Nevil Shute Norway Foundation


Richard Michalak's favourite characters

By: Richard Michalak
Wednesday 13thFebruary 2002

Dear Shute Fans,

Nevil Shute could well be compared to Vivaldi who was said not to have written 400 concertos but 1 concerto 400 times. Before you leap to your keyboards and bombard me with hate email let me assure you I am, at the very least, the equal of Nevil Shute's greatest fan.

Nevil Shute spent his life celebrating the best in people, and his characters are almost universally practical, hard working and sincere people who take their work seriously. But it was the work that was the real hero in all his books and it is two of his working men that symbolise all his characters to me.

My favourite characters are the Corporal, the Lorry Driver and the Herbert Lathe that appear for only 18 pages in The Pied Piper. Mr Howard and the children are trying to make their way to the French coast when they meet an RAAF lorry carrying a valuable Herbert Lathe that the corporal and the driver are trying to get back to England to be used in rebuilding Britain's arms after the British defeat at Dunkirk. The corporal has no name and the driver's name is Bert. The lathe's name is Herbert. (It is unknown whether Bert and Herbert the Lathe were actually related.)

The corporal and Bert the driver represent the best in all the British workers that Shute had dealt with in, by then, nearly twenty years of being a manager of labour. The corporal says that he, Bert and the Herbert Lathe are heading for: "A place named Brest. Not the kind of name I'd like to call a town but that's the way these Froggies are." To explain why the children must be taken along Mr Howard explains to the corporal that the children are his responsibility, just as the lathe is the corporal's. This is a cogent argument to a sardonic yet serious man like the corporal who fully understands his responsibilities in the war in which he is engaged.

Mechanics in all of Shute's work understand that other men's lives depend on them doing reliable work and when they have a responsibility to shoulder they take it on and do their job with diligence to the very end. The corporal tells Howard to "Get them kids dressed Toot and Sweet. (tout de suite - immediately). When the perambulator is put on the lorry's roof the corporal says "My mucking Christ, call this a workshop lorry? Perishing Christmas Tree I call it."

Shute lovingly describes the interior of the lorry containing the enormous Herbert Lathe, a grinding wheel and valve facing machine at one end, a little filing and sawing machine at the other. Beneath the lathe was a motor generator set and above was a long electric switchboard. Shute was trying to explain that these practical and serious machines were important and would win the war as much as any gun.

At the emptied petrol dump at Montargis the corporal and the driver, absolutely refusing to give up their escape attempt at the first setback, manage to scrounge 8 gallons of petrol from abandoned vehicles which they claim will get them another 40 miles.

The soldiers' speech is peppered with the semi-censored swearing of 1940s publishing with many references to the "muckin'" this and "muckin'" that and "My muckin' aunt !" Later they say they will "mugger off". They swear continuously but always with humour.

Shute clearly loves these characters and is pleased to have them on his side When finally confronted with the need to blow up the lorry the corporal says "Well, this puts the lid on it." The need for immediate action instead of just talking about things prompts the corporal to say: "Well, this won't buy baby a new frock". The corporal then resolutely gets on with his job of destroying that which he had nursed and treasured and hoped to get safely to England for the war effort.

He is a serious, funny, committed, practical, philosophical, hard working man. He does what he can and he does what he must. He is a Nevil Shute character. These same men and women are in Shute's books from the first to the last in almost every major and minor role. In Marazan, he appears as the radio man in the tent just before the final confrontation. He is Connie Shak Lin in Round The Bend. She is Janet Prentice in Requiem for a Wren. He is Billy Monkhouse who is mechanic for both Johnnie Pascoe and Ronnie Clarke in The Rainbow and The Rose.

Finally he is Keith Stewart in Trustee From The Toolroom.