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Friday, 17 January 2014

FFB - Shute the messenger

Today is Nevil Shute’s birthday – he’d be 115. A prolific and, in his day, an exceedingly popular novelist. He was an author in the days before publishers felt it necessary to nail authors to a particular genre banner and tackled romance, adventure, action and fantasy in his mainstream works. He was quite comfortable to write in either first person or third.

Just over fifty years ago the ashes of Shute were scattered in The Solent. A few years back I was set to write about him and his works, particularly as the Portsmouth Post magazine was printed in Norway Road, which was named after him; but the magazine folded....

Nevil Shute Norway was born on January 17, 1899 in Ealing, Middlesex, the younger son of a Cornishman, Arthur Hamilton Norway, C.B., an assistant secretary of the General Post Office in London.

At an early age he showed an interest in flight and machines. When 11, Shute played truant from his first preparatory school in Hammersmith, spending days among the model aircraft at the Science Museum examining wing control on the Bleriot and trying to puzzle out how the engine of the Antoinette ran without a carburettor.  On being detected in these precocious studies, he was sent to the Dragon School, Oxford, and thence to Shrewsbury. He was on holiday in Dublin, where his father was then Secretary to the Post Office in Ireland, at the time of the Easter rising of 1916 and acted as a stretcher-bearer, winning a commendation for gallant conduct. He entered Balliol College Oxford but his studies were interrupted by the war.

In 1919 the Norways moved to Liss near Petersfield and stayed until 1927. A serious stammer prevented him from joining the Royal Flying Corps.

The last few months of the war (in which his brother had been killed) were spent on home service as a private in the Suffolk Regiment. After the war, he continued his studies in Oxford, graduating in 1922 with a third class honours in engineering science. During the vacations he worked, unpaid, for the Aircraft Manufacturing Company at Hendon, then as an employee post-Oxford for Sir Geoffrey de Havilland's own firm. He now fulfilled his thwarted wartime ambition of learning to fly and gained experience as a test observer. During the evenings he diligently wrote novels and short stories unperturbed by rejection slips from publishers. His first book Stephen Morris was rejected three times and banished to a drawer until being published posthumously in 1961. Persistence paid, eventually, a good motto for any budding author.

In 1924 Shute took the post of Chief Calculator to the Airship Guarantee Company, a subsidiary of Vickers Ltd, to work on the construction of the Rigid Airship R-100 which was a prototype for passenger-carrying airships that would serve the needs of Britain's global empire. The R-100 was a modest success.

Shute made his literary debut in 1926 with Marazan.

In 1929 he became Deputy Chief Engineer under (Sir) Barnes Wallis, and in the following year he flew to and from Canada in the R100. He had a passionate belief in the future of airships, but his hopes foundered in the crash in Beauvais, France, of its government-funded rival, the R101, wrecked with the loss of Lord Thompson, the then Minister of Aviation, and most of those on board. He had watched with mounting horror what he regarded as the criminal inefficiency with which the R101 was constructed. His experience at this time left a lasting bitterness and bred in him a distrust of politicians and civil servants. He waited hours in the London streets with 500,000 mourners to see the R101 dead pass by and a few weeks later he and all the R-100 staff were given a month’s notice.

Realising that airship development was a lost cause, he founded in 1931 Airspeed Ltd, aeroplane constructors, in an old garage, and remained joint managing director unti11938. This was pioneering stuff, working on a financial shoestring.

That same year he married Francis Mary Heaton, a doctor, and they honeymooned in Switzerland, Shute taking with him his stress calculations for a glider in development. They had two daughters, Heather and Shirley. He delighted in the outdoor life, was an enthusiastic yachtsman and fisherman as well as an air pilot and a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society – all pursuits that served him well in his writing; he wrote about what he knew.
After two years in York, Airspeed Ltd moved down to Portsmouth.  Recently an ex-office boy at Airspeed recollected that a man working on Cobhams refuelling experiments was in a fight outside Mother Shiptons Pub; the other man died.  The surviving Cobham man was free but awaiting trial when he died in his Airspeed Courier which crashed in Portsmouth Harbour (April 1933). Shute used the plot point of a fatal pub fight in The Chequer Board.

In 1933 he moved his family to Craneswater Park, Southsea and his wife Francis set up a medical practice but they didn’t stay long, going on to a house called ‘Landfall’ in Bishops Waltham. In 1940 his book Landfall: A Channel Story was published.

Yet three years later they move back to Southsea – 14 Helena Road and in the same year while travelling with Airspeed’s publicist Concord Morton (no relation!) he discussed the recent crash of the new all metal Boeing 247 airliner; the plane’s tail fell off. Ten years later, Shute used metal fatigue in his novel No Highway.

Aware of the war-clouds gathering in Europe, he wrote What Happened to the Corbetts, prophetically depicting how a bombing raid would affect a city like Southampton.

Airspeed was successful, employing about a thousand people, producing aircraft to government orders, but he decided to get out of the rut and live by writing since he’d enjoyed some success as a novelist and even sold the film rights of Lonely Road and Ruined City.

He moved his family to Langstone Harbour then, on the outbreak of war, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a Sub-Lieutenant in the Miscellaneous Weapons Department and rose to Lieutenant Commander, finding great pleasure in experimenting with secret weapons.

He sent his wife and daughters to Canada in 1941, though they ended up in Bermuda due to fund access problems. This was his family evacuation war plan he outlined in the Corbetts book.

His novel Pied Piper became a huge success and was adapted for the screen in 1942. In the story an elderly man, John Sidney Howard, helps a swarm of children to escape the Nazis from France. In the beginning John reluctantly promises an English couple to take their two children with him back to England. During his journey through France the group grows and John submits to his role as the "Pied Piper".  The book had two sequels, Pastoral and Most Secret. It was later made into a TV film with the late Peter O’Toole.
After fifteen months away, his family returned in 1941 and they moved to a large house called ‘Pond Head’ on Hayling Island.

But he found that his growing celebrity as a writer meant he was sent on the Normandy landings (D+10 hours) on 6 June 1944, for the Ministry of Information, and later went to Burma as a correspondent in 1945. He entered Rangoon with the 15th Corps from Arakan.

In September, 1948, with only 230 solo hours flying experience behind him – and no flight longer than a two-hour stretch - Shute decided to fly to Australia, having meticulously planned the trip. His wife packed him a fine lunch and he and his companion James Riddell arrived in Alice Springs four months later. His two day stay was sufficient inspiration for A Town Like Alice.

The Labour government was re-elected in 1950. High taxation and what he felt to be the decadence of Britain, with the spirit of personal independence and freedom dying, led him to emigrate. Eventually the Shutes made their home in Langwarrin, Victoria. He had a history of heart attacks and fell ill at his typewriter on 12 January 1960 and died that evening in the Melbourne hospital; five days before his birthday.

Shute‘s success lay in the skill with which he described in familiar terms technical subjects, combined with a strong depiction of human relationships and values. His books are far more than mere page-turners. Several of his novels also have a supernatural element, notably Round the Bend and In the Wet.
Much in the way that Hammond Innes created characters, Shute dealt with ordinary people on whom a responsibility has fallen. The story quickly draws the reader into the efforts of the protagonists to solve their problems. Readers turn the pages because they care about them and want them to surmount each obstacle. Classic character writing, in fact.
His later novels were mostly set in his new home country, among them A Town Like Alice which tells of Jean, a London typist. In Japanese-occupied Malaya during her imprisonment Jean befriends Australian Joe Harman, who steals chickens for women prisoners and is crucified in punishment. Shute wrote that the book was based on a real-life incident.
An Old Captivity involves a pilot who is hired by an archaeologist and his daughter to take aerial photographs of a site in Greenland. My book's blurb says, ‘… listen to words spoken as if in a dream by the young pilot who holds their lives in his hands, words that bridge the gap of centuries… The difficulties, dangers and personal antagonisms of their strange expedition are forgotten as all three come under the spell of a haunting romance that began a thousand years earlier...’

On the Beach is dark in tone, for obvious reasons. The feared nuclear war has eliminated all life in the northern hemisphere, leaving Australia to await the inevitable spread of radioactive contamination that will end the rest of human life on Earth. Shute depicts people faced with inevitable doom, but his characters are not desperate. Ostensibly about nuclear war, it’s really an examination of how people live and what they do with their lives when they have certain foreknowledge of their imminent mortality. Shute's optimism is still evident, though, as he doesn’t envision a violent breakdown in society, his characters do not riot, but try their best to cope with the inevitable. Published in 1957, the book played a role in influencing public opinion in the U.S. toward support for the atmospheric test ban treaty.
Stanley Kramer’s 1959 film of On the Beach was a pessimistic anti-Bomb story set in 1964. Kramer wanted to make a picture that “reflects the primary hopes and fears on the minds of all people today.” Gregory Peck was the commander of the nuclear submarine that lands in Australia, the only country not yet wiped out by fallout. Peck has an affair with Ava Gardner and must decide whether to die with her in Australia or go back to America so that his men can die on home soil. Fred Astaire plays a disillusioned scientist who encapsulates the theme: if we have nuclear weapons, they will be used, intentionally or by accident. Shute boycotted the whole venture. The New York Daily News condemned the film, stating it pandered to Moscow and defeatists who wanted to scrap the H-bomb, concluding, ‘See this picture if you must ... but keep in mind that the thinking it represents points the way toward eventual Communist enslavement of the entire human race.’ They don’t write film criticism like that anymore!

In the Wet is another favourite. Written in 1953, it’s about England in the 1980s. ‘The royal family, a target of constant humiliation by socialist politicians, reaches a crisis in their lives. A young Australian pilot, in love with a member of their household, flies the Queen on a fateful journey and prevents a frightening act of sabotage… A story of the future, as foretold by a dissolute man dying in the flooded Queensland bush.’ Remarkable.

Requiem for a Wren (1955) begins with the death of Janet, the Wren. Learning of the heroine’s death at the outset is quite devastating; only a handful of authors can manage this well, and Shute does so superbly. Then, gradually, we learn all about her, her life and loves. This doesn’t read like fiction, it seems too real, too raw, too poignant. An earlier version of this was a novella written in 1946-7, The Seafairers, but not published until 2000.
His novels are never preachy or overtly political; their subtext tends to convey a firm belief in money and private enterprise as sources of moral good. And why not? In most cases, the message was simple and appealing: good people can overcome any obstacle, if they strive hard enough.

Although considered by some to be dated, his works are still popular and many are available as Vintage Classic paperback reprints. There is a thriving FaceBook group you can join, the Shutists.

Stephen Morris (1923, published posthumously in 1961)
Marazan (1926)
So Disdained (1928)
Lonely Road (1932)
Ruined City (1938)
What Happened to the Corbetts (1939)
An Old Captivity (1940)
Landfall: A Channel Story (1940)
Pied piper (1942)
Most Secret (1942)
Pastoral (1944)
Vinland the Good (1946)
The Chequer Board (1947)
No Highway (1948)
A Town Like Alice (1950)
Round the Bend (1951)
The Far Country (1952)
In the Wet (1953)
Slide Rule: Autobiography (1950)
Requiem for a Wren (1955) 
Beyond the Black Stump (1956)
On the Beach (1957)
The Rainbow and the Rose (1958)
Trustee from the Toolroom (1960)
[Thanks to Wikipedia for some of the above information…]


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