Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tony Messenger - 1971 Shortlist - Goshawk Squadron - Derek Robinson

When I think of World War One aviation literature, naturally stories of The Red Baron von Manfred Richthofen and Biggles spring to mind. The Royal Flying Corps a cavalry of the air, admirable dog fights, chivalrous battles, private school educations, rugby and cricket discussions and more jolly good fun. The horrors of the trenches, the bombardments and fruitless battles over a few metres of land being far from your mind.

Enter “Goshawk Squadron” a debut novel by Derek Robinson, who certainly puts a few of those myths to rest. The aerial war was more a case of young inexperienced men, flying an ill-fated one and only mission, a life of constant drunkenness for the few who survive the fighting (this is explained in the novel as alcohol being the only “cure” for the fuel fumes giving you “the runs”), the daily grind of being moved from base to base and the constant reminder that your own number would be up sooner rather than later.

With so many young men coming and going from the squadron, it is down to Woolley an old man at 23 and a harsh realist who constantly berates the pilots to be our main protagonist. Our opening pages have him sitting beside an airfield greeting the incoming pilots:

“Ah. Bloody Rogers, I hate that bastard.”…”Ah. Bloody Finlayson. I hate that bastard.”…”Ah. Bloody O’Shea. I hate that bastard.”…”You’ve never even met him”…

Of the four novels I have read to date from the 1971 Booker Prize shortlist this one is the most readable with the horrors of war being the main message. Each chapter is titled after a stronger and stronger wind description as we hurtle towards what seems an only natural conclusion, from “Force 1: Light Air. Smoke drifts, but vane and cock unmoved” through to “Force 12: Hurricane. Only strongest structures can withstand”.

As well as individual flying skills, he drilled them in the routines for reconnaissance, escort duty, balloon attacks, low level infantry support, and artillery observation. Everything was done intensively: there were no easy days. He never congratulated; he frequently denounced. Not to be damned by Woolley was as near to praise as anyone would ever get. He demanded tight formation flying , so there was a constant risk of collision, which meant everyone was living on his nerves. ‘Flying with the old man,’ Rogers said one day, ‘is like living with a maniac. You know that the instant you take your eye off him, he’ll kill you. I find it both exhilarating and debilitating.’ “Like opium,’ Lambert said.

This novel is filled with comic dialogue, mischievous adventures, false court martials to avoid French Legal prosecution, ill-fated love and with no happy ending in site. With detailed battle descriptions this novel would be one for lovers of military fiction and one that apparently angered a number of Royal Flying Corps veterans upon its publication as it “insulted the memories of their dead friends” (Afterword). All up an enjoyable read, more a long list entry in my opinion (even though we didn’t have long lists back in 1971!!!), but a novel that made a welcome change from the challenging ones I have tackled recently.

Cross posted at my blog.


  1. This is certainly different than typical Booker fare. You must be almost through the 1971 shortlist -- do you plan to offer us your own assessment when you're finished? For example, do you agree with the judges' choice of winner?

  2. I have just started Elizabeth Taylor's "Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont" and can't find a copy of Mordecai Richler's "St Urbain's Horseman" but am more than happy to judge the list from 1971. At this stage I actually would have Lessing and Kilroy's in front of Naipaul's winner.

  3. After re-reading my own review, I have noticed that I may have given the impression that this novel is rollicking good fun - something akin to a dark Biggles. It is not that in any way, with wry humour, pathos and bleak observations about human motivations all to the fore. There is a reference in the afterword which explains it a little better than myself "Bar-room brawling, bicycle chains and broken bottles have a closer affinity to the early fighting in the air than the chivalrous, formalised, knightly encounters with lance and epee to which it has been likened."

  4. I'd looked for this at my library (which sadly doesn't have it) but think this might be well suited for my partner - he's quite keen on flight history. May make a good birthday present even if I don't read it myself. Thanks for the review.

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