Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Book Review

Trustee from the Toolroom

By John Forester

This is merely an addendum to David MacMillan's fine review of "Trustee from the Toolroom". As is true of many of Shute's novels, "Trustee" is a paen of praise for men who love designing and building the machines and systems that make modern life possible, about the responsible use of technology by interesting, often lovable, human beings. Shute doesn't discuss technological villains in the modern sense. When he writes of World War II, the Messerschmidt pilot targeting the road filled with refugees is not a villain; neither is the British officer who devises a particularly nasty naval flame-thrower, although a prime purpose of both is terror. Both are doing their job as determined by whatever were the causes of that war, which Shute does not discuss. In some cases, Shute writes of particular systems as villains, but in other cases, such as the aeronautical safety system that is such a major part of "No Highway", he writes with admiration of men operating an important system, although doing so with human failings.

In "Trustee", to those who do these things in real life are added those who do them also in miniature, but for the same love of using brains and tools to create things that work. In British usage, the term engineer has a wider scope than in the USA. An engineer is not only a degreed engineer, but also one who works in the engineering trades, a technician in American parlance. And the British recently-degreed engineer often has more practical experience than the American one, because practical experience is built into the training. A model engineer may design machines that imitate full-sized practice, either copying to make them look like full-size, or simply to perform the same job in miniature, but he also builds them. Most, of course, just build from the designs of others. Among the world-wide net of model engineers, those few who are the combination of outstanding designers, practical builders, and intelligent instructors are renowned. It is this network of comrades, from flight engineers who know of his designs to industrial magnates with expensive domestic machine shops, often linked only by literature and letters, that assists Keith Stewart in his quest half-around the world. And Keith Stewart is known to them because he is one of those who designs entrancing machines, builds them, and instructs the readers of "The Model Engineer" (to use its real name) in how to do these things for themselves.

Others may have a different opinion, but I always thought that when Shute was writing of Keith Stewart he was writing about the man known as LBSC, for London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway. I used to know his real name, but I have now forgotten it. LBSC was born into an impoverished London family with some railway connections, his mother widowed early. LBSC dreamed of making machines but was inhibited by poverty. When the cast-iron grate of the household fireplace cracked, he waited patiently for his mother to afford a new one, so that he could use the cracked parts as an anvil. His first steam engine cylinder was made of a brass cartridge case.

His family connections got him an apprenticeship with the LBSC, probably at age 14. He worked both in the shops and on the line. The LBSC had an incentive plan for engine crews. The engine crew who used less than the standard amount of coal for the trip shared in the savings. That meant keeping the locomotive in best condition and working it properly. LBSC described in detail the cooperation between driver and stoker to use the least amount of coal as their train surmounted the grades. LBSC became a skilled supervising mechanic, an engineer in British terms, before World War I. During that war, he managed the expanded British torpedo factory. The marine torpedo was the first guided missile, the apotheosis of technology at the time, with its small, high-powered engine running on air and steam, its depth regulator, and, above all, its gyroscopic control that first steered it into the correct course and then corrected for whatever outside influences deflected it.

At the end of World War I, Britain fell into depression. Some coal miners were out of work from 1919 to the start of World War II in 1939. Britain had no use for men with LBSC's skills. LBSC was substantially down and out again. Knowing of his locomotive experience, somebody brought him a model steam locomotive built by the famous model makers Bassett-Lowke, to see why it performed so badly. LBSC examined it and remarked that, of course, it couldn't work properly because it was built all wrong, not like the real thing at all. The prevailing wisdom was that models had be built differently simply because they were small. "Nonsense," said LBSC, "And it should burn coal, too, instead of that poison gas," meaning the mixture of ethanol and methanol called methylated spirits that was used for small heating tasks, including steam models. When told that he was all wrong,

LBSC rose to the challenge bet and built the first model locomotive that was completely correct, both in outside appearance and internal workings. For the rest of his life, LBSC designed and built model machinery, mostly locomotives, with his "words and music" distributed world-wide through "The Model Engineer".

That is the kind of person, although he told it as one of the next generation, that I think Nevil Shute had in mind when he wrote of Keith Stewart in "Trustee from the Toolroom".