The Nevil Shute autobiography of his early years in aviation and the R101 Airship disaster
By William McCandless
Slide Rule was published in 1954 and represented Nevil Shute's selected remembrances from childhood to 1938. One fascinating thing about Slide Rule is the parallels and examples that one can draw to the fiction Mr. Shute produced during this period and later.
After receiving a British Public School education at Shrewsbury School and Baliol College, Oxford; and a brief period at Military Academy at Sandhurst, he went to work for the De Havilland Co. from 1920 to 1924. His employment in design and drafting of aircraft led his to appointment at the Air Ship Guarantee Co. and his rise to Chief of Engineering over the next six years. During this period there was competition to build an lighter-than-air Airship which could establish a regular commercial traffic over the Atlantic, and which pitted the private contractor ASG co. against a Govt. consortium sponsored by the Air Ministry.
Although a Conservative Air Minister, Sir Samuel Hoare, had been in charge of the project from 1924 to 1929, a Labour Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald, was elected in 1929 and appointed Lord Thomson to oversee the final, fatal, 5 months. The govt. ship was the R101 and the ASG ship was the R100.
To Shute, hindsite is 20/20 vision and he sums up the crash of R101 on Oct. 4, 1930, killing 48, as the fault of bureaucrats and bad engineers. The faulty engineering, he felt, would have been kept under control with responsibile managers who were not subject to the agendas of politicians or the curious and often senseless expenditure of govt. funds. He sites rational precautions which were not taken, technical advice which was ignored, and the reckless behavior of the chief test pilot, Major Scott.
Shute fans cannot miss the parallel in No Highway where Mr. Honey pursues what is seen as insane measures to avoid a possible failure of a tail section in flight. Shute's early experience with civil servants and autocratic systems like the military, colored much of his treatment of them in his novels. A similar parallel is seen in Landfall and again in Most Secret where characters are caught in the crossfire of bureaucratic military agencies, the Navy vs. the Air Force or the RVNR and the War Ministry. His preference however, for aristocratic "men of independent means" over most civil servants, is obvious in Kindling where his hero David Warren is assisted by a far-sighted and enterprising Lord Grimthorpe, who dares to endorse and finance the Warren scheme to save shipbuilding in England. His appreciation and admiration for this type of "entreprenurial spirit" where capital "must be vigorously solicited" is evidenced by the fact that while writing Lonely Road, he was travelling all over North England looking for funds to start up the Airspeed Co. (1931)
When the development of the DC-1 proved that larger planes could fly overseas, and the lighter-than-air ships were abandoned, Shute forms a venture-capital enterprise named Airspeed Industries Ltd.. its phenominal growth and success from gliders to commercial aircraft, is reflected in the story of Tom Cutter in Round the Bend.
From 1932 to 1938 Slide Rule describes the development of a new company in a new industry, with the venture capital often raised by its initial employees. Truth is often stranger than fiction, and this autobiography takes on almost heroic dimensions as various threatening events take place which make success seem like a miracle. There is no doubt that the novelist Shute is at work here! No wonder Warren goes to jail for an overly zealous prospectus in Kindling!
In 1935 when the Company had grown to very complex and expensive proportions, Shute was faced with the first necessity to "downsize". Some employees were original investors but could not handle the pace of production and stress of responsibility. This feeling of indebtedness to loyal employees and respect for their contribution, is traced thru his novels with the theme of the "little man" hero he wrote about. Their work ethic is praised with novels like Trustee and Round the Bend. He describes the obstinant behavior, in 1936 and 1937, of civil servants who would not bend their regulations to allow use of the new and more efficient Wolsely engine, thus hampering Britain's effort to re-tool for the coming threat of war. His "Balkan" experience trying to sell aircraft abroad, is mirrored in the experience of Henry Warren in Kindling.
By 1937 Shute had come to the realization that his Company no longer offered the kind of excitement and challenge that it had. He did not like the fact that many loyal employees would have to be cut. A new General Manager from the Shipbuilding Association named Townsley, had the experience and ability to work with the Trade Councils (unions) and promote the business. These factors and the growing confidence in his ability to support his family thru writing alone, (he sold the film rights to Kindling in 1937), prompted him in 1938 to accept a generous offer of severance and pension from Airspeed Ltd.. and leave the Company. He was able to vacation with his growing family and begin to form the working pattern which would later result in his 18 later novels.