Dear Shute Fans,
My work as a TV commercial cinematographer takes me almost everywhere and a couple of years ago I found myself with 3 spare hours in London during a stopover between LA and Karachi. Naturally, as one does, I thought to myself "I'll have a look at the house where Shute was born, or at least grew up.";
To my horror I realised that I didn't have that information on me and couldn't get it quickly and had to be content with a rather less exciting Buckingham Palace. I vowed then and there that I would not get caught in any part of the world that had a Shute connection without a complete compendium of addresses and descriptions of places from his books again.
Two years later I am half way through gleaning all 24 books for geographical references that give exact descriptions of specific locations. (did I hear someone mumble "crazy"?) Recently I was back in England again for a couple of days of research for my planned Nevil Shute Documentary and gave myself 3 major goals.
- Find the spot in Lonely Road where Commander Stevenson is hit on the head and they fake his accident.
- Find 2 sections of the road from London to Oxford and beyond that are mentioned in his early books.
- Visit Shute's earliest home in Somerset Rd Ealing.
In collating the information on the locations in Shute's books two things become clear.
- Shute provides complex and usually highly accurate verbal roadmaps to all his locations.
- It's almost impossible to quickly scan a Shute book for information. You end up reading slower and slower for pleasure forgetting about your urgent notes and worse, you forget to write things down.
Often locations that seem completely made up and a little far fetched, like the lost ghost town in The Far Country which, as an Australian I believed to be absolutely and completely fictional are revealed, to my absolute amazement, to be accurately described in the smallest detail with fiction only veering away from reality where absolutely necessary. (in researching The Far Country I met the son of the man who was Shute's model for character Jack Dorman and he and his "Jane" could have stepped right from the pages of the book)
Armed with my breakdown of all the directions in Lonely Road I proceeded to Dartmouth in Southern England and discovered an extremely quaint and pretty harbour with the town clinging to the hills above a fishing port that seems hardly changed since Shutes day except that in High Season I bet its hideously jammed with tourists. In Lonely Road Stevenson is knocked out when he is drunk having stopped on a lonely road on the way from Plymouth to Dartmouth via the old stone built village of Slapton. Stevenson has stopped his car at a farmers field gate on the road near the sea and near sandhills that are visible across the field. He wanders drunkenly to the beach and is knocked out. I found Slapton but, sadly, the road between Slapton and Dartmouth seems to have changed. Only what seems to be a post war road runs along where the sandhills once were. The whole beach topography has altered in 70 years as beach landscapes often do and the sandhills are now levelled. I feel certain the roads have changed too. Therefore I was unable to precisely say, as one often wishes one could at a dinner party when conversation has lapsed and you have had one too many red wines: "I stood on the gate he stood on and saw the sea from there while drunk and smelling and eating apples and then discovering a boat and a girl and carpet sweeper - machine guns before being hit on the head and bleeding into the sand." I feel reasonably certain that if I could find a pre war ordinance survey map of the area I could find something closer to the exact spot. (I just need to be unemployed for a year or so to get all this ordinance map thing researched but annoyingly I might starve in the meantime) Shute had written his scene at Slapton Sands 10 years before the war. In pre D-Day rehearsals in 1944 about 1,000 US troops were killed when German Torpedo boats attacked ships practising a beach assault at Slapton Sands and there is an American tank, retrieved from the water only 10 years ago, on display as a memorial. Despite wartime security Shute knew of these events and mentioned them in his notes. There is also a photo, in Gerald Pawles book The Secret War, of Shute attempting to guide his rocket propelled Grand Panjandrum on Slapton Sands at low tide. I think he did a lot of experimental work there so it is a place that he was fated to revisit again and again for different reasons.
From Dartmouth I then drove to Southampton to meet dedicated Shute researcher Derek Hill who, in his spare time, runs a software company in Cambridge when he isn't doing more important things like re-reading Round The Bend. Derek showed me around the sites that he had so painstakingly researched for his fabulous presentation at the Oz2001 Conference. His offering to chauffeur me around was a relief as it would have been very difficult for me to drive and navigate quickly on my own. We drove to Bucklers Hard which is mentioned in Requiem for a Wren. Bucklers Hard is a historic site as ships have been built and launched there for two or three hundred years. HMS Mastodon where Janet Prentice lived was across the water. One day I will rent a boat and find Janet and the Wrens still going up and down the river and tormenting young sailors over their gun maintenance. At Hamble, which is a location in several Shute books, we saw the Hard, and the village and looked over to the now rather genteel looking Warsash side where, in What Happened to The Corbetts / Ordeal the store owners were hoarding tins of milk and the Corbetts robbed the 10 year old shopgirl at gunpoint then left some money to pay for the milk. With an effort of imagination I could picture it in those days and see Peter Corbett rowng out to his yacht Sonia but sadly, Southern England is now so overcrowded now that Hamble is really just another suburb of distant Southampton and, as Derek had warned me, most of the past has been ruthlessly over-run by the present. Still, it was all interesting and a good lesson that you really can't go back, especially if you've never been there. We lunched at the Jolly Sailor pub at Burseldon just up the river from Hamble and a place where Shute must inevitably have gone. In fact I saw some pipe ash on the mantelpiece that was very likely his. We drove past what was Eastleigh aerodrome and is now Southampton airport where Shute and, coincidentally, Tom Cutter both took off for their flights. We saw the areas that were once the dockside slums (now disappointingly pleasant) of Southampton where Tom Cutter had lived and where his mother had opened a nice tin of salmon for his tea and, without checking my notes, I will bet real money that he had some cherry cake. (Shute made repeated references to Cherry cake throughout his books - please wait expectantly for my upcoming article Nevil Shute and Cherry Cake - an In Depth Analysis) We then passed the Vosper Thornycroft factory that Derek felt certain was once the original Supermarine Spitfire factory in WW2. (we are still checking this so don't try to impress your friends down at the bowling alley with this information yet) Very disheartening was what was left of the Airspeed factory at Portsmouth Airport. ie Nothing. Now converted to an industrial estate there are 2 streets called Nevil Shute Rd (thankfully spelt correctly) and Airspeed Rd. Derek and I are still looking for a pre war ordinance survey map of the area to pin down the position of the factory so other similarly masochistic Shute enthusiasts can go there and lay their prayer mats on a bit of road or perhaps, if we find that the factory was where the McDonald's is now, have some Fries with their Cheeseburger in honour of Nevil who wasn't afraid of eating animal fats when he wasn't eating cherry cake. I have also heard there is a Norway Rd in the estate to honour Shute the Engineer. On the bright side, the industrial estate does incorporate some old airfield buildings so it is just possible that one of the existing buildings is an Airspeed building. Further research is justified. Derek and I then drove to Pond Head, Shute's home from where he abandoned England for that Utopian Paradise, Australia. (I live blissfully in that same Sydney that Shute wholeheartedly hated and described in his Flight Log as "an ugly city - full of drunks") Derek, doing his research, had been to Pond Head earlier this year and met the owner but this time the place seemed deserted. It felt like it could still be 1950 and Shute himself had just packed up and left for Melbourne. Derek had to get back to Cambridge where he lives and I had to get to Oxford. (I suggested we race there in boats rowed by big meaty guys but he just looked at me strangely and said he didn't have time)
On the way to Oxford it started to snow lightly and I became rather homesick for my local beach in Sydney where it was already Summer but there was work to do and I wasn't going to shirk my responsibilities. In Stephen Morris and in subsequent books Shute mentions Dashwood Hill on the road from London to Oxford. He describes going up Dashwood Hill at 20 miles per hour and also states that you haven't really left London till you have climbed up Dashwood Hill. It is also mentioned in Marazan when seen from the air by Stenning. Consequently Dashwood Hill has always loomed large in my consciousness. Nowadays the road (not the Motorway) from London to Oxford is called the A40. It basically follows the old road except that, like everywhere else in the world, over 80 years it has been straightened and widened and I'm sure in some cases it has bypassed the odd town center. An accidental conversation in an internet cafe in Oxford confirmed that Dashwood Hill exists and I did find it where it was supposed to be and drove up a beautiful avenue of a hill in a stately manner at 20 mph but Nevil Shute was whispering to me that something wasn't quite right. Then I noticed that before and after the road up the hill were a little road off with a sign saying Old Dashwood Hill. I turned off and there it was, another beautiful avenue of a hill, marginally smaller, with a lovely old surface, going up the same hill parallel to the new road. So back I went, turned around and drove up Old Dashwood Hill in an even statelier manner at 20 mph knowing for certain I was having a true Shute Moment.
At the conclusion of Stephen Morris, Stephen drives from London to Oxford to propose to his girl but in a pub on the Oxford side of Dashwood Hill (I didn't have time to check if there is a pub on that side but on the London side is The Dashwood Arms) he is told she has already married. In a seemingly aimless drive he goes on through Oxford and keeps travelling West (into the sunset?) and finally turns onto a small road that goes up another long hill. At the summit he stops and is staring at the view and into the night when his true love comes along and announces she is still available. I found this hill. It is on a road called the A436 (off the A40) and all is as Shute described and I felt not a little smug that I was probably the first person since Shute wrote the book to establish the location and gaze out longingly and wistfully at the view. I waited over three and a half hours but not one rich, chauffeur-driven eligible woman stopped to claim me.
I was now seriously running out of time so it was time to get back to London. My plan had been to visit 43 Hatherly Rd Sidcup (London) which was the young Shute's address when he wrote Stephen Morris and also to visit the house where he was born or at least grew up in Somerset Rd West Ealing. I say born (or at least grew up) because I can't remember whether we know whether he was born in a hospital or at home. Derek Hill has a copy of Shute's Birth Certificate somewhere but has yet to check if it contains these details. As I was madly driving back to London and was flying off to Australia that night (a pleasant 20 hour flight) I decided to leave 43 Hatherly Rd Sidcup for another trip along with Airspeeds original Bus Garage in York and the R101 Airship Hangars at Cardington and my rather pathetic planned pilgrimage to the R100 Hangar site near York which is now a golf course. (pathetic because, since having been bulldozed into a golf course, there is no chance of any piece of recognisable feature being left) Back in London and fighting the worst possible traffic in the rapidly darkening November afternoon I made it to Somerset Rd but there the mystery deepened. I had not planned to do this trip till next May when I would have been able to collate all my research but unforeseen circumstances brought the trip dramatically forward so I was less than fully prepared. From the rather annoying Julian Smith Nevil Shute Biography, from Shute's own Slide Rule and also from Trustee I had known that Shute had lived in Somerset Rd but which number? From Shute's own hand corrections on his manuscript for Trustee that are in The National Library in Canberra, Shute had, at the last moment, in pencil, changed Keith Stewart's address from 48 to 56 Somerset Rd West Ealing. Eureka! I had said. Obviously in the manuscript he used his own address but for publication he was going to change it to 56 so he must have lived at 48. Wrong. From satellite photos on the internet I had already noted that Somerset Rd. was a short street but when I got there I found the numbers going to only about 24 with only the houses on one side of the street fronting the street. All the houses except one rebuilt in the 1960s are the right vintage. (I just hope it wasn't that one) I looked at all the houses in complete frustration but it was all useless. It was now quite dark and I had to go to catch my plane. Once I was on the plane and flying peacefully over Afghanistan on the way to Singapore I was jolted awake by my sub-conscious telling me I was a fool because at the beginning of Trustee is a detailed description of the house. I had been such a smart-ass in coming up with my complex number theory that I hadn't bothered to record the description when embarking on this rush trip. When I got home I checked the description and it is quite specific but then I couldn't possibly remember which house number matched so it's up to the next Shute fan who gets to London to check this out. Take your copy of Trustee with you. Do we have members who actually live in London or York? Later at home I also discovered that the address number of 56 re-occurs again in another Shute novel so it was probably a fondness for that number (maybe his Grandma's address or his lucky number) that made him change the address from 48 to 56. On this trip I had also intended to drive through any of the real places mentioned in So Disdained but map research revealed that he seems to have invented all the local towns in that novel. Its strange how he varied between total invention and total accuracy. When I boarded my 747 to fly back to the other side of the world, comparatively cheaply and in less than a day, I felt that the young Nevil Shute who so wanted commercial aviation to succeed and campaigned for it incessantly in his novels would have been quite pleased. Anyone who wishes to contact me can do so by emailing me at: email@example.com.
All the best,
PS My scottnorway email address comes from borrowing the unused names of two authors. C.S. (Cecil Scott) Forester and Nevil Shute Norway