Nevil Shute Norway Foundation


Tom Cutter

Beall Fowler

Nevil Shute's masterpiece "Round the Bend" is generally considered to be the story of Connie Shak-lin, an airplane mechanic who became revered as a holy person by Asians of many faiths. Tom Cutter is the person who narrates the story, and in fact the novel is in the form of Cutter's autobiography. The justification for this structure comes at the very end of the book, after the death of Connie Shak-lin: Cutter explains that in order to preserve an accurate record of Shak-lin's life and teachings, several of Shak-lin's associates have been commissioned to write their particular accounts, and "Round the Bend" is in fact the Book of Cutter. Cutter justifies expanding the contents of the book beyond his interactions with Connie Shak-lin in order to provide adequate background and context for those interactions.

Thus, at first blush, Tom Cutter would seem to be merely Connie Shak-lin's mouthpiece, and of no particular account himself. A careful reading of "Round the Bend," particularly in the context of other works of Shute (such as "Chequer Board") and of James Riddell's "Flight of Fancy," leads one to other conclusions. In some ways Tom is similar to other Shute characters - highly moral, hard-working, self-critical. His private acceptance of blame for his wife's suicide, for example, reveals deep moral values, and he does not let himself forget about this tragic event. In some ways Tom mirrors Nevil Shute himself, a person who started up and developed a company, working hard to make it succeed.

But to me Tom Cutter represents Shute's model of how the English (and others from Western cultures) could open their eyes to the cultures and values of Asian peoples, and recognize the importance and value of dealing with them on their own terms. Shute's trip to Asia at the end of World War II seems to have germinated such ideas, which emerged in "Chequer Board". But his trip with James Riddell must have established them firmly in his mind. Any number of instances in "Round the Bend" show Tom Cutter's wisdom in dealing with Asians, his gradual understanding and appreciation of their values, and the corresponding lack of wisdom of British authorities whose responsibility it was to deal with the "natives." In this context Tom Cutter is a deep and important character, without whom the full story could not have developed.

After the events of September 11, Dan Telfair asked "Where is Connie Shak-lin when we need him ?" I imagine that Nevil Shute, as well, struggled with ways that Western and Asian cultures might find common ground. Indeed, I fancy that Connie Shak-lin represented to Shute a way that Asian cultures might come to terms with Western influences. Clearly we need Connie Shak-lins, Asians who find ways to deal with Western culture while not losing their own values. But we also need Tom Cutters, moral people from the West who learn to accept Asians on their own terms and appreciate their cultural values. In this sense perhaps "Round the Bend" is, right now, Nevil Shute's most timely work !