Robinson, Derek 1932-
ROBINSON, Derek 1932-
PERSONAL: Born April 12, 1932, in Bristol, England; son of Alexander (a policeman) and Margaret (Mac Askill) Robinson; married Sheila Collins, April 29, 1968. Ethnicity: "British." Education: Downing College, Cambridge, B.A., 1956, M.A., 1958. Politics: "Trust nobody, check everything." Hobbies and other interests: "I play far more squash than my knees (or my friends) think is wise."
ADDRESSES: Home—Shapland House, Somerset St., Kingsdown, Bristol BS2 8LZ, England. Agent—David Higham Associates, 5-8 Lower John St., Golden Square, London W1F 9HA, England.
MEMBER: Royal Air Force Historical Society.
AWARDS, HONORS: Shortlist, Booker Prize, 1971, for Goshawk Squadron.
Rugby: Success Starts Here, Pelham Books (London, England), 1969.
Goshawk Squadron (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1971.
Rotten with Honor (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1973.
A Shocking History of Bristol, Abson (Bristol, England), 1973.
Kramer's War (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1977.
The Eldorado Network (novel), Norton (New York, NY), 1979.
Piece of Cake (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.
Run with the Ball! A Brisk Dash through 150 Years of Rugby, Willow Books (London, England), 1984.
Just Testing, Collins Harvill (London, England), 1985.
War Story (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
Artillery of Lies (novel), Macmillan (London, England), 1992.
A Good Clean Fight (novel), Harvill (London, England), 1993.
Rugby: A Players Guide to the Laws, Collins Willow (London, England), 1995.
Hornet's Sting (novel), Cassell (London, England), 2001.
Kentucky Blues (novel), Cassell (London, England), 2002.
Damned Good Show (novel), Cassell (London, England), 2003.
under pseudonym dirk robson
Krek Waiter's Peak Bristle, Abson (Bristol, England), 1970.
Son of Bristle, Abson (Bristol, England), 1971.
Bristle Rides Again, Abson (Bristol, England), 1972.
Sick Sundered Yers of Bristle, Abson (Bristol, England), 1974, reprinted as Sick Sentries of Bristle, Countryside Books (Newbury, England), 2004.
(Editor) A Load of Old Bristle, Countryside Books (Newbury, England), 2002.
Author of radio and television scripts for British Broadcasting Corp. Honorary editorial adviser to Rugby Football Union, 1966-76.
ADAPTATIONS: Piece of Cake was made into a television mini-series in England and shown in the United States on PBS's Masterpiece Theater.
SIDELIGHTS: "Derek Robinson has written a series of fascinating novels on aerial combat in the First and Second World Wars," according to Mark Connelly, writing in the Times Literary Supplement. "His hallmarks," Connelly continued, "are thorough research, black humour and good stories." These novels include the "Royal Flying Corps" trilogy, made up of Goshawk Squadron, War Story, and Hornet's Sting, as well as the World War II novels Piece of Cake, A Good Clean Fight, and Damned Good Show. Robinson once commented: "I did not set out to be a 'war' novelist, but somehow the problem of violence, of man's appetite for war, seems to arise again and again. All my novels have been about attitudes to war—the phony glamour of the World War I air war, the iron grip of orthodox tactics, the ambivalence of an English island occupied by the Nazis. They are all political in the sense that I deliberately set out to make the reader re-assess his opinions. Other than that they are just meant to be good stories, with action, conflict, and humour. Especially humour, which I consider to be the acid test of any novel."
Tibor Fischer, writing in the Guardian, declared that every novel from Robinson is a "masterpiece containing a wealth of vision, invention and humanity." However, Fischer further noted, the author is "too entertaining and accessible" to earn high literary honors and "too intelligent and subtle" for the mass market shelves. "Robinson is the most underrated and shamefully neglected living novelist," Fischer wrote.
Robinson's first novel, Goshawk Squadron, was set during January 1918 and follows the misfortunes of the Goshawk troop of flyers on the Western Front. The book is, according to Fischer, "sharp, perfectly paced, utterly convincing." Another Guardian contributor, Nicholas Lezard, found the novel to be a "bleak and savage book, full of the terror of warfare and shot through with grim humour; a sort of first-world-war Catch-22." Shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize in England, the novel set the tone for subsequent war novels from Robinson: books of substance that debunk myths about war. Robinson returned to similar territory in War Story and Hornet's Sting. The latter book is a prequel to Goshawk Squadron, and is set in 1917 just prior to the offensive at Paschendale. Robinson, as Fischer noted in the London Times, "has the gift of showing the excitement of flying and that not everyone was fighting for lofty principles of King and Country." Fischer further found the novel "evocative … inventive," and without an "iota of pretension." For Lezard, Hornet's Sting "lacks … the terseness and focus of Goshawk Squadron," but is nonetheless a "darkly entertaining read."
With Piece of Cake, Robinson turns his attention to World War II and the Battle of Britain, following the fate of the Hornet Squadron from September 1939 to September 1940. The young flyers of the squadron are killed at an alarming rate, to be replaced by other eager young men. Living on the edge in a time of war, these young men also live their private lives at breakneck speed. War historian Paul Fussell, writing in the New Republic, felt that while "Robinson's characters are not much more original than his historical revelations," the author does rightly emphasize "the role of blunders in wartime." Neither does Robinson "blink at the details of human destruction," noted Fussell, "so important to understand if the reader is to participate in the fear felt by the pilots." Robinson's "strong suit" is "sheer narrative," according to Fussell: "I defy the reader to put the book down once Robinson has got him into the air." A critic for Time felt that the same novel was "no propaganda romance." Rather, Robinson "is unsparingly accurate" not only about the horrors of war but about the inflated shoot-down claims of the RAF, as this same contributor further noted. Similarly, Bill Ott, writing in American Libraries, praised the novel for being "rich in technical information."
Robinson continues his World War II aerial stories with A Good Clean Fight, which describes the battle in North Africa, and in Damned Good Show, a tale of England's Bomber Command, which directed RAF bombing campaigns. Reviewing the former title in Booklist, John Mort found the rivalry of British pilot Jack Lampard and the German intelligence officer Major Paul Schramm "steal[s] the show." Mort went on to note that in A Good Clean Fight, Robinson "is extremely funny … and subtle, which lifts his writing out of the genre." Damned Good Show, on the other hand, is a "salute to those who laboured, suffered and sacrificed themselves to keep us free," as Connelly noted. "But, as with all Robinson's work, it is a crooked salute." A critic for Kirkus Reviews had a similar reaction to the novel: "Authenticity and a sneaky style that mixes borderline cliche and brutal truth distinguish this rather subversive take on a story of inept but heroic flying."
Robinson is also the author of the World War II espionage novels The Eldorado Network and Artilleryof Lies, a duo representing "Robinson's masterpiece," according to Fischer in the Times. And with Kentucky Blues, the author changes pace to create a nineteenth-century family saga set in Kentucky. Toby Clements, writing in London's Daily Telegraph, felt that Robinson "has succeeded [in changing direction] with this hugely enjoyable book." For Clements, the work was a "wonderful novel: discursive, rambling, full of hilarious and thought-provoking incident." A critic for Kirkus Reviews found the same novel "deft and nuanced, … [an] epic account [that] avoids some of the worst Civil War stereotypes and stirs fresh air into a too often musty and stale corner of American history." Similarly, the Spectator's Charlotte Moore called the book a "big, rich 19th-century saga."
Additionally, Robinson has penned books about rugby and a series of titles under the pseudonym Dirk Robson. "The 'Bristle' books are a series of small, cheap, funny books written in the dialect of Bristol," Robinson once commented. "For these I am famous locally. The natives accept my novels, provided I keep writing 'Bristle' books."
Robinson reckons that his most worthwhile literary success was rewriting the Rugby Union Football law book in plain English. For over a century it had been improved by lawyers until it was largely unintelligible by players and even by referees. Robinson—a longtime player and grassroots referee—worked on the rewrite for three years, translating gobbledygook into short words and simple sentences. Today it forms the basis of the law book of the International Rugby Board, which governs the game in seventy nations worldwide. Players still get it wrong, but now at least they know why.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Libraries, August, 2001, Bill Ott, review of Piece of Cake, p. 96.
Booklist, March 1, 1994, John Mort, review of A Good Clean Fight, p. 1140.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), April 13, 2002, Toby Clements, review of Kentucky Blues, p. 5.
Guardian (Manchester, England), December 9, 1994, Tibor Fischer, review of Goshawk Squadron; November 3, 2001, Nicholas Lezard, review of Hornet's Sting, p. 11.
Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2002, review of Kentucky Blues, p. 1501; December 15, 2002, review of Damned Good Show, pp. 1797-1798.
New Republic, May 14, 1984, Paul Fussell, review of Piece of Cake, pp. 38-40.
Slightly Foxed, spring, 2004, Mike Petty, "Slightly Foxed," pp. 39-43.
Spectator, June 1, 2002, Charlotte Moore, review of Kentucky Blues, pp. 40-41.
Time, July 9, 1984, review of Piece of Cake, p. 85.
Times (London, England), June 24, 1999, Tibor Fischer, review of Hornet's Sting, p. 40.
Times Literary Supplement, December 20, 2002, Mark Connelly, review of Damned Good Show.