Prang Wizard

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The adjutant watched the sulky faces of the pilots as they sat around the mess tent, and decided to talk to Woolley. He found him in his tent, dubbining his flying-boots.

‘I thought you ought to know,’ Woodruffe said, ‘some of the chaps feel you’re pushing them a bit hard.’

. . . Woolley dug a gob of dubbin and spread it thickly over the leather. ‘Going too far,’ he said. ‘Somebody thinks I’m going too far. How far is the war going, Woody? Is the war going too far?’

Goshawk Squadron, a story of the war in the air over the Western Front, is the missing link between Catch-22 and Blackadder. It was Derek Robinson’s first novel, published in 1971, and it was immediately short-listed for the Booker Prize, joining the likes of V. S. Naipaul, Doris Lessing and Mordecai Richler. The judges were no lightweights, either: Saul Bellow, John Fowles, Lady Antonia Fraser and Philip Toynbee, under the chairmanship of John Gross. Not an alternative comedian in sight.

In the event the judges shied away from giving Robinson the prize, preferring Naipaul. But they should be applauded for their percipience, nevertheless; they spotted in Robinson a grasp of the realities of human conflict that make him, in my opinion, fit to sit on the same shelf as Waugh and Heller. His subject is war: the pity of war, to be sure, but also the comedy of war, the sheer disgusting, harrowing farce of war. Do we need Robinson to tell us that war is hell, after all this time? Most modern wars have produced at least one novel that can use Catch-22 as a touchstone without looking stupid. But nobody has done it with such consistency as Robinson, in a series of novels set in both world wars, published over the past thirty years.

In Goshawk Squadron the vast drama of the war – the German counter-attack of 1918 – is played out thousands of feet below, or indeed over the horizon. Robinson’s concerns are m

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About the contributor

Mike Petty’s entry into publishing passed almost unnoticed amidst the political and cultural upheavals of 1968. He spent the succeeding decades following his editorial nose as faithfully as possible, while trying – and occasionally failing – to avoid being fired. He works as Publishing Manager for the Eden Project in Cornwall.

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