Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Oral History

Shirley Norway part 3

Transcript of Questions and Answers - Second Period

MS: Was he himself an inventor, with that lath, I mean did he actually have new twists and make things that nobody had ever made before, or did he just make what was already made?

A: He made what was already made. He got a casting and a blue print presumably, from somebody he found in the .... No, No, from a magazine called The Model Engineer, and he wrote - I think Johan knows more about what he wrote for The Model Engineer. He's done a great deal of research on it. (Conversation off mic.)

MS: (Johan Bakker) Well that's... a great deal of research is not quite true. He would typically build model engines, especially, to existing plans and what one could in those days, and I understand you can still do, is buy a set of raw castings and make an engine according to drawings and specifications. But he did make his own modifications. I understand that he took one two cycle engine and rebuilt it in a four cycle format, which is not exactly a trivial task. He was published several times in The Model Engineer describing not only the things that he had made but also workshop equipment he had built. Some of it, as I understand, as a result of his travels in the Northwest of America where he saw woodworking equipment in the large scale, (does this sound familiar to anybody?) and reproduced it in the small scale. Typically a bandsaw, I think, was one article he wrote and other like equipment. So I think, from what little I've read, that he was, he did modify as well as just take what was presented to him.

MS: What did your father think of Australia? In England it seemed that he left England because of the Socialist government and rationing and all the other things that we were going through at the time, but when he got to Australia... Australia of course, is a socialist country anyway. Did he feel happy in Australia in the years he lived there?

A: It wasn't a socialist country then. It was Menzies and he loved it. He just loved it. He ... What was your last question? I keep thinking of all sorts of things I want to tell you ... (Audience comments and laughter.) When he was in the Admiralty, in the Department of Wheezers and Dodgers, one of the things that he would do would be, he would reach a conclusion and then get the intellect going and find all sorts of reasons to back it up. And this is what he did with Australia - it was called "Doing a Norway." First you get the conclusions, and then you get the reasons, and there they called it "doing a Norway!" This is what he did about going to Australia. His heart was there. He thought it would be a wonderful place to be, and then he started thinking of all the reasons that it would be good. It would be good for his young daughters, and of course, Australia isn't good for young daughters. (Audience laughter.) It might be good for young sons, but it isn't so hot for young daughters. It was the first time, in Australia, the first time that I had ever met the concept that at a party the men would be down there and the women would be down there. I don't know how .... (Comments off mic - It's improved.)

A: Has it? Oh, good. Oh, good. I know the cheese position has improved. When we went there, there was mild cheese and tasty cheese, and that was it. (Audience laughter.) That was it. But I know better because that improved while we were there. (Comments off mic)

A: No, he was really happy to be going there, and he was very, very happy while he was there.

(Comment off mic - Was he buried there?)

A: No he was cremated and brought back to England, and we scattered his ashes in the Solent - the strip of water between the Isle of Wright and Hampshire, in the southern part of England. We took a boat out one day and ...

(Comments off mic)

A: Oh, yes, he was very happy sailing. He loved it.

MS: What can you remember about his travels to the Pacific Northwestern United States? I recall in Requim for a Wren that he had an intimate knowledge of Seattle and the Puget Sound area and I assume it post dated his Slide Rule book because it's not mentioned there.

A: Gilstrap. I don't remember their first name, but Mr. Gilstrap was a fan and he wrote to dad and he said, would you like to come up to the Pacific Northwest and spend six-weeks vacation with me and my family, horseback riding through the hills in the Pacific Northwest. And dad wrote back, yes, I'd like to do that. That's where he got most of his.... He had an remarkable ability for being somewhere for a very short time and absorbing a lot, a lot, of the essence of the place. He did that when he was in Australia for such a short time and wrote A Town Like Alice, and they all said - the Australians, then, would say, we don't say 'my word' all the time! Oh my word! And then they would look and think and they'd say, yeah, we do!. (Audience laughter.) But he got these things really quickly, in a very short space of time, and that's what he did with the Pacific Northwest, I think.

Q: (Comment off mic)

A: Yes he did it in six weeks, and he did Australia in two months and flying around to a lot of different places too. So, he got in tune really quickly.

FQ: Could you just say a little something about your vacations. Did you have family vacations and I wondered if you were in the Pied Piper country?

A: We didn't have many vacations as such. I was at boarding schools. Heather was at boarding schools. This was the English system. And so when we came home that was a vacation, you know. So we didn't go away much. I remember, after the war, we went on a skiing holiday in Switzerland where I did something serious to my knee and made jigsaw puzzles the whole time. (Laughs) But we went sailing, we went cruising in Runnergate, which was our 40 ft schooner. But we'd go out for weekends, you know, during the school holidays. I don't recollect vacations much as such, it was sort of family vacations. Dad would go away, like the Pacific Northwest trip, and study and get materials for the next book, but then he'd come home and work, but it wasn't a sort of a vacation orientated thing at all. We never spent..., we rarely spent a time all day every day, you know in a block of several weeks or so, with dad. We'd see him a bit on weekends, but not a lot like that. No.

MS: I have three questions: What year did your mother die? And two other questions: Did he talk over the plots of his books with your mother or anybody else?

A: My mother died in 1970. She died on the 9th of January. Dad died on January the 12th and it's always been a difficult time - early January - with both deaths and my father's birthday. A lot of sort of family stuff came down. I use to have a real hard time in early January, but it faded.

MS: (Comment off mic) January 9th was a significant date in In The Wet also. The aboriginal was born. January the 9th was the book where the old priest is talking to some people about a young man who has just been born, and I believe his birth date was January 9th. So was my son's which is why I remember it. (Audience laughs.)

A: You reminded me of something you might be interested to know about. My father had another book planned, and it was a book about a man and his pregnant wife and they were traveling across the southern part of Australia, across the Nullarbor Plain, and on that road there are quite big places which are covered with corrugated iron, no walls or anything, but where you can camp and get shelter under the corrugated iron and off the iron will catch any rainwater. So there is generally rainwater and the shade. And he had it planned that this lady would give birth in one of these places. Does anybody know what that was called? .... Yes, but I was thinking of these shelters, what they were called? Anyhow..., she gave birth there, and there were three other people who were travelers, and they all gave the baby a gift. They were salesmen. (Audience comments.) See where we're going? (Audience laughs.) And I don't know - John if you know, but one was a knife that never needed sharpening, and gave these wonderful gifts, and the last lines of the book were to be they were looking for a name for him, and somebody suggested Jesus. Yes, that's a pretty name, we'll call him Jesus. Can you remember the other gifts?

Yes, I didn't know it was as finished as that. It was never finished, was it? If it were finished it would be published.

MS: (John Henry) As you probably know, Shirley. The Society is engaged in a project to republish Julian Smith's biography of your father, which I find pretty good as far as it goes, but it's really a biography about his books and writings rather than about your father, and when I think about it - we've got biographies about everybody, I mean anybody that gets mentioned on the radio for five minutes gets, you know, ten biographies published about him the next day, and yet there's no biography about your father, the man, as opposed to, you know, the works, and can you think of any reason why that would be or ... I mean I'm sure you all aren't objecting to it, or anything, but it just seems strange that such a famous author would be so neglected.

A: I don't know why, exactly, this is so. No, John. I don't know why it was so earlier. You know, I don't know why there wasn't immediately a biography. There have been a couple of people interested, but sadly, at the moment they can't command the advance that they need to do the research. Mary Lovell, who wrote about Beryl Markam, she wanted to do one, and I met her a couple of times and we discussed it, but she couldn't get the advance she needed to do it. It should be done. I don't know why it hasn't been done.

A: Yes, I'd be happy to do that. I'd be happy to do that not so much on a doing it business, but on a question, answer interview basis. I'd be happy to do something like that.

A: Yes, it would be nice. It would be great to see a good biography.

MS: Shirley how much correspondence? You see I write biographies and have done a couple ­ So, how much correspondence, how much of that infrastructure is there available or was that Smith's problem?

A: I don't know how much there is. Heather would be in a much better position to know that sort of thing. I don't know if the Trustees have anything. I know the manuscripts went to the big Library in Canberra. But I don't know about correspondence. I don't think there's much. And, of course, the longer we leave it, the more of his old friends die and his old associates.

MS: What did your father think of the world's response to him? In the '30s he was an engineer and not very known, and yet in the '50s he was a very known English writer. Was he surprised at the reaction and the popularity of his books at the time?

A: I don't really know. I think these things ­ I mean, you say in the '30s and the '50, and you can say it all in one breath, but in fact as the time passes, things grow and your attitude changes because of that. I don't ­ he was always a very private person. Which may be why there was just no biography made. It may just be a reflection of that, but he isolated himself. We lived in the country and along dirt roads and it was not easily accessible, and the telephone system was real peculiar. I remember Dad placing a call once, a long distance call and he called back later to the operator and said, what about my call to Melbourne? And she said, When did you place it? And he said about a half hour ago, and she said, "Oh, you must have placed it with Betty, she's gone out in a buggy! (Audience laughter.) You know. This is the sort of telephone system we were dealing with so we were really quite isolated.

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