Monday, 11 February 2013

Derek Robinson: A Splendid Little War

About halfway through A Splendid Little War, I began to realise that for Robinson, war is a little bit like the monsters in horror movies. Anyone can die at any time, and there's no lesson to be had from it, only the gulping dread of waiting to see who's going to fall next for no good reason. Which is a very good point, but you'd better be a damn good writer if you're hoping to get away with writing a whole book about it.

Robinson hasn't just gotten away with writing a whole book about it, but has run a whole writing career on that basis. He's managed it because from moment to moment he's a very good stylist, and has the knack for sketching in a character quickly before he inevitably gets the chop. And like Elmore Leonard, Robinson does not mind killing a character when his moment has come; if he's built a character who's suicidally dumb, then that character will be true to his temperament and get himself well and truly killed when his impulse towards dumbness collides with the harsh unforgiving world around him. Meanwhile his quieter and cagier characters will survive to the end, as quiet and cagy people tend to do, sometimes sadder and wiser, sometimes learning nothing at all.

Robinson has been writing since the 1970s, and I remember the very young me reading Goshawk Squadron and not getting it at all. I'd been looking forward to some kind of Biggles book, but Goshawk Squadron is a very bleak piece of work, briskly getting across the sense of gathering doom which hung around any RFC fighter airfield in the first world war. In Biggles world, people got shot down and shot up all the time, but the God of fools and heroes worked full time to keep the named cast one step ahead of the grim reaper. Lulled into a sense of false security by this, I was left reeling by Robinson's sardonic clipped account of an endless parade of young men rolling up, taking off and falling down all within a span of days. I came back to him when I was much older and had learned just how important a terrible sense of humour can be when you're dealing with tragedy, and have snapped up all his novels on sight ever since.

Most of his books deal with the RFC and RAF, and a peculiarly male world in which hardly anyone gets a chance to grow old and the ones who do make a point of not growing up. I have a soft spot for the non-RAF Kramer's War, which takes a mordant glee in showing what it would really have been like if a gung-ho US pilot had tried to foment Resistance in German-occupied Jersey. Gung-ho lone wolf Americans taking on the nazis were such a staple of war movies that it was fun to see someone trying to draw a more realistic picture. The book made Robinson marvellously unpopular in Jersey, which struck me as the Jersey-ites missing the point; Robinson was making a pretty persuasive case for the rationality of waiting out the war and trying to get by with a minimum of bloodshed while the real work was done elsewhere. 

Among his RAF books, I tend to see A Good Clean Fight as the best of the bunch, perhaps because it's got such a wide variety of points of view. It's also in some ways the most developed version of one of his key theses, which is that a lot of things happen in wars because people are looking for something to do, and in the absence of something obviously sensible, they'll do something violent and stupid. There's a marvellous sequence in the middle where the Germans attempt to set up their own Long Range Desert Group and stuff up their desert driving so magnificently that a conga line of trucks follow each other into oblivion. It's brilliantly executed, because it's written and staged in the conventional way, right up to the moment that it fizzles into futility. Our expectation is always that the viewpoint characters in fiction will overcome their setbacks and keep going to some cathartic confrontation, but Robinson is forever pulling the rug out from under that expectation, just like reality does. The impressive thing is how he can keep doing it and make it work every time.

A Splendid Little War runs entirely on that fuel, fittingly enough. It covers the brief involvement of the British armed forces in the Russian Civil War; the Intervention. As euphemisms go, it's right up there with Ireland referring to WWII as "the Emergency", but as bad ideas go, the Intervention is one of the standout bad ideas of the 20th Century. The Russian Civil War is one of the great overlooked tragedies of the 20th century, a vast sprawling mess that killed millions between battles, purges, massacres and the famine and plague that follow such massive dislocation. The best you can say about the decision by the exhausted and war-weary western powers to join in was that at least they didn't make it any worse, though the various expeditionary forces left a lingering resentment which Khrushchev still emphasised in the 1950s. For Robinson, always drawn to folly and futility, it's almost surprising that it took him until now to take a look at this bit of minor idiocy.

 One of the great quotes of modern warfare was Donald Rumsfeld's exasperated riposte that you go to war with the army that you've got, and Britain went to the Russian Civil War with the army that it had left. They had any amount of worn out and directionless young men, and a rather smaller amount of worn-out equipment, and the shaky nature of both men and machines is the running theme all the way through the narrative. Robinson has never been a man for plot; he sets up his characters and lets incident accumulate until his real point has been made. The RAF's involvement in the Intervention had a beginning, a middle and an end, and those are the bookends for the narrative. A writer should know his readers, and Robinson knows that anyone reading his books will know how the Intervention ended, as muddled and futile as it began. His task is to keep us reading even though we know how it all has to end. You carry that off with style and characters, making the reading fun and the company engaging.

That's always been Robinson's strength, and the squadron's doctor, adjutant, fixer and Russian adviser make a wonderful Greek chorus to the destruction of Merlin Squadron's dreams of glory and then its men and machines. Through most of the book, they're smart enough to know that the enterprise is insane, but not smart enough to think of how to stop it from chewing its way through life and limb, until finally the adjutant puts the kibosh on a last ditch plan to pull some glory from the ashes by bombing Moscow. In any other book, the raid on Moscow would have been a heroic doomed climax, full of daring and improvisation; instead the book focuses on the effort to stop it, first by trying to show how impossible it would be, and finally by getting the high command to block it in a last burst of common sense before the whole ramshackle enterprise gets dragged home.

Robinson's never had the success he deserved, and his books drift in and out of print, with a patch in the last few years where he had to publish them himself. It's great to see him back in print, and still going strong at the age of 80. If this is his last book, as it might be, he's finishing up on a strong note, but I can still hope that there's going to be more.

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