Nevil Shute Norway Foundation
Extract from the Dictionary of National Biography 1951 - 1960

NORWAY, NEVIL SHUTE (1899-1960), novelist under the name NEVIL SHUTE and aeronautical engineer, was born in Ealing on 17th January 1899, the younger son of a Cornishman, Arthur Hamilton Norway, who became an assistant secretary of the General Post Office, and his wife Mary Louisa Gadsden.

At the age of 11, Norway played truant from his first preparatory school in Hammersmith, spending days among the model aircraft at the Science Museum examining wing control on the Bleriot and trying to puzzle out how the engine of the Antoinette ran without a carburettor.

On being detected in these precocious studies, he was sent to the Dragon School, Oxford, and thence to Shrewsbury. He was on holiday in Dublin, where his father was then Secretary to the Post Office in Ireland, at the time of the Easter rising of 1916 and acted as a stretcher-bearer, winning a commendation for gallant conduct.

He passed into the Royal Military Academy with the aim of being commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps, but a bad stammer led to his being failed at his final medical examination and returned to civil life. The last few months of the war (in which his brother had been killed) were spent on home service as a private in the Suffolk Regiment.

In 1919 Norway went up to Balliol College, Oxford, where he took a third class honours in engineering science in 1922 and rowed in the college second eight. During the vacations he worked, unpaid, for the Aircraft Manufacturing Company at Hendon, then for (Sir) Geoffrey de Havilland's own firm, which he joined as an employee on coming down from Oxford. He now fulfilled his thwarted wartime ambition of learning to fly and gained experience as a test observer. During the evenings he diligently wrote novels and short stories unperturbed by rejection slips from publishers.

In 1924 Norway took the post of Chief Calculator to the Airship Guarantee Company, a subsidiary of Vickers Ltd, to work on the construction of the R100. In 1929 he became Deputy Chief Engineer under (Sir) Barnes Wallis, and in the following year he flew to and from Canada in the R100. He had a passionate belief in the future of airships, but his hopes foundered in the crash of its government rival, the R101, wrecked with the loss of Lord Thompson, the then Minister of Aviation, and most of those on board. He had watched with mounting horror what he regarded as the criminal inefficiency with which the R101 was being constructed. His experience in this phase of his career left a lasting bitterness; it bred in him almost pathological distrust of politicians and civil servants.

Recognizing that airship development was a lost cause, he founded in 1931 Airspeed Ltd, aeroplane constructors, in an old garage, and remained joint managing director unti11938. The pioneering atmosphere of aircraft construction in those days suited his temperament. He revelled in individual enterprise and doing things on a financial shoestring. When the business grew and was becoming one of humdrum routine, producing aircraft to government orders, he decided to get out of the rut and live by writing. He had by 1938 enjoyed some success as a novelist and had sold the film rights of Lonely Road (1932) and Ruined City (1938).

On the outbreak of war in 1939, Norway joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a Sub-Lieutenant in the Miscellaneous Weapons Department. Rising to Lieutenant Commander, he found experimenting with secret weapons a job after his own heart. But he found that his growing celebrity as a writer caused him to be in the Normandy landings on 6th June 1944, for the Ministry of Information, and to be sent to Burma as a correspondent in 1945. He entered Rangoon with the 15th Corps from Arakan.

Soon after demobilisation in 1945 he emigrated to Australia and made his home in Langwarrin, Victoria. High taxation and what he felt to be the decadence of Britain, with the spirit of personal independence and freedom dying, led him to leave the Old Country.

His output of novels, which began with Marazan (1926) continued to the end. Writing under his Christian names, Nevil Shute, he had an unaffected popular touch which made him a best-seller throughout the Commonwealth and the United States. The secret of his success lay in the skill with which he combined loving familiarity with technicalities and a straightforward sense of human relationships and values. He conveyed to the readers his own zest for making and flying aircraft. The hazards and rewards of back-room boys have never been more sympathetically portrayed nor with closer inside knowledge. His natural gift for creating briskly moving plots did not extend to the delineation of character in anything more than conventional terms. He retained to the last the outlook of a decent, average public-school boy of his generation. Although he lived into the James Bond era, he never made the slightest concessions to the fast growing appetite in the mass fiction market for sadism and violence.

No Highway (1948), dealing with the drama of structural fatigue in aircraft, set in terms of those responsible for a competitive passenger service, gave full scope to both sides of his talent. Machines and men and women share in shaping the drama. A Town Like Alice (1950), describing the grim Odyssey of white women and children in Japanese-occupied Malaya, captured the cinema audiences as completely as it did the reading public. Round the Bend (1951) was thought by Norway himself to be his most enduring book. It told of the aircraft engineer of mixed eastern and western stock who taught his men to worship God through work conscientiously and prayerfully performed and came to be regarded as divine by peoples of many creeds. On the Beach (1957) expressed Norway's sensitive appreciation of the frightful possibilities of global warfare and annihilation by radio-active dust.

Other novels, several of them filmed, were What Happened to the Corbetts (1939) An Old Captivity (1940), Landfall (1940) Pied Piper (1942) Pastoral (1944) In the Wet (1953) and Requiem for a Wren (1955). In Slide Rule (1954) sub-titled "The Autobiography of an Engineer", he told, candidly and racily, of his life up to 1938 when he left the aircraft industry.

The stammer, which was as much a stimulus as a handicap, did not prevent Norway from being good company, always welcome at social gatherings of his many friends. An enthusiastic yachtsman and fisherman as well as an air pilot, he delighted in outdoor life, and his gaiety was not dimmed by the heart attacks from which he suffered.

In 1931 Norway married Francis Mary Heaton, by whom he had two daughters. He died in Melbourne on 12th January 1960.

Contribution by A P Ryan