Monday, January 30, 2012

Philip Gooden

Philip Gooden writes both fiction and non-fiction. His historical novels include the Nick Revill series, set in Elizabethan London, and a Victorian sequence, the most recent title for which is The Ely Testament. He also writes books on language, including Who’s Whose? and Faux Pas?, which won the English Speaking Union award for the best English Language book of 2006. He was chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association in 2007-8.

A few weeks ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve just read Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson. It came out about 30 years ago as a kind of sequel to Goshawk Squadron, Robinson’s novel about aerial combat in World War One. Seen largely through the eyes of the young pilots of the fictional Hornet Squadron, Piece of Cake takes us from the build-up to the outbreak of WW2 in September 1939 and into the heart of the Battle of Britain a year later. It’s a long, panoramic book which avoids cynicism, sentimentality and hero-worship. Yes, Robinson pays tribute to the bravery of the pilots and the skill of the ground-staff, the fortitude and optimism required of both the men and the (few) women directly involved in the war. He shows them buckling and sometimes breaking under pressure, but also he describes people who can be petty and unscrupulous immediately before or after they’ve risked their lives for their country. The cast is mostly British but, as the fighting really gets underway, there are fliers from occupied Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as an American who constantly tries to get his superiors to break with tradition and adopt a more rational approach - that is, one which improves your chances of not being killed. Robinson handles the inevitable deaths superbly. Some characters just drop out of sight, literally so in the case of pilots who bale out. Others survive (or die) when you don’t expect them to, or perish as a result of a foolish bet or a piece of bravado or a trivial accident. There’s plenty of friendly fire and, above all, a sense of war being an ‘untidy and inefficient business’, in the author’s own words in a closing note.

And the book I read before Piece of Cake was The Big Short by Michael Lewis. I’d heard that it was the best account of the financial crash of 2008. So it may be, though the only other non-fiction one I’ve read on the subject is John Lanchester’s Whoops!, which takes more of an ABC attitude to things. Michael Lewis shares some of the bounce and confidence that goes with being a successful trader, which is what he was back in the 1980s, and The Big Short sometimes has the assured swagger of Tom Wolfe-style reportage. Quite often I thought I understood what was going on but then the mists closed in again.
Read more about The Ely Testament and visit Philip Gooden's website.

--Marshal Zeringue