BOOK REVIEW / Cut-throats and plenty of flak: 'A Good Clean Fight' - Derek Robinson: Harvill, 15.99

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The Independent Culture
DEREK ROBINSON specialises in exploding the myths of warfare. Not something you'd think particularly needed doing at the end of a century like ours, but his books can arouse extraordinary passions. A Piece of Cake, Robinson's masterful novel about the Battle of Britain, attracted a storm of protest, particularly when it was televised, for daring to suggest that there might have been a few instances of Lack of Moral Fibre. One or two die- hards even took exception to the language, claiming that nobody swore during the Battle.

Now, in A Good Clean Fight, Robinson turns his attention to North Africa in the spring of 1942. A good place for a war, the desert; as John Strawson says without apparent irony in his book on the Battle of Alamein, 'no cluttering up of the battlefield with houses or roads or churches, no farms or animals, no people, other than the soldiers themselves' (and the odd nomad and his camel, of course). Strawson quotes a member of the Rifle Brigade describing the desert war as 'a gentleman's war', and even Rommel called it Krieg ohne Hass, war without hatred. This was no doubt a source of great comfort to the thousands of men who never came home.

Robinson, unsurprisingly, has no time for such romantic piffle, although he does not make the mistake of pretending that there is no enjoyment to be had out of war. He gives us a fine pair of psychopathic monomaniacs: Squadron-Leader 'Fanny' Barton of the RAF, and Captain Jack Lampard of the SAS.

Barton, threatened with a desk job because his squadron has failed to shoot down enough Germans, is stricken with the unfairness of it all - how can he shoot down Jerries if they won't come up and fight? His solution is to make such a nuisance of himself bombing and strafing German ground troops that the Luftwaffe will be forced to come up and fight. The flaw in the plan, of course, is that the missions are in themselves so suicidal that no German in his right mind would bother to take off.

While Barton is decimating his squadron, Lampard is leading his platoon of cut-throats far and wide, having great fun blowing up German airfields and ambushing infantry columns. Lampard may be amoral (his sex-life consists entirely taking advantage of brand-new widows in Cairo), but he's no fool. When one of his officers says admiringly of the platoon's best killer, 'Given a million soldiers like Harris the war would be over in a week', Lampard puts him straight: 'No, you're wrong. Given a million soldiers like Harris the war would never end.'

On one of his raids Lampard pops a German intelligence officer into the bag, along with his rather desirable Alfa Romeo. Schramm is a subtle and humorous but rather tortured soul, by some way the most interesting character in the novel. When, by a fantastic fluke, he kills Harris and escapes, his complicated but pleasurable reactions worry him no end. As does the sardonic probing of Dr Maria Grandinetti, a psychiatrist on the run from Mussolini who has somehow washed up in Benghazi. Schramm takes it upon himself to dispose of Lampard, thus setting in train a complicated chain of low farce, high drama and violent death, with a particularly cynical twist in the tail.

Nobody writes about war quite like Derek Robinson. He has a way of carrying you along with the excitement of it all before suddenly disposing of a character with a casual, laconic ruthlessness that is shockingly realistic: 'The target blurred in the prop-disc. In and out, fast. Ten seconds from now . . . Still no flak. Still no flak. Still no flak. Then he he was blown apart.' He picks his way surefootedly through the quagmire of moral complications without ever resorting either to handwringing or to gung-ho posturing, and, most importantly, without devaluing bravery.

As a bonus, he writes of the random, chaotic comedy of war better than anyone since Evelyn Waugh. Lampard and his men arrive at a German airfield but have been pre-empted by the Desert Air Force: 'Didn't you make a reservation?' Dunn asked Lampard. 'You know what it's like on a Saturday night.' 'Today's Tuesday,' said Davis. 'Fuck me, we're four days early,' Peck said. 'No wonder the place isn't ready.'. Malplacket and Lester, the comic-relief journalists, could have stepped straight out of the Sword of Honour trilogy.

Robinson's First World War novel, Goshawk Squadron, made it on to the Booker shortlist in 1971, courtesy of John Gross, Saul Bellow, John Fowles, Lady Antonia Fraser and Philip Toynbee, no less. They flinched from giving him the prize, preferring to give it to V S Naipaul instead, but that's a pretty heavyweight bunch of admirers nevertheless. It may be indecently early to speak of such things, but I'd like to think that this year's judges might be equally percipient. Bleak, black humour, intelligence, moral depth and high adventure - who could ask for anything more?