The anti-Biggles takes to the sky

Fighter-pilot novels are back on the radar  says Antonia Senior

goshawk new cover MacLeHose Press 224pp.     8.99 ;  e-book 8.99


    Bad battles are as ubiquitous in fiction as bad sex. Swashes buckle and cannon fire; young men die in ever more brutal detail. As our squeamishness about actual fighting has increased, so our appetite for reading about it, drenched in modernistic gore, is unabated.
Amid the tide of war porn on the shelves, it is a rare experience to come across an author who can write about war and leave the reader seared and gasping. Derek Robinson’s series of novels about fighter pilots in the 20th century has attracted glowing reviews and a hard core of fans. But his pilots live beneath the radar of the general reading public. This may be about to change.

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Derek Robinson’s novels are rooted in realism.

 Christopher MacLehose, the publisher and founder of MacLehose Press, part of Quercus,  has long been a fan of Robinson’s a dark humour. For the first time all his flying tales will be available, published by his imprint. Inthe year that America has discovered its own overlooked septuagenarian, the short-story writer Edith Pearlman, it is time to celebrate our own under-rated octogenarian.

 No one writes about war quite like Robinson, despite attempts to shroud him in echoes of other writers, such as Joseph Heller or Norman Mailer. He writes with a bleak savagery, in controlled, precise prose. There is humour – and it is dark and painful. There is love – and it is inadequate and messy. Most of all there is death. It comes from clear blue skies and grey clouds, from enemy fire and friendly mistakes. It hovers, unseen, at  15,000 feet.

 Goshawk Squadron, which came close to winning the Booker Prize in 1971, is still as raw and shocking to read it must have been on publication, when the mythology of the nobility of aerial warfare still resonated. Set among the pilots of the First World War, it split the Royal Flying Corps veterans into bitter camps – those who resented the book’s darkness and those who revelled in its realism.

The young pilots are arrogant and violent.  There is a surfeit of courage, little nobility

 Stanley Wolley, the squadron leader, is the anti-Biggles: cynical and cold. Robinson’s young pilots are arrogant, and casually violent. There is a surfeit of courage but  little nobility.

 Goshawk Squadron was the first of three novels about the Royal Flying Corps and joined a rich tradition of literature about the air. Piece of Cake, the first of three novels about the Royal Air Force, was filmed as a TV series in 1988 by LWT. Despite early success and critical approbation, by 2008 Robinson’s star had waned so far that he could not find a publisher for his novel, Hullo Russia, Goodbye England. He was forced to self-publish. Set in Cold War Britain, it tells the story of Flight Lieutenant Silk, a Second World War veteran who pilots the Vulcan aircraft designed to drop a retaliatory nuclear bomb on Russia. The pilots are briefed about getting to Moscow; on the return leg, there is silence.

 Silk is no introspective Hero. He's awkward and irascible. He tries to ignore this question: if England has been destroyed, what is the point of the second strike? Why should the pilot, with no home left and no chain of command to worry about, actually press the button? 

After 40 years honing his craft, Robinson is still writing. He is frequently compared to Joseph Heller as their books share a sense of the absurdity of war. But whereas Catch-22 is rife with authorial trickery, all the black humour in Robinson’s books is rooted in realism. 

The bogus comparison may have served to dampen Robinson's status among literary theorists, for whom Heller’s inventiveness trumps his rivals clipped prose. But only one of them  can make the brutalised, scarred reader put down the book  with relief and think: “Yes. This is how it was.”

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