Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The autobiography of an engineer

Slide Rule, Nevil Shute

For the first chapter or so of this book, I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading Nevil Shute's autobiography rather than one of his novels.  The first-person narrative voice was instantly familiar:
A year or so ago I was driving on the coast road near Mornington, forty miles south of Melbourne in Australia.  I was going to see some friends to return an unwanted kitten that they had wished onto my children while my back was turned. Maybe the kitten had a malignance that I did not fully understand, because I was driving along between the red cliffs and the blue sea and thinking no evil when I was stabbed suddenly by an intense pain in my chest.  It was so sharp and so agonizing that I could not go on; I was alone in the car but for the kitten, so I pulled in to the roadside and parked to sweat it out.
As he goes on to say, "It wasn't the first time that I had had this thing."  But this time it was more serious, and the worst consequence was that it would restrict his flying.
Most of my adult life, perhaps all the worth-while part of it, has been spent messing about with aeroplanes. Kenneth Grahame once wrote that "there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."  With that I would agree, yet for a fleeting period in the world's history I think that aeroplanes ran boats very close for sheer enjoyment  . . .  the break was a great one, because aeroplanes have been my interest since I was a little boy and were my whole life's work between the two world wars.
That is the story that he went on to tell in this book: his childhood and his life's work, centered around aviation from a very young age.  Nevil Shute Norway, his full name, was born in 1899, and this book covers the years up to 1940.  I knew almost nothing about his life, other than that he worked in aviation and at some point moved to Australia.  Reading this, I had some "oh my gosh" moments that made me want to buttonhole someone and say, Listen to this. Consider yourself buttonholed.

Shute's father was a civil servant in the General Post Office.  In 1912 he was appointed Secretary to the Post Office in Ireland, "which means that he became King of the Post Office in that country."  (Of course I was reminded of Anthony Trollope's years with the Post Office in Ireland.).  His father was in his office at the General Post Office on Easter Monday in 1916.  Shute and his mother walked down to collect his father for lunch about ten minutes before the Post Office was occupied by the Sinn Fein forces.  In the days that followed, Shute drove an ambulance around Dublin, occasionally coming under fire.  He later wrote quite coolly about the "adventure that befell the boy of seventeen who was myself."

From 1924 to 1930, Shute worked on the development of a "rigid airship," what I think of as a zeppelin.  The little I know about aviation in this period I learned from reading about Charles and Anne Lindbergh, so I had no idea that "It was generally agreed in 1924 that the aeroplane would never be a suitable vehicle for carrying passengers across the oceans, and that airships would operate all the long-distance routes of the future."  The commercial firm that Shute was working for, Vickers Ltd., was in competition with the Air Ministry to develop a prototype airship for British production and use.  Vickers was building R.100, and the government R.101.  There was an early reference to the crash of R.101 in October of 1930, which killed most of its crew, including some of Shute's friends.  Shute probably expected that his readers would be familiar with the story.  I knew nothing about it, though of course I had at least heard of the Hindenburg disaster seven years later.  Somewhat to my surprise, I was drawn into the story of the competing designs, the trials and errors, despite complete lack of interest in the engineering Shute covered in some detail.  All the while in the back of my mind I kept thinking, "Really?  People were actually going to travel in zeppelins?"  I don't think I ever fully appreciated that the Hindenburg was a passenger ship.  The account of R.100's flight to Canada, and the rousing reception the crew received there, fascinated me.  All the way across the Atlantic and back, in a fabric-covered cylinder.

I also felt a jolt of recognition, reading that during the Second World War Shute worked in the Admiralty, "on the design of unconventional weapons," just like his characters in Most Secret.  With his narrator, Commander Martin, he got to make "occasional excursions to sea to attend trials of my toys."  If he shared Martin's ambivalence about those weapons, he didn't mention it here.

The subtitle of this book is very apt: "The Autobiography of an Engineer."  It is concerned mostly with his work in aviation, and as in his novels, the technical details can be a bit overwhelming for a non-engineer.  The last third of the book is an account of the airplane manufacturing firm he helped establish, Airspeed Limited.  He worked with the company as a managing director from its founding in 1930, until he was forced out over financial issues in 1938.  His account of the constant money crises echoes Henry Warren's struggles in Ruined City, as he struggles to re-open a shipyard in northern England.  Shute skated closed to the line that Warren crossed:
At this time I was acquiring a reputation with my co-directors and with my city associates for a reckless and unscrupulous optimism that came close to dishonesty.  I think this bad reputation was deserved, for having set my hand to Airspeed and brought it so far up the road towards success I was intolerant of obstacles that seemed to me to be based upon an ultra-conservative and pedantic view of business.
In addition to his first career, Shute also discussed his writing, though not in great detail.  He turned to writing novels in the evenings, as a relaxation from the hard mental work of running statistical calculations.  In this book he passed over his personal life, at least after childhood, in even less detail.  At some point he married, to a doctor, with whom he had two daughters.  Late in the book, he did mention cutting back on his hours at work, "to get back to a normal life  . . . and to try to behave more as a father and a husband should."  I was disappointed that the book ended in 1940.  I would like to read more about his life, particularly after the war.

This isn't one of those autobiographies that left me feeling that I really came to know its author.  It is more a closed book, compared with something like Monica Dickens' Open Book, or Rosemary Sutcliff's Blue Remembered Hills.  But it did make me want to read (and re-read) Nevil Shute's novels.  I still have his first two published, Mazaran and So Disdained, on the TBR stacks.  And I just ordered a copy of his third, Lonely Road.  That only leaves Vinland the Good, and I'll have all of his books - once my copy of this one arrives.  I read a library copy, and I'm disinclined to give it back.


  1. I feel quite bad that I've only read A Town Like Alice (and what a wonderful book!) -- he really deserves a lot more of my reading time. (And that feeling when you can't BEAR to return a library book is very familiar to me!)

  2. The only Nevil Shute book I've read is A Town Like Alice, which I completely love. It sounds like he led a pretty complicated and interesting life. Great review of his autobiography. Do you have a favorite of his books?

  3. vicki, I need to remember though that libraries are best for trying new authors & books. It would save me a lot of money & shelf space, since I keep buying books that in the end aren't worth reading or keeping.

    Lark, A Town Like Alice is probably my favorite, but I'm also very fond of Pied Piper, and The Far Country. The only book of his I don't like is Requiem for a Wren (and I really really don't like it :)

  4. I own this book but have yet to read it. The Shute novels I tend to enjoy most are the ones where Lady Engineering is another character. His slide rule mind seems to be in all of his novels, but I do like the ones where he gets all wonky on us.

  5. Thomas, I understand now why so many of his characters are pilots and engineers. I sometimes tend to skim over the really technical wonkiness, like the flight tests in No Highway - but the context will more more sense. and I'll be looking for Lady Engineering :)


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!