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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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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 more intimate – the dozens of small, gut-wrenching skirmishes with faceless opponents that make no strategic sense; the wide-eyed bewilderment of young bucks faced with the bottomless cynicism of three-month veterans; the wild hooliganism of fliers who have nothing left to lose. The novel has a solid documentary underpinning derived from authentic diaries, letters and memoirs; one wonders how on earth the popular image of pilots as Knights of the Skies, engaging in honourable jousting with equally gentlemanly opponents, ever outlived the return to Blighty of those who had been ruthless enough – and lucky enough – to survive. For anyone brought up on Biggles and the heroics of Kenneth More as Douglas Bader in Reach for the Sky, Robinson’s recreation of the exhausted savagery of 1918 is truly shocking. The commanding officer of Goshawk Squadron is Stanley Woolley: ‘At 23, he was young for a major and old for a pilot.’ Woolley is a deep disappointment to the press in its never-ending search for a hero. He is curmudgeonly, he is unphotogenic, he is violent; above all, he is tormented by the fate of the young men – boys – he sends to their deaths. Here he is, just back from a leave which has made his temper worse if anything, setting about young Richards, nearly 20 and just arrived from training after transferring from the cavalry (‘It’s all those trenches, you see, sir . . . Hopeless riding country . . .’) and raring to go.
Woolley went back to his flying-boots. ‘And what are you going to do next?’ ‘Next, sir? . . . Go up and sort of start shooting down Germans, I hope.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Why, sir?’ Richards stared curiously. ‘Well, to help win the war, I suppose.’ ‘How?’ ‘How?’ Richards felt his right hand start to tremble . . . Woolley, with his gamekeeper’s manners and his trade-unionist voice, upset him. ‘Well . . . in the obvious way, sir, I suppose. By killing Germans. Sir.’ ‘One at a time?’ Richards said nothing. ‘That’s the way they come, up there. One plane, one German.’ Woolley’s voice was as flat as slate. ‘If you’re lucky you might get a two-seater and double your victory effort. Were you thinking of going after two-seaters especially, Richards?’ Miserably, Richards muttered: ‘No, sir.’ Even the drill sergeant had never spoken to him with such drab contempt.
Woolley obsessively hounds his men, chasing them round the sky, needling them when they land. They hate him, and he hates them, and occasionally they take potshots at each other, both in the air and on the ground. Of course no amount of training can deflect the randomness of war. All Robinson’s characters are expendable, and he disposes of them with laconic insouciance:
Kimberley . . . duelled briefly with the Triplane, lost it, and came round in a wide searching turn. He flew into an antiaircraft shell with the precise catastrophe of a drunken driver speeding into a wall. The petrol tank exploded in a bloom of yellow and red, and then there was only a lot of smoke, with bits falling: bits of wing, bits of wheel, bits of pilot.
The chapters of Goshawk Squadron are, ingeniously, named after degrees of wind speed, from Force 1: Light Air (Smoke drifts, but vane and sock unmoved) to Force 12: Hurricane (Only strongest structures can withstand). By the final chapters, no structure is strong enough. Woolley is to all intents and purposes completely insane; most of his remaining pilots are permanently drunk, alcohol being an effective antidote to the emetic effect of the castor oil that lubricates the engines. Gabriel, a hellfire-spouting Baptist, has machine-gunned an entire column of British troops, and has been shot down and killed by one of his own squadron-mates. The French authorities are still doggedly looking for someone to charge with the death of a local restaurateur, killed during a night of violent horseplay involving six poules and three accordionistes. Woolley, having harangued Wallace and Cowie, the latest pair of young hopefuls (‘I didn’t ask you to come here. Do you want to die? Christ, I don’t . . .’), is ordered into the air by a colonel waving a revolver, and flies to meet his nemesis:
The first burst wrecked his cockpit and the SE turned sharply on her back. Woolley fell out, and the last that Wallace and Cowie saw of him, before they sheered away in fright, was his long brown flying-coat opening in the wind and checking his fall. For a moment it billowed out and let his smoking plane fall away; and then the coat collapsed, and Woolley dropped too.
There is much more to this novel than sudden death. The descriptions of flying are brilliantly vertiginous – nobody puts you in the cockpit like Robinson. There are some sharply and sympathetically drawn women, one of whom, a nurse called Margery, is the only human being to get anywhere close to the heart of Woolley. There is some of the best dialogue this side of Waugh:
‘I wondered if you intended to write to O’Shea’s parents,’ the adjutant said. ‘Have they written to me?’ Woodruffe set his teeth. ‘No, sir. But–’ ‘The hell with them . . . Have you got a replacement yet?’ ‘I wanted to ask you about that. D’you think I should get two?’ ‘What for?’ ‘Well, in anticipation, so to speak.’ Woolley stared at him stonily. ‘Good idea,’ he said. ‘Get three.’
Goshawk Squadron is the first of three Great War novels by Robinson. One, Hornet’s Sting is a prequel, introducing Woolley when he was a captain and – great heavens – a mere 22; the other, War Story, is set during the build-up to the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Ironically enough, given that Goshawk Squadron was described by Janice Elliott as ‘one of the most powerful indictments of war I have ever read’, these books, along with his three Second World War novels, have recently been reissued by Cassell Military Paperbacks, an imprint which is mostly composed of orthodox military history, some titles, like Storming Eagles: German Airborne Forces in WW2 and Achtung Panzer!, sounding a little on the gung-ho side. To judge by the number of times Robinson’s novels have been reprinted in the past few years, they seem to have struck a chord at last. Only a churl would object; Robinson, as a connoisseur of the ironic, will allow himself a wry smile, I imagine.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Mike Petty on 2004


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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