Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Oral History

Shirley Norway - part 4

FS: You said your father used to get quite excited about things and you had a number of rows with him, would you tell us a story about something that got him quite excited or a story about a row that you got into with him?

A: Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, there were so many. (Audience laughter.) He was very choleric. I can't remember what the one was when I missed Fred Astair. I remember one that seared my soul. I mean it really did. It lived with me for many, many years. I have never been the greatest correspondent in the world. This is really baring my soul! and on my 14th birthday, the relations, the aunts and the uncles and the people, sent me checks. And they sent me checks for 10 shillings and I think one was for a pound, and there were about three of them, I think. And... I didn't write any thank you letters, and they wrote to Dad and said, Did Shirley get our check, and Dad - because I was in boarding school, Dad said, I don't know and asked me about it, and not wishing to say that I hadn't written any letters. I said, No I didn't get the check, not understanding the check system, (Audience comments and laughter) and there was a monumental row about that because he assumed that I was trying to get more checks because I'd already cashed them and look here -- That was terrible. That was dreadful that he could do that... I mean I was so hurt because I didn't know that he could assume that I would try and get more money, but this isn't what it was about at all, and I was far too frightened of him, and tongue tied and dumfounded and I knew, because the idea was in his head, I knew that whatever I said he wouldn't believe me. I'm just clearing that one out now.

FS: I was thinking about what Heather said about his stammering? When he was really giving you what-for, did he stammer, or when he got really excited and was trying to put his point across did that go away?

A: One of the theories I've heard about stammering, is not that you have a reluctance to express yourself, but that you have a reluctance to let anybody else talk, and if you're going to Th-Th-Th-Th- then nobody else can talk, and that's what he did when he was -- I mean his whole energy was really angry, and his face got extremely red and... - where was I?

FS: (Did he stammer then?) A: No, he really didn't stammer then. (Audience laughter) He didn't.

MS: When he was writing, did he sit right down at the typewriter and type it out, was he a good typist, or did he write it out in longhand and then transfer?

A: He wrote it straight onto the typewriter. Double spacing. I had a discussion with my sister the other day; I thought he used four fingers. She thought he used three, (Audience laughter) I don't know. But he wasn't a very fast typist. I don't know how many words he wrote a day, but I don't think he wrote more than 400 or 500 in a day, and the gestation period was a regular nine months. (Audience laughter.)

MS: I was curious to ask whether or not your father enjoyed writing first and also are there any prospects of seeing any of his other novels made into movies?

A: I think he was in the sort of position that if he hadn't enjoyed it he wouldn't have done it. He enjoyed so many things that, you know, it wouldn't have been necessary to do if he hadn't really liked it. There are no movies in the sights at the moment, except for a remake of On The Beach, which is being done by Australians with, I think, the fellow who played the man in A Town Like Alice.

(Off mic - Brian Brown.)

I think he's playing the lead. Yes, that's being made even as we speak.

MS: Shirley, I'd like to get a question in, if I can. You've described how your father was possessed of a certain temper when things were not exactly as he would wish. How would he react if something went wrong that he had personally caused? I think that we know that he had crashed an airplane at one point, and was not particularly happy about that, and I'm sure there were other occasions when things ­ when he didn't quite do things the way he wanted. Was he as hard on himself as he was on others?

A: I don't think so. I mean, I don't think he directed anger at himself like that. I know that, you know, if he damaged any body else's property, it really upset him. It really got to him. You know, he didn't like to harm things, but I don't think he was hard on himself like that.

FS: Many characters in his books are smokers. Was your father a smoker?

A: Pipe and cigar. Pipe during the day and while he was working. Cigar right after dinner in the evening. My Mother smoked cigarettes. I used to smoke cigarettes. Heather used to smoke cigarettes. But I stopped some years ago.

FS: I have a question. You were saying how much he enjoyed so many things and after he was finished with his work at Airspeed, it sounds like he then started this routine where in the morning he would work on his books. Did your Mom see this as a hobby more than a pursuit of a work style for him? I was just curious how she observed your dad when he would go from something really like a work situation at Airspeed to where he was writing.

A: I think she was a bit nervous about it, financially. She was ­ when he was Airspeed, he would come home three or four nights a week, as Heather said, and write; and he'd have dinner and go up and work. What do you think that does to a marriage? You know, he just wasn't there, and I don't think it was the most extremely happy marriage in the world. My mother was a very sweet and soft and gentle and loving woman. And Dad was not easy expressing his emotions and I don't think it was a very easy marriage from that sort or point of view. She got used to it, I mean as the money came in that fear was allayed.

MS: You had (illegible) about people getting their sense of morals (morality) around the works your father wrote. To what extent, do you think, he was aware that he was doing that? He was writing about what he believed in. Do you think there was any underlying - message - not a crusade, but something of that type where he was trying to express a set of standards for people to live by? If that was the case, how would he view, do you think - I know you were young at the time - but how would he view this occasion now? Would he be pleased to be remembered like this by someone of my generation, or would he think that he was just a storyteller. How would he see himself? Sorry, that's three questions.

A: I think he would be very, very delighted with this occasion. Not only with the fact that it occurred, but with the quality of people here. I mean, we've got no slouches here. We all seem to be, you know, all really together and know what we're doing, and clear, and focused, and he would have been delighted, I'm sure, with the whole quality of the function. What were the other questions?

(Comment off mic) - Did he express a set of standards?

A: No, one didn't do that in those days, you know. You weren't educators, you know, in the same way you give a child a toy these days and it's almost inevitably educational. It wasn't like that then. I think life was lived in a way on a much simpler level. I know that when he read some other novelists, which he didn't do very frequently, he was appalled at the sexual stuff that would come up in them, and I don't think he went a lot further than to say I don't want to write stuff like that. I don't want to be associated with that sort of thing.

A: Yes, by default.. By default, but not by saying I'm going to improve the world as we all wish to do today.

(Comment off mic)

A: Yes, and when I come here and find people talking about the morality of it, what? ­ this is just a story, what are we on about here? And, you know, I think this is a reflection of how he wrote them.

(Comment off mic about the multiple vote)

A: Yes, at the Queen's pleasure.

(Comment off mic)

A: I don't know. I mean it was a wonderful idea, that this stake you had in the country was reflected by your contribution to the country. Marvelous idea.

FS: I have read, and you just said, that he didn't read many novelists contemporary with himself, but he seems a very well read man. How much time did he spend reading and when he gave his time to reading what kind of things was it that he generally liked to pick up?

A: I think he generally picked up technical stuff. He read Model Engineer, of course, from cover to cover avidly. Some aviation magazines, he read very few novels, very few. I remember once when he was in London, when we were living in Australia, he spent the astronomical sum of £30 on books which he felt he ought to have read (Audience laughter) and brought them back. He felt that he wanted to be more of a literary person and bought all these books, and I don't think he read many of them. It was a lovely idea.

(Comment off mic)

A: Plutarch was one of them. (Audience laughter.)

(Comment off mic) (Shirley laughs.)

A: I don't know. I was not a literary person myself, so I don't really know.

FS: Wasn't he well read in poetry? Because I notice the forwards to all his books he has verses from the English poets, and they fit for the particular novel.

A: In this country I've been described as well read in poetry. (Audience joins in laughter.) I don't know, I mean other than a basic education in poetry at that time, which I think ... I met a young man yesterday who said he'd never read a poem in school. It wasn't a part of his schooling! It was a major part of my schooling and it was a major part of Dad's schooling. I think that's it. I don't think he was particularly .... he never used to go around the house quoting poetry or anything.

FS: This is more of a comment than a question. I have to commend you. If someone was to ask me today to recollect what it was like growing up as a child with my father who is no where by any means as known as Nevil Shute, I don't think I could remember much other than he came home from work and put his money clip in a drawer and sat down and ate dinner with us and I think you've done a really good job.

A: I appreciate your comments very much. I couldn't have done it without your questions. I couldn't have sat down and talked, other than the little bit I said at the beginning. It's your questions. I couldn't have done it without them.

MS: I'm just interested in the way that Nevil Shute is perceived in terms of what sort of novelist. I mean sort of national background that he's seen, when I was growing up, was very much an English novelist, and yet he turns into, in the popular mind, as an Australian novelist, nor, we mention the new film of On The Beach and A Town Like Alice seems to confirm that, and people will see him from a distance, and here we are in America, you know, discussing him. Would he have minded very much being remembered as an Australian rather than an Englishman or a British, or did it matter to him at all. That sort of thing?

A: I don't think it mattered at all. I don't think he really locked into country boundaries. How is he perceived in Australia? Is he perceived as an Australian novelist?

MS: We went to Melbourne last year when we were there, and I looked around trying to find some evidence of the Norway family and asked a few people, and I wouldn't say he was unheard of, but certainly there was no commemoration. There's a library that's dedicated to Shute, I think, in Alice Springs, but in Melbourne we found we went out to Frankston, isn't that somewhere near where you lived?

A: Yes.

MS: (continues) It's a very nice area, it certainly is. A lovely place, a bit like southern England in the 50's I thought. But, no, he doesn't seem to be very well commemorated in Australia which is a real shame. A real shame.

MS: You touched a little bit on his correspondence. A lot of people he corresponded with are passing away and so on. Did he correspond widely? And the second question is What do you think he would make of the Internet as media today, you know, do you think he'd be out there surfing the net?

A: I don't know. Do you know much correspondence? He did correspond widely, but I don't know if there is much, as I said earlier, of the extent. I think he would have loved the Internet, but I don't think he would have spent a lot of time on it. I think he would have loved it's existence. This may just be projection. I think he would have liked it the way I like it. It's a wonderful tool. When I wanted to find some tap shoes in a town of 10,000 people, there were no tap shoes. I was able to find them on the Internet. You can find anything on the Internet, and this is what I like about it, and therefore I think that's what he would have liked about it. I don't think he would ever have become a computer whiz. I don't know. He might have done. What do you think?

(Heather) Well I'm inclined to agree with you. I think that he would have loved it. He would certainly have loved it in theory, but I agree with you, in practice probably more of a dilettante. He would use it as a great tool for research for his books, and for that reason, I'm just really sorry that the Internet wasn't around. You know, 40 years ago.

(Shirley) Thank you for coming. Thank you

End of First Presentation

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