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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)

Nevil Shute Norway was born in Ealing, Middlesex, the son of Arthur Hamilton Norway, C.B., an assistant secretary of the General Post Office in London, and the former Mary Louisa Gadsden. From an early age, Shute began to stammer badly, and as he later recalled, "a stammer certainly makes things tough for a little boy at school". 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 and then continued his studies in Oxford, graduating in 1922.

In 1922 Shute joined the de Havilland Aircraft Company. Specializing in Zeppelins, he was employed as an aeronautical engineer at Hawden Airship Station. Shute worked as Chief Calculator and then Deputy Chief Engineer of the Rigid Airship R100 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 R100 in July 1930, on its transatlantic crossing to Canada and back. The project ended after the R101 disaster – the overweight and underpowerd airship of the rivaling team crashed in France in October 1930, on the maide flight to India. Next year, despite the recession, Shute founded with Hessell Tiltman Airspeed Ltd., an aircraft construction company. In 1931, he married Frances Mary Heaton, a doctor, with whom he had two daughters.

As a novelist Shute made his debut in 1926 with Marazan, an adventure story of flying, embezzlement, and murder. It was followed by So Disdained (1928), about loyalty, treason, and patriotism, Lonely Road (1929), a spy 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 Buchan's Hannay and Sandy Arbuthnot, and they don't not have as hard-boiled mentality as typical American thriller heroes.

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).

During WW II Shute served as a lieutenant-commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and contributed to the development of a number of top-secret, specialized weapons. Originally he had joined the 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 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..." In 1945 Shute went to India and Burma as a correspondent for the Ministry of Information. Although his writings were not published, his experiences provided material for 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.'
'That's what I want to have,' she said. 'A town like Alice.'"

(from A Town Like Alice)

From 1950 on, Shute lived permanently in Australia, settling on a farm at Langwarrin, Victoria. His 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."

On the Beach was a pessimistic and pathetic tale of the atomic age. In the novel 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 Stanley 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. 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) - For further information: The Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Selected works:

  • Marazan, 1926
  • So Disdained, 1928 (U.S. title: The Mysterious Aviator 1928)
  • Lonely Road, 1932
    - Films: 1936, prod. Associated Talking Pictures (ATP), dir. James Flood, starring Clive Brook, Victoria Hopper, Nora Swinburne; 1968, in TV series The Jazz Age, adaptation Elwyn Jones, dir. John Matthews, with John Gregson, Jayne Sofiano, Frederick Hall, Bernard Archard.
  • Ruined City, 1938 (U.S. title: Kindling, 1938)
  • What Happened to the Corbetts, 1939 (U.S. title: Ordeal, 1939)
  • An Old Captivity, 1940
  • Landfall: A Channel Story, 1940
    - Film: 1949, prod. Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC), dir. Ken Annakin, starring Richard Denison, Patricia Plunkett, Edith Sharpe, Margaret Barton.
  • Pied Piper, 1942
    - Films: 1942, prod. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, written by Nunnally Johnson, directed by Irving Pichel, starring Monty Woolley, Anne Baxter, Roddy McDowall, Otto Preminger; Crossing to Freedom, television film 1990, dir. Norman Stone, starring Peter O'Toole, Mare Winningham and Susan Wooldridge.
    - Salamatkalaiset (suom. Laura Tala, 1966)
  • Pastoral, 1944
    - Onnen maa (suom. Martti Santavuori)
  • Most Secret, 1945
  • Vinland the Good, 1946
  • The Chequer Board, 1947
    - Kohtalon arpa (suom. Olli Nuorto, 1949)
  • No Highway, 1948
    - Film: No Highway in the Sky, 1951, screenplay R.C. Sheriff, Oscar Millard, Alec Coppel, dir. Henry Koster, starring James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Glynis Johns, Jack Hawkins.
  • A Town Like Alice, 1950 (U.S. title: The Legacy, 1950)
    - Films: 1956, also titled A Town Like Alice / The Rape of Malaya, dir. Jack Lee, starring Virginia McKenna, Peter Finch and Kenji Takaki; four-part TV film in 1981, dir. David Stevens, starring Bryan Brown, Helen Morse, Gordon Jackson.
    - Viisi mustaa kanaa (suom. Tuovi Järvinen, 1952)
  • Round the Bend, 1951
  • The Far Country, 1952
    - TV film 1986, prod. 7 Network, Crawford Productions, dir. George Miller, starring Michael York, Sigrid Thornton, Brenda Addie, Don Barker
    - Onnen maa (suom. Martti Santavuori, 1953)
  • In the Wet, 1953
  • Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer, 1954
  • Requiem for a Wren, 1955 (U.S. title: The Breaking Wave, 1955)
    - Murtuva aalto (suom. Jorma Partanen, 1956)
  • Beyond the Black Stump, 1956
  • On the Beach, 1957
    - Films: 1959, prod. Stanley Kramer Productions, screenplay by John Paxton, original music score by Ernest Gold, directed by Stanley Kramer, starring Gregory Peck (Dwight Towers), Fred Astaire (Julian Osborn), Ava Gardner (Moira Davidson), Anthony Perkins (Peter Holmes). "For all the virtues of ideology and execution, however, there are still some curious lapses... one wonders at the complete absence of corpses... It is equally difficult to believe that people would remain as calm and self-possessed as the people here... it all seems a bit too perfect... but these are minor details in a film that aims at something big and emerges as something tremendous..." (Arthur Knight in Saturday Review); TV mini series 2000, prod. Coote Hayes Productions, Edwards/Sullivan Productions, Showtime Networks, dir. Russell Mulcahy, starring Armand Assante (as Cmdr. Dwight Towers), Rachel Ward (as Moira Davidson), Bryan Brown (as Dr. Julian Osborne), Jacqueline McKenzie, Grant Bowler.
    - Viimeisellä rannalla (suom. Eija Palsbo, 1958)
  • The Rainbow and the Rose, 1958
    - Ystäväni Johnnie (suom. Eija Palsbo, 1960)
  • Trustee from the Toolroom, 1960
    - Luottamustehtävä (suom. Veli Sompio, 1961)
  • Stephen Morris: and Pilotage , 1961
  • A Nevil Shute Omnibus, 1973
  • The Seafarers, 2002


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