Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The aeronautical engineer who became a master storyteller (IANS Column: Bookends)

A young woman who wants to use an unexpected legacy to revive an Australian outback town, a retired professor saddled with the responsibility of taking six children to safety through Nazi-invaded France, a dying salesman determined to repay some wartime debts, and a barmaid who seeks to clear her pilot paramour of a ‘friendly fire’ charge were among the protagonists in the singular stories of this once popular author.

Yet like many other of his contemporaries or successors – Frederick Forsyth, Desmond Bagley, Jack Higgins, Alistair Maclean, et al – with whom his works usually adorned bookshelves in houses of avid readers in the late 20th century, Nevil Shute has gradually faded away from public memory and interest.

An accomplished aeronautical engineer and pilot, who began writing novels as a hobby, Shute was much in demand for most of the 20th century, with his two-dozen-odd engrossing and eminently readable books with compelling plot lines – straddling various genres from romance to redemption, religion to reincarnation, and cross-cultural relations to a post-apocalyptic scenario, and sometimes, some supernormal elements – but not enough to stretch credulity.

Exotic and unconventional settings – spanning from South Pacific islands to dense Canadian forests to the Australian outback, themes revisited without getting repetitive, and sometimes, a framing device of a narrator – who introduces the main story but otherwise does not take part – were other features of his books.

However, while many of his works made the transition to films, he deserves more appreciation for the new ground he broke. Most of his heroes were middle-class professionals – lawyers, doctors, bank managers, engineers, and most of them have some flaws, or other shortcomings – and the dignity of work and service is particularly emphasised.

And most importantly, his handling of class, gender, and race relations most unprecedented for his era – given that he began writing from the mid-1920s when these issues were far placed from what we are familiar with in our age.

His politics were a bit more conventional and even a bit reactionary – but not out of the ordinary for his time.

Nevil Shute Norway (1899-1960) shortened his author’s name to Nevil Shute to guard his engineering career “from any potential negative publicity” from his novels – as per his memoirs (the predictably-named ‘Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer’, 1954).

However, he shouldn’t have bothered – being as renowned in his engineering endeavours, including having a key role in developing the R100 airship for Vickers and then heading his own aircraft construction firm that made a multi-engine bomber trainer for the Royal Air Force during World War II.

This background was well reflected with Shute’s heroes often being pilots or even aircraft designers – ‘No Highway’ (1954) has metal fatigue of the aircraft chassis as a key plot point!

He begin writing in 1923 though his first two (novellas ‘Stephen Morris’ and its continuation ‘Pilotage’ (1923-24), about a young pilot taking a dangerous mission) were only posthumously published in 1961, and his first published work was ‘Marazan’ (1926), where an escaped convict, framed for drug-running, rescues a pilot who helps him clear his name.

The next was ‘So Disdained’ (1928) where the protagonist, who discovers his friend is spying for the Soviets, does not report him but surreptitiously foils his bids – and finally takes on Soviet spies with the help of Italian fascists! (remember it is pre-Hitler times).

‘Lonely Road’ (1932) was, however, where Shute displayed his flair for innovative writing with a surrealistic, dreamlike first chapter and his first flawed hero, in this case, one foiling a conspiracy to influence the coming British elections.

A masterly intertwining of romance and an attempt (not all ethical) to revitalise a community – impacted by lack of economic opportunities – was explored in ‘Ruined City’ (1938) – a theme Shute would reprise in the more famous ‘A Town Like Alice’ (1950), which also brings in the horrors of the war in the Far East – and as well the resilience of people who faced them.

‘What Happened to the Corbetts’ (1938), which was prescient about the effects of aerial bombing of cities, can be considered the first of his WWII novels.

The others were ‘Landfall: A Channel Story’ (1940), where a young RAF pilot comes under a cloud after sinking a ‘British’ submarine before his girlfriend comes to his aid, ‘Pied Piper’ (1942) about an elderly teacher on holiday in France suddenly responsible for taking seven children to safety as the Germans invade, and ‘Pastoral’ (1944) about an unhappy love affair impacting a bomber pilot’s performance and imperilling his crew – it climaxes with an unforgettable scene with the hero, alone in his damaged aircraft waiting for the time till he can safely land.

Shute’s wartime-themed works also included ‘Most Secret’ (1942) about unconventional attacks on Germans on the French coast – but due to its sensitive nature, its release was held back till the war ended.

The fanciful ‘An Old Captivity’ (1940) about a pilot, in Greenland on a mission, suffering a drug-induced flashback to the Viking era, was the first with a supernatural theme – a motif that would be reprised in ‘In the Wet’ (1953), with some extraordinary time travel, and criticism of socialism.

The sombre ‘Requiem for a Wren’ (1955), set in Australia, could also be included here as all its protagonists are grappling with the effects of the war.

Shute’s postwar works grew a bit more to be vehicles of his views – dislike of post-war Britain (which led him to emigrate to Australia in 1950) figures in ‘The Far Country’ (1952) and of the ‘White Australia’ policy in ‘Round the Bend’ (1951) – his own favourite – about an aircraft engineer finding a new religion based on good work.

While cross-cultural romance ‘Beyond the Black Stump’ (1956), and unconventional romance ‘The Rainbow and the Rose’ (1958) are part of his Australian corpus, his most famous novel (thanks to its film adaptation starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner) was the dark ‘On the Beach’ (1957) about a nuclear holocaust depopulating most of the world and a few survivors in the Melbourne region living it up as they await their turn.

However, for those piqued by Shute, three of his representative best could begin with ‘Round the Bend’ – which has usual Shute tropes – aviation professionals as heroes, exotic locales spanning from the Gulf to South Pacific in a thought-evoking story.

‘The Chequer Board’ (1947) is about a cereal salesman, after a wartime wound is pronounced a death sentence, wondering about what happened to three distressed comrades in a hospital and decides to use his remaining time to find out. The search for the three – a rather immature RAF pilot concerned about marital infidelity, a commando accused of murder, and a black GI, who attempted suicide after being accused of rape – is eyeopening.

Then there is his final novel ‘Trustee from the Toolroom’ (1960), showcasing how a mild-mannered English mechanical whiz, working in a low-paying job at a specialised technical newsletter, has to mount a desperate mission into South Pacific to safeguard the legacy of his recently-orphaned niece, how he fares on a “mission impossible” that takes him all around the world, and most important, what makes it possible.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at



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