Nevil Shute Shute (Norway), Nevil - Essay

Nevil Shute Norway


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nevil Shute (Norway) 1899–1960

English novelist.

Shute was a popular novelist of the 1940s and 1950s who is best known for his futuristic novel On the Beach (1957). An aeronautical engineer and aviator, Shute served in both world wars, and the majority of his novels are based on his experiences and reflect his lifelong passion for aviation. Many are set in Australia, where Shute eventually settled. Primarily a storyteller, Shute peopled his works with ordinary characters, but related extraordinary circumstances. Several of his novels—On the Beach, No Highway, Pied Piper, and A Town Like Alice—were made into films.

One of the most interesting aspects of Shute's career was his penchant for predicting the future. In What Happened to the Corbetts (1939), he related the story of an English family terrorized by the bombing of their town. Shortly thereafter, the English faced a similar situation. No Highway (1948) depicts the crash of a jet due to metal fatigue; within a few years a similar crash occurred. Shute was fascinated with predicting such events. In his postscript to In the Wet (1953), he wrote: "No man can see into the future, but unless somebody makes a guess from time to time and publishes it to stimulate discussion it seems to me that we are drifting in the dark, not knowing where we want to go or how to get there."

On the Beach is one of the first novels to probe the possibility of nuclear annihilation. It tells the story of the last survivors of a nuclear war, who await death by radiation. Although some critics contended that the novel lacked drama because Shute avoided the depiction of suffering, others praised its terrifying sense of despair. On the Beach has gained relevance in view of current concern about nuclear warfare.

Several of Shute's other works also treat subjects of interest to young adults. In An Old Captivity (1940) and Vinland the Good (1940), Shute recounts Viking adventures and explorations. In Pied Piper (1942), an elderly gentleman escorts a group of children through German-occupied France. In A Town Like Alice (1950), the Japanese force a group of women and children to wander from town to town and survive by their own means. In his works, Shute favors strong-willed, able young people who face adversity with the strength of moral conviction.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 102.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What happened to the Corbetts? Well, one evening, like everybody else in Southampton and in all the important cities of England, they were subjected to intense aerial bombardment. War had started before anybody was prepared…. Corbett was fortunate enough to own a yacht out at Hamble, whither he took his wife and three small children. That is the first half and by far the most original part of [What Happened to the Corbetts (published in the United States as Ordeal)]. The second half of the book tells how the Corbetts managed to sail their boat to France, where Joan Corbett and the little children are packed off to Canada, while Peter returns to join the Navy.

The first half of the book is the more interesting. Mr. Shute not only possesses a very clear idea of what may be the things to come, but a style of first-class competence to convey his ideas to us. He writes quite objectively about the occurrences and the behaviour of his characters, and there is throughout a resemblance to Mr. [H. G.] Wells's earlier scientific novels Mr. Shute, moreover, has interesting theories about the technique of aerial bombardment and the possibilities of defence. The account of the sailing of a small yacht across the channel, the crew consisting of Mr. and Mrs. Corbett, is well told. This novel is both exciting and provocative.

A review of "What Happened to the Corbetts," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1993, February 18, 1939, p. 103.

Ben Ray Redman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Ordeal" is the story of the Corbett family during the first weeks of a war that was the more terrible for being so mysterious. Peter and those like him had no idea of what was really happening or going to happen. Official information was disturbingly meager. No army movements were reported and nothing was heard of the Fleet. All that the man in the street knew was that he and his were being mercilessly bombed on every cloudy night, and that the Air Force was supposedly carrying out satisfactory "reprisals."…

Mr. Shute traces the hesitant and baffled steps towards safety in a matter-of-fact, entirely convincing style that stems from the school of Defoe….

Granted his subject, it would have been easy for Mr. Shute to write a highly exciting and affecting story. He has chosen instead to write one that is simply credible and absorbing. He has held his imagination on a short rein and eschewed dramatic effects no less than horror. While avoiding sensationalism, he has also avoided many sensations that would seem proper to his narrative. He has never raised his voice above the level of the calm, factual reporter (the outbreak of cholera is announced in a tone that would serve to inform us of a case of mumps next door) and he has felt no need of "developing" his characters. Dr. Gordon's death moves us no more than would the sight of an unknown name in an obituary column, and Collins's crash has no personal meaning for us....

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Hassoldt Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Ordeal"] is an astonishing performance for the author of last year's best-seller, "Kindling." If that random tale was escape from reality, this is an incursion upon it, the grim reality of the possible war in England which has concerned us for a considerable time. It is not alarmist; it is sane fiction laconically suggesting the dilemma of the average man in the event of England being attacked from the air. Mr. Shute states at the end of his book, "If a writer has any quality of value to the community it is that of using his imagination to foresee what lies ahead of us," and though that assertion may not be universally applicable it is peculiarly so in his own case, for not only has he the novelist's skill to present his forecast dramatically, but his long experience as an aeronautical engineer lends authority to the book….

["Ordeal"] is a grisly record by implication, for there are few visible horrors in it. The reader is made poignantly aware of the monstrous suffering entailed by the war, but no corpses are flung into his lap. There is one casualty per bomb, one death per three—the usual average—but in this view of mass destruction the perspective is such that the gory details are not apparent. The death of old Mrs. Littlejohn by a flying shaft of glass is sufficient to indicate the total tragedy. There are no hysterical histrionics anywhere in the writing of the novel, though Corbett's anguish to decide whether his duty is first to the family or to the State could be more dramatically shown, and the children, perhaps, could scream a little louder without spoiling Mr. Shute's fine detachment from the scene; his story is told, you would say, through clenched teeth to keep his emotions in.

Hassoldt Davis, "If War Should Come to England," in The New York Times Book Review, March 26, 1939, p. 4.

Fred T. Marsh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["An Old Captivity"] is a strangely ordered tale. For the most part it holds the interest skillfully, keeps you pegging away page after page, unwilling to put the book down. Mr. Shute can spin a yarn in cracking good prose, and since through three-quarters of the novel he knows expertly what he's talking about …, you enjoy and feel confidence in the accumulation of data and details through which the story moves and has its being.

For this is a fictional record of an airplane flight from Scotland to Greenland, via Iceland, thence to Cape Cod, the Vineland of the Norse Vikings….

Mr. Shute is a practical man about airplanes and pilots qua pilots. But there's a broad streak of romantic mysticism underneath, and this flowers forth in the last quarter of this novel in a way to put to shame even James Hilton in his "Lost Horizon" or [Rudyard] Kipling's "Brushwood Boy." But to this reader it came as a shock and disappointment. It did not seem to him apt or well done, even of its kind, with its Eskimo curse and its transmigration hocus-pocus and its mystic conundrumry—was it a vision or a waking dream? And that brings us back to the opening pages in this oddly put together yarn.

For no apparent reason, so far as the story is concerned, a psychiatrist named Morgan and a Senior Master of Imperial Airways named Donald Ross meet on a train in France. The train is held up overnight and the two enter into conversation. "Do you do dreams and all that?" asks the airman. On being assured he does, the pilot mentions a strange, incomprehensible dream he had some five years ago: "You don't think I'd be likely to go crackers as I get older?" he asks. "I said gently, 'We've got a long evening before us. Would you like to tell me about it?'"

That's all. We never hear of the psychiatrist again, what he thinks of the tale, whether he ever...

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The Christian Science Monitor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] combination of straightforward adventure with the shadow of a dream is one which has often been tried in literature, with varying degrees of success. "Lost Horizon" is one of the most notable of the recent books of this type; "An Old Captivity" is less impressive, but is still an excellent example of what an imaginative author can do to satisfy some readers' predilection for swift-paced action, while he appeals at the same time to an audience fond of a more subtle and provocative narrative.

The one who likes adventure will perhaps be the better rewarded. Seldom has a story of an airplane flight been more vividly and expertly delineated. From the moment of the takeoff from Southampton, the vicissitudes of the strangely assorted crew provide a narrative of increasing suspense….

The coincident theme, dealing with the pilot's psychological adventure, so to speak, is a blend of fantasy, legend, and Celtic mysticism. It centers on a dream which Ross experiences shortly after their arrival at the site of Brattalid, where the survey is to take place. Apparently reluctant to follow such an obvious course as to let Ross's Celtic ancestry be the tacit cause of the dream, Mr. Shute brings in other items which might be supposed to have some contributing influence, such as the sense of fatigue which Ross allows to envelop him, and his unthinking use of some pernicious sleeping tablets, foisted upon him by a none-too-scrupulous chemist. Psychological analysis of Ross's "dream," plus a touch of Eskimo superstition, also enter the story at this point.

For some readers, fantasy thus transmuted by emphasis on explanation and on seeming casual influences loses much of its charm; but Mr. Shute endeavors to satisfy this audience by leaving inexplicable much of Ross's extraordinary excursion into a bygone century.

Nevertheless, although Mr. Shute's handling of fantasy and mystery may provide subject for argument, his gift for presenting graphic narration is unquestioned; especially so, when he concerns himself with men who "take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea."

M.W.S., "Adventure Combined with the Shadow of a Dream," in The Christian Science Monitor, May 4, 1940, p. 11.

Katherine Woods

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Pied Piper" is] a novel which piles up dramatic force with quiet realism, glows as quietly with valiant tenderness, and points a significant theme without over-emphasis. John Sidney Howard did not know what was happening to France when he consented to take Ronnie and Sheila back to England, after the invasion of the Low Countries; and when he learned that no more express trains were running, that was not worth worrying about. But at Dijon, where 5-year-old Sheila was ill, ominous tidings came on the heels of equally ominous confusion. By the time he left that once delightful town a little French girl—aged 8, like Ronnie—had been added to their company and the dreadful German drive was no secret any more. The invaders' concentration camp would mean death for an old man with a weak heart, but it was not himself Howard was thinking of as he looked about and tried to look ahead; "Children in France, if she were beaten down, would have a terrible time." He must get these children out, quick….

That "Pied Piper" is the work of a master story-teller need scarcely be pointed out; and not many readers will seriously object that the last link in the chain of events is forged almost too deftly, or that one or two of the characters may occasionally speak from the author's mind rather than their own. The 70-year-old hero is wholly lovable.

In its deft simplicity of realism "Pied Piper" becomes a novel for more than one reading, as scenes, characters, incidents, encounters take their place in a crescendo progress, and vignettes are sharp against the fog of historic tragedy.

Katherine Woods, "Journey in France," in The New York Times Book Review, January 4, 1942, p. 7.

Clifton Fadiman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Pied Piper" is] shrewdly contrived and, I suppose, sort of sentimental, but a great many sentimental things happen in a war and somehow Mr. Shute gives not the slightest impression of forcing the pathetic note.

The narrative has to do with John Howard, a seventy-year-old Englishman who is peacefully fishing in a Jura mountain village as France begins to fall. On his homeward journey, through a series of circumstances too complicated to detail, he is compelled to attach to him six children of various nationalities and backgrounds, all of whom he must bring safely to England. The adventures on the way, horrible, whimsical, and touching, make a first-rate yarn. The children themselves are not too real...

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George Dangerfield

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If you have an adventure story to tell, you must never let your scenery get out of hand. The more unusual your characters and their doings, the more recognizable must be the world through which they move. The soul may be strange, the motives unlikely, but the clothes and the furniture must conform to daily living…. [Robert Louis] Stevenson, John Buchan, Francis Iles—in short, writers of great or good adventure or detective fiction—have in almost all their books obeyed [this rule]. Let it be said for Mr. Shute that he obeys it too.

"Pied Piper" is a most improbable tale, in a quite probable setting. An old Englishman, Mr. Howard, is trapped in France by the German invasion of 1940. He agrees to...

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Virginia Kirkus' Bookshop Service

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On Shute's name [Vinland the Good] will secure attention. But in substance, in manner, it will prove again how impossible it is to pigeonhole that writer. For the first time he has turned the clock back—but used an effectively modern medium for telling an ancient story. Here is the opening chapter of the drama of America's story—the story of Eric the Red and Leif the Lucky—real discoverers of America, but to most school children little known figures…. Shute has chosen a screen continuity technique—with dialogue and vignetted backgrounds as his medium, and done it effectively…. The story itself is a good one—as Eric gets in hot water first in Norway, then in Iceland, and finally goes to Greenland...

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John H. Berthel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Vinland the Good] retells the story of Leif Ericson's discovery of North America. In its short compass and in film script style it gives full rein to Nevil Shute's gentle satire and his sense of timelessness. Leif and his friends are used to show that the seemingly unconscious striving of Everyman, and not the carefully laid plans of the great, make history. This charming work can stand as a tale of high adventure, but it carries also a quiet criticism of outmoded teaching practices in the field of history.

John H. Berthel, in a review of "Vinland the Good," in Library Journal, Vol. 71, No. 17, October 1, 1946, p. 1331.

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Bosley Crowther

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With so many present-day authors cutting flirtatious eyes, not to mention the patterns of their stories, at the market of Hollywood, it might be discreetly suspected that Nevil Shute was shooting straight for that mart in retelling the saga of Leif Ericson in movie-scenario form. That, at least, could be one explanation for the structure of his "Vinland the Good." But, in due and considerate fairness, it must be presumed that Mr. Shute would have written his "script" with more regard for formula if he had been angling directly for a "buy." He would, for instance, have paid more attention to the aspects of boy-meets-girl; he would have tossed in a great deal more business of freebooting, feasting and fights. It stands...

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John Woodburn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I had a feeling that Mr. Shute was at some disadvantage where I was concerned, inasmuch as I had learned from the jacket [of "No Highway"] that, beside being a successful author, he was also an aeronautical engineer, a subject of which I am deeply ignorant and hence, perhaps, defensively critical. I quickly discovered that Nevil Shute can write lucidly and dramatically about the study of aeronautics. Indeed, for me this material turned out to be the most pleasurable part of the book.

"No Highway" has as its part-time narrator a likable young Englishman named Scott, who is in charge of the Structural Department of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, where highly-trained, assorted...

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James Hilton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of Max Beerbohm's short stories deals with the predicament of a man who, by means of palmistry, suddenly becomes aware of imminent disaster threatening the public conveyance in which he is traveling—in his case a train. Mr. Nevil Shute, in his new novel, "No Highway," makes it a trans-Atlantic air liner, while his machinery of doom involves such scientific stuff as the fatigue point of metals after calculated stresses. The result is just as exciting and rather more plausible….

One thing more certain than fatigue in metals is the absence of fatigue in reading Mr. Shute's novels. He has the knack of leading the reader quietly yet breathlessly from one suspense to another. The plot of "No...

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R. D. Charques

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[I read A Town Like Alice (published in the United States as The Legacy)] with simple, doubtless too simple, pleasure. It is the quintessence, or very nearly, of readableness. Lively, fluent, inventive, spirited, a story-teller with a swift and sympathetic eye for character and the surest instinct for avoiding the heights and depths of story-telling, Mr. Shute deserves, I think, every bit of the popularity which A Town Like Alice will earn. It is the story of a young woman who took charge of a British party of captive women and children in Malaya and then went to look for an Australian sergeant, a "ringer," in the Queensland "outback." The Malayan scenes are wonderfully good in their acutely...

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The heroine of [A Town Like Alice] is Jean Paget, an English typist who is captured, together with some 40 other women and children, by the Japanese in Malaya. They are forced to march aimlessly, month after month, from one place to another. Many of them die. At last, under Jean's leadership, they settle at a Malay village and work in the ricefields…. The second half of the book is about Jean's experiences in Australia, where she goes in search of Joe Harmon, the lorry-driver who helped her and the women on the march and was—literally—crucified by the Japanese for doing so. She finds that Joe has gone to England in search of her; while waiting for him to return, she plans various schemes for improving the...

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Kathleen Sproul

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The most thrilling stories of human magnificence are often those enforced on quiet protagonists who never intended to be heroes. That Nevil Shute should encounter such a tale in Sumatra promised well. His former books have marked him a direct-line descendant from those elite among the ancient wandering minstrels who could, from a first quiet sentence, implant irresistible urge to hear a tale.

In its beginning "The Legacy" carries this authority; unfortunately, before the end tale-spinning magic is not enough. For here has been attempted a hybrid creation and the two elements fall apart from an unseemly mid-point divide. The inspiring episode, transplanted from Sumatra to Malaya, is a truly great...

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Virginia Kirkus' Service

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In 1939 Nevil Shute wrote a horrifyingly prophetic book, Ordeal, which made the life of the average citizen under bombardment only too real, as time proved…. And now comes Shute again [in On the Beach] with a portrait of the last stand of mankind against an enemy over which there was no control—radiation, gradually encompassing and destroying the world. There has been a brief atomic war, launched by two nations and resulting in mutual destruction within a brief month. But then the real catastrophe comes, as the death dealing effects encompass the living world. In Australia, where only the upper fringes so far lie within the circle, the people of the community of which he writes have exact scientific...

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John T. Winterich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The main premise of "On the Beach"] was made to order for Nevil Shute, who never tells the same story twice and who tells any story surpassingly well. The Shute formula is simple: Given such and such circumstances, what would people beset by those circumstances be most likely to do? That should be every novelist's formula, but a less assured practitioner frequently bends it to suit his own convenience. Not Nevil Shute. He holds to his design all the way, with relentless logic and a glowing sense of story supported by a mass of convincing detail (gas pumps as hitching posts, for instance) that establishes superb verisimilitude.

This quality dominates "On the Beach" even more than is usual in a Nevil...

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George Harrison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Though we are reading of the last days of humanity on an earth made uninhabitable by radioactivity, no one in ["On the Beach"] gets very excited about it. Mr. Shute quotes T. S. Eliot's dictum that the world will end not with a bang but a whimper, but the last people on earth do not even whimper as they await the approaching radioactive pall. Calmly, they face the inevitable, knowing with certainty that death is only three or six months away, yet planting daffodils to bloom next spring, and studying shorthand for possible future jobs. Even the young American submarine commander stays faithful to his wife at home, emotionally unable to admit his rational awareness that she and their children are dead.


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Gerald Sykes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If ["On the Beach"] … is ever televised, there may be a wilder stampede than Orson Welles wrought two decades ago with his Martians. The time is 1963, a final war has been fought, some 4,000 cobalt bombs have been dropped, and the end of humanity has come in all but the extremities of the Southern Hemisphere. In Australia, the residents of Melbourne know that winds are inexorably bringing radiation sickness and death in a few months. At the last moment the Government will issue suicide pills.

Cars and planes lie about unused—no gasoline. An old man in his club drinks more port than before—too much of it. A young woman who once dreamed of seeing Paris and of having children now resigns herself...

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William Dunlea

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nevil Shute is a journeyman fabulist; fantasy simulating reality is his preserve. A more gifted writer wouldn't be so successful visualizing men and women of a residual humanity, with no future and nothing to think about it. [On the Beach] is not prophesy but fictional essayism; it is not eschatology, it is Univac. The prophet concerns himself with the future while it is still present; Mr. Shute hires fate as his co-author and has a wry old time knocking down his props. We are not harrowed that they become extinct, and it isn't even disturbing that the author alone has survived.

Mr. Shute is too seldom inclined to let the obvious or the twice-told alone. When the dialogue is not straight...

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Edith Fowke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The theme of Nevil Shute's [On the Beach] is dramatic and awe-inspiring: it is nothing less than the end of the world. Nor is his plot impossible, or even unlikely: the headlines of our daily papers proclaim it all too probable….

Despite its powerful theme, Nevil Shute's book is a very bad novel. The people in it are dull and unimaginative, and the ending is anti-climactic rather than apocalyptic. In fact, his characters are so flat and unappealing that you may well feel their final death from the inevitable radioactive sickness is no great loss.

In his earlier novels Mr. Shute showed himself skilful in handling melodrama and suspense, but here his limitations are so...

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David Dempsey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is always a temptation when an author dies to pay him greater homage in retrospect than was ever given during his lifetime. It is both unnecessary and inappropriate in the case of Nevil Shute … to perform extensive ceremonial rites. A simple memorial service will do, and even this may be more than he would have wanted, or expected…. He was not an important writer, although in terms of influence he wrote, with "On the Beach," at least one important book. You approached him, as The Times Literary Supplement once remarked, by simply posing the question: Is his new story as good as the last? With him, "story" was almost everything.

I was continually coming across his novels—there are...

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David Martin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On the Beach was the first book of Nevil Shute's I ever read and I confess that it influenced my outlook on the problem of nuclear war and human survival. Until then I secretly believed that such a world catastrophe could never happen. Mankind was too rational to destroy itself. Like many others, this did not prevent me from being active against war, but always with a certain emotional reservation, founded mainly on historical and political optimism. Nevil Shute's book, while not demolishing the optimism, qualified it greatly and made me begin to see that Bertrand Russell might be right and that the chances of human survival were not quite so good. Undoubtedly, On the Beach had a similar effect on other...

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Carlton W. Berenda

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In On the Beach] Shute portrays the end of all men upon earth. Not on a planetary or cosmic scale, but through the eyes and hearts of utterly convincing persons, Shute carries the reader to the radioactive death of man, after a third world war. The story and its motion picture are by now well known to many of us. And we have all shared in the pain-filled pages of the novel.

It is what lies beyond or beneath the obviously depressing portrayal that makes this work something more than a story well told. When men are driven to the very brink, when they are stripped of all hope of life continuing in this world, what will men do? And might we not learn something about the essential nature of man...

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Julian Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The basic idea for what would become On the Beach grew out of the wishful thinking then current in Australia: that radiation from a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere would be held above the equator by the trade winds. Shute's first intention seems to have been to write a kind of modern Swiss Family Robinson about the continuation of civilization in Australia….

The idea for the book "started as a joke," Shute told a friend. "Now that I was living in Australia I kidded my friends in the northern hemisphere, telling them that if they weren't careful with atomic explosions they'd destroy themselves and we Australians would inherit the world." "The idea stayed in my mind in that form for...

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