Portrait of an engineer as a novelist

 Vikas Datta profiles Nevil Shute Norway, an aeronautical engineer would be the last person expected to be a successful and long-lasting novelist

A promo of Nevil Shute at York Museum
A promo of Nevil Shute at York Museum

Immersed in aerodynamics, material science, structural analysis and the like, an aeronautical engineer would be the last person expected to be a successful and long-lasting novelist. But there was one who started writing for relaxation and eventually ended up with two dozen intricately-plotted but extremely engrossing works stretching from wartime romances to attempts for redemption to dire apocalyptic scenarios – with views on class, gender and race relations most unprecedented for his era.

This was Nevil Shute Norway (1899-1960), or Nevil Shute as author 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).

He need not have worried, being as renowned in his engineering endeavours – 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 pilots or even aircraft designers – “No Highway” (1954) has metal fatigue as a key plot point! He began 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 published in 1961, a 1942 novel (“Most Secret” about unconventional attacks on Germans) held back till the war’s end, and one came out decades after his death.

Though themes like romance and attempts to revitalise communities (“Ruined City”, 1938 and more famous “A Town Like Alice”, 1950) were repeated, Shute always ensured fresh treatment. He also did not disguise his views – dislike of postwar 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. Quite unusually, he seemed open to paranormal phenomenon which figure in some books.

His first published work was “Marazan” (1926), where an escaped convict, framed for drug-running, rescues a pilot who helps him clear his name. “So Disdained” (1928), very unusually, sees the protagonist taking on Soviet spies with help of Italian fascists! (But this was a pre-Hitler era and when Soviet communism was deemed the prime threat.)

“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.

“What Happened to the Corbetts” (1938) was prescient about effects of aerial bombing of cities, and the fanciful “An Old Captivity” (1940) about a pilot, in Greenland on a mission, suffering a drug-induced flashback to the Viking era.

Nevil Shute
Nevil Shute

Then come the WW-II novels. “Landfall: A Channel Story” (1940) is about a young RAF pilot accused of sinking a British submarine in error but cleared by efforts of his girlfriend – a barmaid, “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 imperiling his crew – it climaxes with an unforgettable scene where the hero, alone in his damaged aircraft, repeatedly sings out “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” till he can safely land.

“The Seafarers” (1946, published in 2000) was about a naval officer and woman auxiliary whose post-war romance fails due to social differences while one of Shute’s best is “The Chequer Board” (1947), where a dying man wonders about three distressed wartime comrades – and discovers the RAF pilot, concerned about marital infidelity, is living happily in Burma with a (new) native wife, and the commando, accused of murder, and a black GI, who attempted suicide after being accused of rape, are equally content in Britain.

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 southern hemisphere living it up as they await their turn.

“In the Wet” (1953), “Requiem for a Wren” (1955), “Beyond the Black Stump” (1956) are all set in Australia, “The Rainbow and the Rose” (1958) of a man’s three romances and “Trustee from the Toolroom” (1960) is about a desperate treasure hunt.

Gifted with the ability to use various settings, craft unforgettable characters (an altruistic banker, a feisty heiress) and situations and revisit themes without getting repetitive, Shute always is a satisfying read. His entire oeuvre was republished in 2009 but has again mostly disappeared. Time for a new print run?