Nevil Shute Norway Foundation
Shute-The engineer who became a prince of storytellers
Richard Thorn

A review by Andy Burgess

From the last century we had Nevil Shute’s autobiography “Slide Rule” that dealt largely with his engineering and business work and little with the man himself.  We also had Julian Smith’s ‘biography’ “Nevil Shute” that dealt largely with the literature and also very little with the man.  As there appeared to be too little of the traditional source material available it was considered until relatively recently that a full biography would be impossible. Diligent research however led in 2011 to the publication of John Anderson’s “Parallel Motion” that covered the whole of Shute’s life and provided a better view of the man himself and his background. 


In the brief notes about the author in this new work it says that while he has published a number of books the biography of Shute was ‘always in the background’.  Richard Thorn is clearly a Shute ‘fan’ and like Parallel Motion has covered Shute’s whole life.  Slide Rule is of interest mostly as it is essentially Nevil Shute himself talking to us and hence occupies a unique place in the group.  Julian Smith’s work was essentially an academic study relating the man to his writing and in terms of information has been superseded by Parallel Motion. I was interested therefore to see what new information or perspective this book would provide.


The material is laid out chronologically and split into three major sections.  The first is entitled “Old World” and covers his life from birth up to his departure from Airspeed.  The second, titled “Transition” covers the period from then until his emigration to Australia.  The final section “The Great Southern Land” covers his time in Australia until his death, although this also contains an epilogue covering the events in the months immediately after.  In addition there are a number of sections at the end covering the usual subjects such as:  The works of Nevil Shute; a selection of photos; notes on sources etc.


To give an idea of the relative coverage of the sections one can calculate the following:  The first section is about 100 pages long covering 39 years of his life, about 2.5 pages per year.  The second, about 70 pages long, covers 12 years at 5.8 pages per year.  The final section, 85 pages long, covers 10 years at 8.5 pages per year.  The book is essentially a similar length to Parallel Motion while both are significantly longer that the Julian Smith work.


Shute’s early life up to leaving university is covered in 2 chapters and in slightly less detail than Parallel Motion.  There is little new material about this period of his life, although Thorn does identify the young woman Shute was engaged to at Oxford.  He also includes contextual material about the times, a feature that he continues throughout the book and which I found most interesting. Three chapters then deal with his period at de Havilland and on the R.100.  His early efforts at writing novels are covered and his dealings with publishers.  With the publication of Marazan and So Disdained Thorn reflects on the reviews (or lack of them) they received.  Again he continues this aspect throughout the book and this gives a different insight into how the rest of the world, albeit a literary world, saw the work of Nevil Shute.  The story of the rival airship schemes is fairly well known and covered both in Parallel Motion and John Anderson’s other book:  Airship on a Shoestring.  However Thorn moves the narrative on apace and despite knowing the events quite well I still found it absorbing.  His time at Airspeed is covered in one fairly long chapter, which covers the publication of Lonely Road as well as his resumption of writing towards the end of his time there.


The second section of the book covers a very varied period of Shute’s life including his pre-war activities with Burney, the war itself, his flight to Australia and back and his growing disillusionment with England.  Thorn binds this all together with the thread of Shute as the professional novelist starting with Ruined City and ending with A Town Like Alice.  Thorn does not try to cover the details of Shute’s work at DMWD and instead points the reader at Parallel Motion, which covers Shute’s role in some detail.  He places the novels in the context of Shute’s activities and the general circumstances of the time and also describes the other writings that Shute undertook and which, with one exception, were never published.  Although the events are well known to me the section is very readable and I found myself becoming immersed in the life of Nevil Shute (Norway) and I guess the title of the section - ‘Transition’ - is probably apt.


In the final section Thorn deals with the emigration to Australia and his life there until his death.  For me this was the most interesting section where the book places into context Shute’s writing of the time and the background to many of the novels.  He has now become a full time professional novelist travelling around Australia and the world researching his books.  A theme throughout this period is his recurring health problems, however he nevertheless branches out as a ‘gentleman farmer’ and a racing driver.  Thorn develops these aspects into a seamless narrative, interspersed with reflections on the book reviews and sales figures.  Whilst the ultimate conclusion of the section could be said to be Nevil Shute’s death a certain climax is reached over the filming of On the Beach, an episode that his daughter Shirley believed had contributed significantly to his demise. Overall I found the book to be very readable particularly after the early years of his schooling and university were dealt with when I felt the book began to get into its stride.  This is probably because this is when Shute began writing and Thorn begins to amalgamate the historical events of the time, the personal details of Shute’s life and his novels and their background and impact.  I found the final section particularly absorbing and this sometimes felt rather more like a novel than a biography.  It is often said that that when reading the final lines of a Shute novel one is left with a lump in the throat and moist eyes and so it is perhaps a compliment to say that I felt a little this way at the end of the penultimate chapter when Thorn relates the death of Nevil Shute and I couldn’t help thinking ‘if only’.