Although Nevil Shute wrote full time for twenty years, he never thought of himself as an author; instead, he considered himself to be a middle-class engineer, who wrote for other middle-class people. Work provided the focus for Shute’s life, and the characters he created reflect his devotion to his job and his belief about the importance of work in the lives of his characters. Shute’s own moral character and devotion to duty are characteristics he gave his characters. They are decent, moral, and heroic without being boring or stuffy; indeed, they are often fascinating. Another facet of Shute’s characters is their ability to work hard at arduous tasks. Shute himself liked to do two jobs at a time, theorizing that working on more than one job provided relief from stress, especially if the second job was very unlike the first. In An Old Captivity, the main character, a pilot, can see that the entire work of an expedition to Greenland will fall on his shoulders; nevertheless, he goes ahead and does it all.
Shute believed that in any situation the ordinary person would respond as decently as possible. At the end of Ordeal, the main character’s wife notes that the couple had always tried to live quietly and decently and do their jobs. His characters are also heroic and willing to sacrifice themselves. In Landfall: A Channel Story, a young test pilot volunteers to test a new type of plane to be shot off the deck of an aircraft carrier. The government has pressed for the testing, and although badly injured, the pilot manages to survive to tell the developers what they ought to do to make the new plane work. Although young, the pilot is heroic in his determination that the tests must not fail, lest the war itself be lost.
Shute’s plots came from many sources: from work, from anecdotes he heard from friends, or from fears or concerns about items he read in the newspaper. He carried a notebook to keep track of ideas, words, and jokes to use in his novels. Once Shute heard about a fatal practical joke involving a plane flying, with landing lights on, at low altitude toward an oncoming train. Apparently the plane could not be maneuvered quickly enough and smashed into the engine, and both pilot and train engineer were killed. With typical economy, Shute used the incident in Beyond the Black Stump to dispose of a minor character. Shute also used his notebook to help him remember interesting incidents that could be used for novels. While in the Far East after World War II, Shute heard about a group of women and children who had been forced to march all over Malaya during the war because the Japanese did not have a prisoner of war camp where they could be sent. That story was the basis for A Town Like Alice.
As Shute grew older, he became increasingly concerned about the proliferation of atomic weapons and pessimistic about his government’s ability to deal with modern crises. That concern appeared in two novels, In the Wet and On the Beach. In the Wet is an allegory that reflects his fears about the growth of socialism in postwar Britain. He applauded the lessening of class structure and called for more opportunities for the educated middle-class. In the Wet is set in a dreary 1980’s, where the only British institution that has grown is the civil service. Here, Shute argues for a “meritocracy” rewarded by more than one vote per person. Everyone of age would have one basic vote; a college degree would bestow a second vote. Additional merit for foreign travel or earning a living abroad would earn another vote, as would raising two children to age fourteen without divorcing, with a fifth vote for founding and running a business, a sixth for being a church minister, and the last at the queen’s pleasure. Such a system would guarantee that those who worked hard would be rewarded by having more say in important government issues.
Shute’s youthful optimism was modified later in his career. His early novels hint that people only had to do their duty and everything would turn out all right. Sometime in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, however, Shute’s vision darkened; he began to write about people haunted by a lack of religion, hounded by love, and destroyed by an increasingly insensitive society. He began to wonder whether work might not serve as religion for people too busy for traditional modes of worship. Round the Bend presents just such a proposition. The narrator, Tom Cutter, runs an airline in Bahrain. The airline has become his life and his family, yet he is not happy or satisfied. He hires a friend, Connie Shaklin, as his chief engineer. Suddenly the airline is running much smoother; the employees are happier. When he notices that the employees spend their lunchtime listening to Shaklin preach, Cutter is intrigued and joins them. He hears Shaklin say that becoming perfect demands doing a perfect job, and that you cannot separate the two. Soon Cutter has to send Shaklin away because many people are following him and proclaiming him a messiah for workers. In his new position, Shaklin continues to teach his message that good work and morality are the same thing.
Although Round the Bend was not especially well received by the critics, it put into words what Shute had believed his entire life about the importance of work and especially about aeronautics: laziness and a lack of attention to detail were great evils. He always thought that accidents happened because someone was foolish, negligent, or lazy, not because God...
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