Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Oral History

Heather Mayfield

Part II

My dad was made a fellow of the Royal Engineering Society for the work that he had done on retractable undercarriages. The idea was not original to him. There were already the retractable undercarriages over here in America, but he was the one who got it going in England over quite some opposition, too. All of this, of course, you can read in "Slide Rule."

He was of course, OH - he eventually was fired from his.., from "Airspeed." As companies grow they kind of outgrow their original employees. The man who can look adequately after 40 employees cannot do the same for 140, and so, as the company grew, it just sort of got a little bit bigger than him. They did ask him to leave in 1938.

He was, of course, writing all this time. He started writing, I believe "Marazan" was published in about 1926, something like that. And I believe he made about £30, which is perhaps a couple of hundred dollars, from that book, followed by "Lonely Road" and "So Disdained" and those three were sort of - they were adventure stories. They were smuggling, they were gun running, they were ­ a little bit of a love story mixed in with them. There really was hardly any book that he wrote which did not have a love story, but they were the sort of books that you would have absolutely no hesitation at all in giving to Great Aunt Ermatrude. (Audience laughter.)

He was learning his craft in these books and rewrote them many, many, many times. Sometimes up to 20 times, various different passages. He used to write in the evening after he had been working hard all day long on the R-100, or at "Airspeed" whatever he happened to be doing. He would come along home and he would write.

He wrote "Ruined City," in 1938. "What Happened To The Corbetts" in '39. "Ruined City" he sold the film rights to "Ruined City." The film was never made.......

....Oh £5,000 or something like that, which he thought was absolutely amazing because it was enough for him to live on without working for several years. So, after he had quit, or been fired from "Airspeed" he did turn to writing. He did a little bit of traveling, but he started writing full time. But then, of in 1939 a war broke out, and so he did not have too much time for that.

He had written "An Old Captivity" in the meantime, and then he went into the Navy. Some reason or other, while he still stammered very badly the stammer did not seem to matter because he was given command of a small ship. That didn't last for very long because the people in the government realized that this was a man with a good brain, a good engineering brain, and he was too valuable to be lost at sea in war. So they took him off his ship and they put him in the safest place they could think of - London.

But they had a wonderful time, there was one that I remember called the "Grand Panjandrum". This enormous, huge, cartwheel type thing, with rockets at the end of each of the wheel spokes, and this was designed to scare the Germans away when they invaded England and the idea was they would set it running up the beach, and the Germans would not know what was chasing after them (laughs, joined by audience) and would be absolutely terrified and run away back into the sand dunes (Much Audience Laughter). What happened, of course, was that they got this thing going. It chased the Admiral (Laughs, joined by audience), and the Admiral's dog (laughter) who turned around and barked at it, but didn't halt its onrush (Audience laughter). So that was never actually put into effect at all.

He also invented the flame thrower. And then they asked him to invent the antidote, as it were, for that. So he just came right back at them and said, "Duck." (Audience laughter.)

He was writing "Landfall," "Pied Piper." I suspect most of you have read "Pied Piper." That was the story taken to a certain extent after the Pied Piper of Hamelin, about this elderly gentleman who was about 70, who had been vacationing in France and wanted to get back to England when the war broke out, and all these people that he met along the way said, Oh, Please, please take my little boy, take my little girl with you. We want them out of the way, we don't want them to be under German occupation. So he ended up with oh, maybe eight or ten children with him. This was made into a movie with Monty Woolley as the old man, and a very, very young Roddy McDowell and Ann Baxter as two of the children.

"Lonely Road" had also been filmed. That is one that unfortunately we have not been able to find a copy. That starred Clive Brooks and Victoria Hopper. I really don't know anything very much about that, and it's courtesy of Dan that I think I know even that much.

When my father started working in London ­ No, No, when my father went to war, he wanted my mother and Shirley and myself out of England. He said that he would do a much better job fighting the war if he knew that his family was safe. So we went to Canada and we spent several months there, but then when he went back to London to work there, my mother said, My place is in England with my husband. My husband is not at sea. I must go back to England and so we went back to England in about November '41, after the Battle of Britain.

Meantime, of course, my father was still continuing to write. There was "Pastoral" which is another World War II love story.

"Most Secret." That was based on his experiences and his work at Miscellaneous Weapons Development, and because it touched on such sensitive subjects it was held up by the censor and was not actually published until 1945.

"Vineland The Good." That was a film script that he was commissioned to write, but the film was never made.

"Chequer Board." That dealt with racial prejudices in America. By today's standards a very shallow book, I think, but it created quite a furor at the time.

"No Highway." That is my own personal favorite. Not because I have any particular feeling for the subject of aircraft fatigue (Audience laughs). But because it was the first time, and this was in - oh about 1947, I guess - that he had ever actually consulted me on anything! (Audience laughs.) And I really felt just so grown up about that. I mean that was absolutely wonderful! He wanted my opinion on something, and generally, of course, he didn't, and we hadn't seen too much of him either, while we were growing up. I'm sure that Shirley can tell you about that later on. But for that reason "No Highway" has always been my favorite. Oh - about the young girl in it. Yeah. This book, of course was also filmed with Jimmy Steward, Marlene Detrich, Glennis Johns, Jack Hawkins and Janet Scott as the little girl.

By this time he was sufficiently secure of himself as a novelist. He had enough money coming in that he decided that he would take a couple of - oh a few months off - and go along and fly himself down to Australia and back. Which he did. He took two months going down there. He had his own little four-cylinder Percival Proctor aircraft called "George Able King Item Willy", known affectionately as "Item Willy." He flew that down to Australia, taking two months over that. He spent two months flying around in the outback and then two months flying back.

And out of that journey came two books: "A Town Like Alice," which he considered to be a potboiler, which is -- he considered a potboiler to be a book which he dashed off quickly, which he hoped would make money while he was sort of mulling over something that he felt to be rather more important. So, "Town Like Alice" was just a potboiler, and as I think everybody here knows, it was filmed twice. It is one of the books for which he is best known.

The other book was "Round The Bend," that came out at this time, and this was the book that he felt was his best book. He felt that this book was his legacy for humanity. It is all about flying, it's about Eastern religions. I think that John Henry spoke very eloquently about it a few minutes ago. It was, like I said, he felt that it was his best book, but it was by no means a money maker.

My father had kept, all his life, an absolute hatred of the government, because of the R-100 and R-101 incident and the fact that it had all been so terribly mismanaged as had the R-38 a few years earlier. And when Attlee, who was the Prime Minister ­ the Labor Prime Minister in England was elected in 1945, he reluctantly stayed in England amid the nationalization and everything that was going on, but it was during Attlee's five years there that he went to Australia, sort of looking for somewhere else to live. And, when Attlee was reelected in 1950 that was quite enough for him. (Audience laughs.) He packed up his family and we all went down to Australia because he had just loved it so much when he'd been there a couple of years earlier and he'd got contacts down there and everything.

So when he was in Australia he wrote "The Far Country," and that of course has been shown yesterday - the movie from that, or the television program from that.

"In The Wet." Now that is one that I want to talk about a little bit. That was a book that he felt was one of his better books. It concerned, or concerns, an old man who is dying at the beginning of the book in 1950, and as he is dying he hallucinates up into the 1980's, the mid '80, where he is a quadroon, a quarter aborigine, but he is a pilot and he's a pilot in charge of the Queen's Flight. Now why I really like this book, or ­ Yes, I DO like it, is because of the theory that he had on democracy which he stated very, very clearly in this book. He did not like democracy. He did not feel that it was a good thing. The one-man-one-vote he felt would just lead to disaster. And so he came along up with a series of different votes that people could earn. Everybody over the age of 21 had one basic vote, so that everyone could vote for whoever or whatever they wanted. You would get a second vote for getting a college degree, or for becoming an officer in the services, or something like that. You would get a third vote for foreign travel, and that does not mean, you know, if it's Tuesday it must be Belgium. You had to go and live in the country and work in the country for a couple of years, and that would give you another vote. A fourth vote, or another vote, would be for raising two children to the age of 14 without getting a divorce (Audience laughs). You'd get another vote if you were a religious person, a religious minister or pastor of a church, something like that. You would get an earned income vote which would cover the person who did not a college degree and who had divorced his wife when the kids were nine and 11, you'd get another vote for that. And then, the final vote would be at the Queen's pleasure. He felt that sort of by stacking it like this you would get a far better quality of people in the government.

OK. He then went on and wrote "Slide Rule." I think all of these books are available, aren't they Dan? Yes. "Slide Rule," "Requiem For A Wren," which was known out here as "The Breaking Wave." There again, just sort of an adventure love story. "Beyond The Black Stump" another one.

"On The Beach." Has everybody read "On The Beach?" Yes. That is probably his best known one, along with "A Town Like Alice." This was filmed with, of course, Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, Fred Astair as a racing car driver, no less, and Anthony Perkins.

Then "The Rainbow and the Rose." And finally "Trustee From The Toolroom," which was published posthumously.

I have not said anything about his work day. He was a very organized, methodical man. He would go along into his office at about - between 9:00 and 9:30 everyday and he would work till around 1:00, with a break just for the mail. Reading and answering mail.

In the afternoon he would - when we were in Australia we had a farm. We had a 200 acre cattle and pig farm and he would go out and work in that in the afternoon and then in evening he would come along in and work on his little miniature engines. He always needed to have the counterpoint for that.

I would like to just finish off here by quoting the last sentence from "Slide Rule." And I think he probably... while these words were written in 1953, I think he felt this way for the rest of his life. He says, "Once a man has spent his time messing about with aeroplanes he can never forget their heartaches and their joys, nor is he likely to find another occupation that will satisfy him so well, even writing novels."

Thank you very much.

(Lengthy Audience applause.)

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