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||Nevil Shute (1899-1960) - original name Nevil Shute Norway|
British-born Australian novelist, an accomplished storyteller, whose best-known work, On the Beach (1957), was adapted for the screen in 1959. The picture became one of the most celebrated anti-Bomb films, and attracted much attention all over the world, Moscow included because it was the first full-length American feature to have a premiere in the Soviet Union. Educated as an aeronautical engineer, Nevil Shute utilized his expertise on technical issues and knowledge of aviation in his fiction. Shute's novels Pied Piper (1942) and A Town Like Alice (1950) have also been made into major films.
"A beautiful aircraft is the expression of the genius of a great engineer who is also a great artist. It is impossible for that man to carry out the whole of the design himself; he works through a design office staffed by a hundred draughtsmen or more. A hundred minds, each with their own less competent ideas, are striving to modify the chief designer's original conception. If the design is to appear in the end as a great artistic unity, the chief designer must be a man of immensely powerful will, capable of imposing his idea and his way of doing things on each of his hundred draughtsmen, so that each one of them is too terrified to insert any of his own ideas." (from No Highway, 1948)
Shute Norway was born in Ealing, Middlesex, the second son of
Arthur Hamilton Norway, C.B., an assistant secretary of the General
Post Office in London, and the former Mary Louisa Gadsden; her father
was a retired major general from the Indian Staff Corps. Shute's second
name came from his paternal grandmother, the writer
Georgina Shute, who published novels under the pseudonym G. Norway.
early age, Shute began to stammer badly, and as he later recalled, "a
stammer certainly makes things tough for a little boy at school".
Moreover, he was left-handed and was forced to write with his right
hand at school. Despite his stammer, Shute acted at Oxford Preparatory
in a school production of The Taming of the Shrew. In
1912 the family moved to Dublin, when Shute's father became head of the
post office in Ireland.
After witnessing the Easter Rising in Dublin,
where he was a volunteer stretcher-bearer, Shute entered Balliol
College, Oxford. He spent the later stages of World War I in military
service – Shute started his training at the Royal Military Academy,
Woolwich, but failed the final medical exam – and then continued his
engineering studies, graduating from Oxford in 1922 Shute's brother
Frederick died in the war after being wounded by a high-explosive
In January 1923 Shute joined the de Havilland Aircraft
His first flight Shute had made at de Havilland during his apprentice
period and recalled it in a poem: "Only the sun, the sky, the air / And
moissy pincushions of trees / Upon the hazy picture there. / Only the
solid wings, and these." (Slide Rule, 1954)
in Zeppelins, Shute was employed in 1924 as an aeronautical engineer at
Airship Guarantee Company (AGC), a subsidiary of Vickers. He worked as
Calculator and then Deputy Chief
Engineer of the R.100 project, one of the last of the
British airships. However, its gas valves, filled with hydrogn, were
built by the Zeppelin company. Shute flew aboard R.100 in July 1930, on
its transatlantic crossing to Canada and back. The project ended after
the R.101 disaster – the overweight and underpowerd airship of the
rivaling team crashed in France in October 1930, on the maide flight to
India. Next year, in the middle of the recession, Shute founded with
Alfred Hessell Tiltman an aircraft construction company, Airspeed Ltd.
Although Shute's early novels, entitled Stephen Morris and Pilotage, were rejected, he did not abandon writing. As a novelist Shute made his debut in 1926 with Marazan,
a "dramatic adventure of intrigue, drug-running, and murder." The book
was published by Cassel and Company. It was followed by So Disdained (1928), about aviation and espionage, Lonely Road
(1929), again an espionage thriller, and Ruined
City (1938), set in a shipbuilding town in the grips of the
Great Depression. Shute's heroes in these and his other works are
decent, resourceful, and courageous, like John
Hannay and Sandy Arbuthnot, and they don't not have as
hard-boiled mentality as typical American thriller heroes.
To protect his professional image as an aeronautical engineer, Shute usually signed his books N.S. Norway or Nevil Shute Norway. In 1931, he married Frances Mary Heaton, a doctor, with whom he had two daughters. Years earlier before meeting Frances, Shute unsuccesfully proposed marriage to Flora Twart, an artist. They remained lifetime friends.
During the 1930s, Shute's company had grown successfully, employing about a thousand people, and he decided to resign and devote himself entirely to writing. However, he always insisted that he wrote just for fun, and as he later said, "most of my adult life, perhaps all the worthwhile part of it, has been spent in messing about aeroplanes."
The novel Pied Piper became a huge success and also was adapted for the screen, for the first time in 1942. In the story an elderly man, John Sidney Howard, helps a swarm of children to escape the Nazis from France to the United States. 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". "He sat down again, and began to fashion a whistle with the pen-knife that he kept for scraping out his pipe... The Cavanagh children stood by him watching his slow, wrinkled fingers as they worked; in their faces incredulity melted into interest. He stripped the bark from the twig, cut deftly with the little knife, and bound the bark into place. He put it to his lips, and it gave out a shrill note." The book had two sequels, Pastoral (1944) and Most Secret (1945).
WW II Shute served as head of the engineering section of the Admiralty
Department of Miscellaneous Weapon Development. and contributed to the
development of a
number of top-secret, specialized weapons. Originally he had joined the
Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as an "elderly yachtsman," thinking to
spend the war
in charge of a drifter or a motor minesweeper. He was sent to Normandy
as a correspondent for the Ministry of Information in 1944, on the
afternoon of D-Day. "The beach was
littered with wrecked landing craft and shot up vehicles, and yet it
did not look too bad," Shute wrote in his account. On the next morning,
he went ashore, took a lot of photographs, and talked with soldiers,
and French laborers, who told that the bombardment had killed ten and
wounded twenty. "I was amazed to hear the numbers were so low, having
seen the destruction of the front..."
After the war, Shute traveled widely. In 1945, he went to India and Burma as a correspondent, and in 1947 he toured America. Although his reports and other writings were not published, his experiences provided material for the novel The Chequer Board (1947), in which a former officer flies to Burma to look up a British pilot he had met in a military hospital.
"He glanced around the ice-cream parlour. 'If everything you want to do works out like this,' he said slowly, 'you'll have a town as good as Alice Springs in no time.'
By 1950, Shute had published thirteen books. He lived with his
wife and daughters on a 5-acre property on the Hayling Island, enjoying
sailing and flying his own aeroplane. However, he left England in July
1950. From then on, Shute lived permanently in Australia, settling
on a farm at Langwarrin, Victoria. His last novel written in England was Round the Bend
(1951). Explaining his motives for migrating, he said that in Australia
"everybody was making money and everybody had a smile on his face,"
whereas in England "everyone and nearly everything is controlled, and
no one seems to know what will happen next". (Shute: The Engineer who became a Prince of Storytellers by Richard Thorn, 2017, p. 176)
If Shute ever even slightly believed that Australia would provide him and his family
a safe haven for the rest of their lives, he must have changed his mind
by the time he began to work on On the Beach.
Although in the story Australians have not been drawn on the apocalyptic World War
III ("short, bewildering war"), the effects of nuclear
fallout kill off all human life. Shute prefaced the novel with a
quotation from T.S. Eliot's Waste Land:
"This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper". Paul
Brians, whose fundamental study Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895–1984 came out in 1987, has
suggested that the novel's Australian perspective is ideal to express
the fears about fallout. (Apocalypse in Australian Fiction and Film: A Critical Study by Roslyn Weaver, 2011, p. 65)
Shute's later novels were mostly set in his new home country, among them A Town Like Alice. As in Pied Piper, Shute uses a narrator, who relates the story of the central characters to readers. It tells of Jean Paget, a London typist, and her trek from Japanese-occupied Malaya to the Australian outback. In Malaya during her imprisonment she befriends Joe Harman, an Australian ringer, who steals five chickens for women prisoners and is crucified in punishment. After the war she hears Joe is still alive. They meet again and start their life together in Willstown. The book was based on a real-life incident. Shute expected to be accused of falsifying history and wrote in the author's note: "After the conquest of Malaya in 1942 the Japanese invaded Sumatra and quickly took the island. A party of about eighty Dutch women and children were collected in the vicinity of Padang. The local Japanese commander was reluctant to assume the responsibility for these women and, to solve his problem, marched them out of his area; so began a trek all round Sumatra which lasted for two and a half years. At the end of this vast journey less than thirty of them were still alive."
When Shute started to write On the Beach, a pessimistic and pathetic dystopia of the atomic age, a series of heart attacks had made him think, that it could be his last book. In the story 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 the human life on Earth. Shute depicts people faced with inevitable doom, but his characters are not desperate, though they know that their death is only a matter of time. They try to spend their last months normally, planning garden works for the next ten years, going to work, watching Grand Prix races, learning to type. A Morse code signal from the devasted U.S. turns out to be a false alarm: a submarine crew discovers that it is generated accidentally as a windblown soda bottle taps a telegraph key. The hopeless relationship between U.S. Navy Captain Dwight Towers and Moira Davidson, the middle-aged daughter of a stockbreeder, ends in their separation: Towers takes his nuclear submarine to the sea. At the end Australian government handles out cyanide pills to its citizens. Moira takes a pill from a red box, as do Mary and Peter, a young couple with their daughter Jennifer.
The theme of the end of the world has been subject in many novels throughout literary history. Mary Shelley wrote in 1826 a gloomy Great Plague story The Last Man, the atomic bomb was depicted in H.G. Wells's The World Set Free (1914), and apocalyptic visions have inspired a number of films and books from different genres, from Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Cat's Cradle (1963) and James Blish's The Triumph of Time (1958) to Bernard Malamud's God's Grace (1982) and Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake (2003). Years after the shooting of Dick Powell's movie The Conqueror (1956) in Utah near a nuclear test site, several members of the cast and crew, including Powell, John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moore, were stricken by cancer. For further reading: The End of the World, ed. by Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander (1983).
The film version of On the Beach
(1959), directed by
Kramer, was set in the year 1964. Stanley Kramer wanted to make a
picture that reflected the primary hopes and fears of the era; this
stand prompted Pentagon in refusing to lend an atomic submarine to the
production company. Nevil Shute himself boycotted the entire venture;
he was not happy with Kramer's interpretation of the novel and the
script – diverging from the book, the film stated that the fatal
nuclear confrontation was started by "a handful of vacuum tubes and
transistors, probably faulty". The British philisopher Bertrand
Russell, who was an active
supporter of the anti-nuclear movement, praised the film directly after
seeing it, but later had second thoughts and said in his autobiography
that it was "like the prettified stories that were sometimes told about
trench warfare during the First World War." (Autobiography, 2010, p. 581)
Gregory Peck played the commander of a U.S. nuclear submarine that lands in Australia, the only country that has not yet been wiped out by atomic fallout. He has a desperate affair with Ava Gardner – and he must decide whether to die with Gardner in Australia or go back to America so that his men can die on home soil. Gardner tells reporters: for making a picture about the end of the world, "this is the place to do it." Fred Astaire was casted in the role of a disillusioned scientist whose message is that if we have nuclear weapons, they will be used, intentionally or by accident. "Waltzing Matilda" plays throughout the film. An abandoned banner is seen at the end, reading "There is still time... Brother". The New York Daily News (December 18, 1959) condemned the movie on political grounds: "This is a would-be shocker which plays right up the alley of a) the Kremlin and b) the Western defeatists and/or traitors who yelp for the scrapping of the H-bomb. ... See this picture if you must (it seems bound to be much talked about), but keep in mind that the thinking it represents points the way toward eventual Communist enslavement of the entire human race."
Shute was a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. During his 30 years long career as writer, he published 25 books, mostly fiction but also nonfiction, including Slide Rule (1954), a book of memoirs. Its title refers to a calculating device used by engineers before pocket calculators and computers. "Like many men today, after two wars I have been in danger too often to bother very much about being killed," he wrote, "and when it comes I would prefer that it should happen in an aeroplane, since aeroplanes have been the best part of my life." After finishig his autobiography, Shute began working on an unfinished novella from 1946-47, entitled The Seafarers. This work was not published until 2002. Shute died of a cerebral haemorrhage on January 12, 1960, in East Melbourne.
For further reading: Nevil Shute by Julian Smith (1976); The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1985); 'Beyond Britain - Nevil Shute 's Asian Outlook' by J. Bennett and E. Thumboo, in Perceiving Other Worlds (1989; Nov, 0, 25-29); World Authors 1900-1950, vol. 4, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); 'The R.100 in Canada' by Renald Fortier (National Aviation Museum, 1999); Apocalypse in Australian Fiction and Film: A Critical Study by Roslyn Weaver (2011): Shute: The Engineer who became a Prince of Storytellers by Richard Thorn (2017) - For further information: The Nevil Shute Norway Foundation