Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Newsletter dated February 2014

Letters to the Editor

From Chris & Penny Morton

Although TAS2013 is fading into memory now, a couple of our keen-eyed photographers have sent us some particularly relevant shots, which I'm currently forwarding to our Webmaster for possible inclusion in the Conference Report, so keep an eye out for these additions.

From Tony Woodward

I was just watching an episode of Mayday, a brilliant TV program of Canadian origin which is 99% about air accidents and the fascinating story of how aviation safety investigators in many countries piece together the evidence to determine the causes of disasters so that new regulations can prevent a recurrence. I wish this programme would do more about transport disasters other than air – they have only about 2 ships and 2 trains in 12 seasons, but I wasn’t counting! I have even complained to them about this.

The particular episode of Mayday I am referring to was about the Munich air disaster of 1958 which wiped out half of the stellar Manchester United football team, the famous “Busby Babes”. The aircraft was an Airspeed Ambassador, one of the best short-haul airliners before the Viking turboprop knocked it out of the market. The aircraft itself was not really implicated in the Munich crash, although it had a well-known engine surge problem in the Bristol Centaurus engines which caused two aborted takeoffs before the fatal one. In hindsight the aircraft should not have taken off at all after two aborted takeoffs, and should have stayed in Munich overnight, but as usual unstated but well understood economic pressures demanded that the pilots try again rather than strand their passengers for an extra night in Munich. This kind of external pressure which negates safety has caused other accidents too, notably (1) the 2010 crash at Smolensk which forced an aircraft to land in thick fog, killing the incumbent Polish president, Lech Kaczyński; and (2) the horrific rail crash near Modane in France in 1917 during WW1, where a pigheaded military man overrode the operating crew’s objections and sent off an overweight train with inadequate braking, resulting in the worst disaster in European transport history.

The German board of enquiry initially pinned the blame for the Munich crash on Captain Thain for not de-icing the wings, and he had to spend the next ten years doing his own investigation before being able to clear his name and prove that it was not icing but uncleared slush on the runway that prevented the aircraft from reaching takeoff speed. He was finally exonerated but he was never reinstated by his employer and never flew again on a commercial flight - a total waste of a good pilot and a stain on the reputation of the airline (BEA) he used to fly for. This is very sad, and this TV program is never less than fascinating.

My goodness, what a beautiful aircraft the Ambassador was, and to a layman like me if it looks right it probably is right. But although I have a 50-year old degree in physics I have no knowledge of aerodynamics. The triple tail reminds me of the Lockheed Constellation. In the early 1950s I had a painting of a Super Constellation pinned inside the lid of my desk at my grammar school in England, done in poster paints by myself and copied from the centerfold of the Eagle Comic (along with an Avro Lancaster and a green woodpecker!) High wing is good for a smaller plane. I actually travelled in a short-haul commercial aircraft once where I had to climb over the wing to get to my rear seating. Was that a Fokker? I can’t remember what aircraft it was but it was a short intercity flight in the northern US to make my major international connection, and it took only about 14 passengers.

I had forgotten that Airspeed was in business until De Havilland eventually bought them out in 1951. My knowledge of the company is limited to what I read in Slide Rule.

I remember flying to Guernsey (and back) in a Viking on my honeymoon in 1966 in my 20s! A terribly noisy and rattly aircraft is my main memory of that experience. Sadly I never flew in any Airspeed aircraft and I’d like to hear from anyone who did. Before that flight, as a schoolboy air cadet in the 1950s I had only flown as a passenger in a Harvard and an Anson, so my flight experience was limited. The Anson flight was fun – six of us were stuck in a rear cabin without windows, just sitting on the floor propped up against the sides of the plane with no windows – the way the military usually has to fly, and also many people in the third world today. As teenagers we absolutely reveled in it because this was life! We imagined ourselves as paras, and pitied the poor army cadets at our school who didn’t get to fly at all but were stuck with square bashing! So what were other ordinary people’s first flight experiences? Never mind the frequent flyers and the pilots, what about the ordinary public? Is anyone old enough to remember the air circuses of the 1930s where you could pay money to go up? About the only equivalent these days is the hot air balloons, and at age 73 I would still love to go up in one before I die.

I imagine that the business dealings in Ruined City also stem from NSN’s inside knowledge of company politics of the time. Not that he himself would do anything shady but he obviously knew exactly what went on, and in fact Ruined City is one of my top three favorites, judging by the ones I re-read most. The others are Trustee from the Toolroom (my number 1) and Landfall, but this last is contested by Requiem for a Wren and Round the Bend. Oh heck it’s impossible to pick favorites – NSN’s books are all so good that other titles immediately crowd in, like the unexpected ones such as An Old Captivity. Not at all one of my favourites but I now think I have to go and read that one again because it’s been a few years. I’m not sure there are many authors who can do this to you, where the next one you re-read is going to be the best one - for a while at least until you read another! There are no writers these days who can do that. Well perhaps the contemporary author Robert Goddard can do it and I certainly do re-read all his books regularly. Going back in time I can say the same for C.S. Forester and in a different vein Josephine Tey, but she wrote very little.

I have a special attitude to Most Secret - the only NSN novel we actually had in our house when I was growing up and so the only one I knew into my teens. It is still my least favourite Shute novel so you can see that was a bad introduction but I eventually got beyond it and came to love Shute’s books anyway when I read the rest of the canon later! The vicious anti-Nazi sentiment in MS I can just about relate to, if you were an adult at that time. But I was a child during WW2 and by the time I actually read MS after the war I had been steeped in the anti-German sentiment that could understand this. I already knew that this attitude was wrong. If you behave as badly as the enemy then you are already the enemy and they have won in the moral terms of dragging you down to their level. Yet you have to be just as bad as them in order to beat them. And then switch back to being humane once the war is won. This is hard for any individual or any country to comprehend unless they have goodness truly rooted deep down. And if they do have that, then how can they act badly during war? This was a confusing concept I had to tussle with all through my teenage years, and I still do.

The chilling statement that really gave me nightmares in MS was “Oh Olly, I’ve let you down” - the idea of a helpless woman lying pinned in a bed in a bombed building waiting for the fires to reach her is beyond horror for me. I couldn’t reread this novel again for decades because it gave me nightmares, and for me this is the darkest Shute novel of all. On the Beach doesn’t come near it - OTB is merely science fiction and has no immediate impact, but that part of MS was shattering for me. OTB was just about acceptance, not the actual up front horror, and it didn’t seem real even back in the 1950s when we were actually worried. In contrast that scene in MS rang oh so very true and I am sure it happened thousands of times which is all the more chiling.

OTB is just “What happened to the Corbetts“ brought up to date in 1958, interesting as a picture of what was legitimately worrying people at the time, and well worth a read, but not what actually happened, so it is a novel that was overtaken by events and has consequently dated. Something like Wells’ The War in the Air. I’m glad he wrote and it is fascinating as a description of the civic worries at the time (and I wasn’t born until 4 years later than WHTTC). It has no grounding in reality but it nearly happened and probably did locally.

In contrast OTB is not one of Shute’s best novels and it’s a pity the world mostly knows him for it if they know him at all – and if they actually read books anymore, and if they even think anymore!

I last visited Bristol in 1958, 13 years after the war had ended, and the centre of the city was still just a sea of basements with wild flowers growing in them, and street name plates attached to 2-foot high walls just so you could tell where you were. After 13 years! And I still saw bomb sites in London in 1971 – 26 years after the war. It takes a long time to recover from a war. Nobody ever wins one. Central Bristol in 1958 was presided over by a ruined church tower (St. Mary Le Port) away in the far distance. This church tower figured in my nightmares for years until it was resolved positively by a sequence of rather fine dreams but I don’t want to bore anyone. Eventually I got over it.

There is an amusing story about the Temple Church just south of Bristol city centre. It was burned out by incendiary bombs in the blitz on Bristol. The walls were still intact but the tower was leaning. “It’s unsafe, it’ll have to come down” the Sappers said when assessing the damage. Luckily someone local pointed out that it had been leaning for five hundred years and hadn’t fallen yet, and as far as I know it is still standing, and still leaning! Perhaps a Bristolian can confirm this. Bristol’s leaning tower of Pisa. I have a photo of it taken in 1958 but I haven’t seen it since.

Most Secret is a horrifying novel for the perversion of humanity displayed by the protagonist. War destroys people’s souls, and Shute understood and depicted this. Not passing judgment but just understanding and passing on an unpleasant aspect of war for others to assess. One of NSN’s best traits. I’m sure he must have known someone like Oliver Boden in order to describe him so well.

I would be fascinated to hear what other people think of Most Secret, for me the most disturbing of his novels, and indicative of the wartime issues NSN understood and was not afraid to address.

Editor: I have done a Google search for “Temple Church Bristol” and found this:,_Bristol
The tower is still there and still leaning

From Julian Stargardt

Thank you to Shirish Joshi for bringing to our attention the compelling story of USAAF B-17 "All American".

Apparently it was based in Algeria, not England, there is more info on it available at the link below, including interviews with surviving crew members and photos:

Another story with overtones of "Pastoral" is a Powell & Pressburger film "A Matter of Life and Death" made in colour in 1945 and featuring some astonishingly innovative cinematography... they were short of colour film stock so they used black and white for all the scenes in Heaven.

NSN himself described "Pastoral" as one of his less good tales, but I like it very much... I'm reading NSN's travel log of his flight to Australia and back with James "Jimmie" Riddell in NSN's single engined Proctor... I've got as far as their arrival in Australia's Northern Territory. As an Australian, raised in the UK and old Asia Hand (I've lived much of my life in Asia) I find NSN and Riddell's accounts of immediate post-war Asia absolutely fascinating. Riddell's account is published in the sadly now out of print "Flights of Fancy" but it can be found 2nd hand fairly easily and is well worth reading... NSN's log never was published, though it would be nice to publish it with suitable notes and illustrations.

From Mills & Nancy Dyer

Picture evidence of B-17 with nearly severed tail (Email from Shirish Joshi) is available at several websites. This is the best I found in a quick search:

From Tony Woodward (2)

Does anyone else have the same reaction as me to the question "What is your favourite NSN book?" My answer is always "the one I'm reading right now."

I re-read all his books within a cycle of five years, and recently apart from Requiem for a Wren (one of my favourites) I just embarked deliberately on a re-reading of my least favourite NSN novels - An Old Captivity, Beyond the Black Stump, Most Secret, What Happened to the Corbetts, Marazan. And all those are far better than most books written by any author these days. This time I was absolutely captivated (oops, sorry!) by An Old Captivity.

It's significant that NSN was awake to the paranormal - planchette in No Highway, and dreams in several books like In The Wet,The Rainbow and the Rose, and An Old Captivity. Every way I test him he was a darned good author, and I have trouble saying that about any author writing nowadays.

I stand by my dreams and they have taught me a lot about myself, so the knowledge that NSN was not afraid to use dreams as a vehicle for some of his plots adds to my high opinion of his stature as a writer.

From Charles D

Editor: Our friend Charles D has send some interesting links again. Here they are:

This is an article describing the first flights in Minnesota which took place in 1857.

On every British nuclear submarine, there is a safe. Inside that safe is another safe. And inside that safe is a handwritten letter from the British Prime Minister, to be opened only if the country has been decimated by nuclear war. Host Ira Glass talks with journalist Ron Rosenbaum about these peculiar letters. (7 minutes)

This story includes excerpts from a radio documentary called "The Human Button" (click to listen or right-click to save the file), which originally aired on BBC Radio 4 in December, 2008. For more information visit Radio 4. Ron Rosenbaum wrote about it on Slate and in his book How The End Begins. ——————————————————————————————————-

This is the 50th Anniversary of the movies “Dr. Strangelove” and “Fail Safe”. There is currently a lot of analysis of these movies and the actual situation during the Cold War. I have attached just one comment from the article referenced below. I don’t know if it would be something the newsletter should get into.

I saw those movies at the time, and along with my previous reading of “On the Beach”, they were quite frightening.

It wouldn’t be such a stretch to say that they were inspired by the Shute book in some way.

I recall that the rush to build private bomb shelters quickly declined afterwards.

From the NYT article, Truth Stranger Than 'Strangelove', Published: October 10, 2004 by Fred Kaplan:

"When Dr. Strangelove talks of sheltering people in mineshafts, President Muffley asks him, "Wouldn't this nucleus of survivors be so grief-stricken and anguished that they'd, well, envy the dead?" Strangelove exclaims that, to the contrary, many would feel "a spirit of bold curiosity for the adventure ahead."

"Mr. Kahn's book contains a long chapter on mineshafts. Its title: "Will the Survivors Envy the Dead?" One sentence reads: "We can imagine a renewed vigor among the population with a zealous, almost religious dedication to reconstruction."

"In 1981, two years before he died, I asked Mr. Kahn what he thought of "Dr. Strangelove." Thinking I meant the character, he replied, with a straight face, "Strangelove wouldn't have lasted three weeks in the Pentagon. He was too creative.""


A little late this month, sorry, but I think we have an interesting newsletter.

From the Netherlands, where winter seems to have forgotten us (except for in the north of the country, we haven’t had any snow yet), see you all next month