We introduced ourselves, and he said he'd read and enjoyed all the novels, given them to friends and now planned to buy them all over again;  which was good to hear (especially when Tony told me later that the man was a very senior serving officer).  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 own experience, he said, he knew that the Service does many things well and a few things badly, and to ignore the second does nobody any favours.  It was refreshing to hear this.  A novel is not a recruiting poster. 
 
    I was on the train, still enjoying the after-glow of his remarks, when reality caught up with me.  Praise is nice, but it doesn't help anyone write the next book. By chance, I'd just heard from Graeme, a fellow-novelist in Western Australia.  My stuff seems to have been a helpful influence on his work.   Generous of him to say so.  But  -  again  -  it doesn't help me write the next book.  And then there's Erica Wagner, Literary Editor of The Times, who knocks out a column every Saturday, and who recently wrote that nowadays 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 Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, where "Lady Antonia Fraser, John Banville, Edna O'Brien and others will be discussing their writing relationships with Beckett." Good luck to them.  But will it help them write their next books? Or will it be a total (if pleasant) distraction from the day job? Which is to come up with something fresh and original, isn't it? I just ask the questions.  Never mind: on to the next festival! Descartes said: I think, therefore I am.   Some authors have updated that:  I go to literary festivals, therefore I am a writer.  It ain't necessarily so. I believe literary festivals should be rationed.  One per book.  Write a book, you can appear at a festival.  Have fun. Okay, now go home, write another book.
 
Meanwhile, readers keep taking a second (or fifth, or tenth, even twentieth) look at Piece of Cake and tripping over things they'd never noticed before.  Joe (don't know where)  first saw "the TV series when I was an aviation-obsessed lad barely ten years old", and 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 has one small question "about everyone's favourite sociopathic bastard, 'Moggy' Cattermole. His apocalyptic rant to Mary stuck in my mind from the very 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 for days on end, waiting for his return.)   Years later, Joe realised Moggy 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."  And Joe asked: was this ambiguity intentional, or was he reading too much into the episode? 
 
   The answer is: the ambiguity was intentional. I wanted each reader to decided how far Moggy's feelings for Mary went, and why he was so furious with her.  Everyone thought she was a jinx. But was this 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 interesting characters in the book (some say the most memorable), and it's hard to find a simple answer to the question: what makes him tick? The key passage between Moggy and Mary is on pages 253-239 of Cake, hardback edition, and pages 313-318 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 pal in 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.
         

 Derek Robinson
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Readers Write #26 September 2012  

      No Bananas,

          radiant seagulls, 

              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.

   In 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. 

   But 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.

Derek Robinson
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Readers Write #27 October 2012  

      Peregrine Delancey gets his comeuppance,

          boos and cheers for HRGE

              and barnstorming over Winsconsin.

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. 

 

      aeronca     


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.

Derek Robinson
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  Readers Write #28        January 2013

Halley's Comet strikes again,

       The high price of Norwegian literacy,

                          and 'stoked' spans the globe.

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 it.

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 Norway - '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 and about.

My thanks to all who wrote.   Derek Robinson                  Return to Homepage

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    Readers Write #29        March 2013
Forgotten epics: boosting the Spits,
             welcome back the irrepressible Lacey,
                      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 war-horses...'
 
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:
 
                                               Tomahawk in Sands   
 
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 wonderful painting.

My thanks to all who wrote.   Derek Robinson      


*For the technically-minded, there are two Wikipedia articles you might find interesting:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variable_pitch_propeller

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constant_speed_propeller

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    Readers Write #30       May 2013

Lucky, lucky Charles Dash,

         Rolling a Tiger,

               and the truth about Deflection Shooting.

 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.

 From Washington DC, Paraag wrote to wish me a happy birthday.  He's read most of my stuff, reckons that 'a teenager reading 
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.  

                                  TigerMoth 

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.  

Derek Robinson                            Previous Readers Write

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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 northern France'.  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:  

                                          GoshawkCvr_Am_ Edn_1972

(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. 
 
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 one.'   Wham! 

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 in war.

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

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    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 failure. 

 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 to Marseilles, 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, calling for a calm temperament and superb navigational skills.  By 1943 (when he was 24) he commanded the squadron, now flying Lysanders and Hudsons, small enough to land in fields.  He flew SOE ops until 1944 and then  went to the Far East, where he commanded a special duties squadron, using 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 York State, 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 knowledge.

 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.  

 

 Lanc 001THUMB    Lanc 002THUMB    Lanc 003THUMB    Lanc 004THUMB    Lanc 005THUMB

   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 now doubled."  

 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 good.  

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, Goodbye England. Air commodores were made of tough stuff

My thanks to all who wrote.

Derek Robinson 

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                                                                                                     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 startled him. 

 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, Goodbye England 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 column. 

 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  possible.

 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: 

  Mr 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 enough. 

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.

Derek Robinson 

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Readers Write #34   March 2014

Knuckle-duster knife,

           Throttling a Camel,

                  And bouncing-bomb Mosquitoes.

Here’s 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.

Then 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 help.” 

 Which 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 (derekrobinson840@btinternet.com) and I’ll arrange the deal. 

 My thanks to all who wrote.   Derek Robinson

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                                                                                      Readers Write #35   June 2014

The low-flying submarine,

                     Hairy bridges, and...

                                 Forget soccer. Brazil reads, too. 

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 Bridge   -   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. 

                                           Spitfire Bridge

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.

                                            

                                winstonbridg_PoC

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 say.  

My thanks to all who wrote.

Derek Robinson 

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Readers Write #36     September 2014

Not all over by Christmas,

                   Simplicate,

                                 and a hop in a Camel 

Here’s 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.

 Many 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. 

Sopwith Pup

OK, 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.

Richard 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 shelves.’

Finally, 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.

My thanks to all who wrote.

Derek                                                                         

Previous Readers Write

Readers Write #37    November 2014

Missed opportunities,

                   death in the desert,

                                 and the Tsar rides again. 

Here’s 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.

 (SHOW PIC HERE.)

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 record.

                                                                 TsarNichFuneral

Lastly, 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.

Derek Robinson                                                                        

Previous Readers Write

   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. 
Moggy_18Kb.jpg

 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.  
LancNose_RW39_edited-1.jpg

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 bucks. 

B17_Turboprop.jpg
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.

Derek Robinson                                                                        

Previous Readers Write

.......................................................................................................................................................................................

   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. 
Moggy_18Kb.jpg

 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.  
LancNose_RW39_edited-1.jpg

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 bucks. 

B17_Turboprop.jpg
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.

Derek Robinson                                                                        

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
                                                      whisky and rye.

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

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

You may be thinking that I pay too much attention to what words mean.  Well, it’s my job.  And I believe that sloppy writing means lazy thinking.  Here’s an example.  Recently a double-decker bus hit a bridge in London, and a spokesman from Transport for London said:  “A route 197 double-decker bus...was involved in a collision with a bridge.”  Really?  A mobile bridge?  I suspect that the spokesman was over-influenced by the way the police report road accidents.  They always say  that road-users were ‘in collision’, because nobody yet knows which was responsible.  But to say that a bus was involved in a collision with a bridge is to turn an accident into a bad joke.  Unless, of course, the bridge collapsed first.  In the photograph,  I have to say that it looks very intact.
about. 
 
My thanks to all who wrote.
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      Readers Write #41 November 2015

The galloping submarine, 

             Skull's desert wear,

                          and a left-handed Cake    

As 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.

And 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,’

 The 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 place. 

                                          

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. 

Lastly, 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.

Derek Robinson                                                                        

Previous Readers Write


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                                                                                        Readers Write #42 Jamuary 2016

Trust nobody, that's my motto,

   with a gong for Gunnar

       and rocket-firing long before the Typhoons.

  

People 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.) 

 The 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.

 I 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.

 Gunnar 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.)

 Back 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 the books.”

 Of 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. 

 Ten 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. 

Nieuport17EM.jpg    

 The 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. 

 When 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. 

Bristol-Bulldog-1EM.jpg                                   

 More 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 delrobster@gmail.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:

Omega frontEM

     Omega-BackEM.jpg                 Omega-WorksEM.jpg

Finally, a literary ricochet.  Mike, who is in the US 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

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Readers Write #43 May 2016

The hazards of fiction,

                Why 1914?’ rides again,

                          and a big polar bear in Detroit.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                 SopwirthBaby                        

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

A last word about names.  American authors go in for three names   -   think of Edgar Allan Poe.  Maybe I’ve been shortchanging myself.  Is it too late to adopt a longer name?  I’m thinking of Miles Farragut Ravensworth.  The legal process is surprisingly simple. The UK Deed Poll Service will rename you, in only four working days, for a mere £33.  One man changed his name to Bacon Double Cheeseburger.  A father and son took the name of their favourite football club, Queens Park Rangers. Someone decided to be called Happy Birthday.  Another went for Sarge Metal-fatigue.  No.  On reflection, I’ll stick to what I’ve got.  It’s easier for autographs. 
 My thanks to all who wrote. 
Derek Robinson                                   
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                                                                        Readers Write #44 June 2016 

Play dead and don't smile,

                Operation Jostle was no picnic,

           and the work ethic of Dylan Thomas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

                                             Spitfire 1 EM 

 

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

 

            Spitfire 2 EM

 

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

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

Stunning.

My thanks to all who wrote.

Derek Robinson   
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Readers Write #45 September 2016

Luck, good and bad,

                Eye-opener in Fiji,

           And another blunder for the hit list.

 

I’ve 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. 

 Norway fell, 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.” 

 Shannon joined 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 facts.”  

  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: delrobster@gmail.com  

Finally, 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. 
Derek Robinson   
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Readers Write #46 November  2016

Bats in the bomb bay,

                crashed in the bush,

               and Garbo in jail (maybe).

Truth 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: 

                          ‘Someone 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:  delrobster@gmail.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.” 
 

Duncan was 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:  

 

                                Spitfire-wreckageWbPg.jpg

 

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 books. 

 

Last 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. 
Derek Robinson          
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Readers Write #50 July 2017

Minimising Musso,

       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 understand. 
 
   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 out.  
 
   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, DFC.
 
   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 decorated.  
 
   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 ever lived.”   
 
                                                  Bob Hoover  (PIC) 
 
Forget 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.