Nevil Shute Norway (17 January 1899 – 12 January 1960) was an English-Australian novelist and aeronautical engineer who spent his later years in Australia. He used his full name in his engineering career and Nevil Shute as his pen name to protect his engineering career from any potential negative publicity in connection with his novels, which included On the Beach and A Town Like Alice.
|Born||17 January 1899
Ealing, Middlesex, England
|Died||12 January 1960 (aged 60)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
|Pen name||Nevil Shute|
|Nationality||British, emigrated to Australia 1950|
Born in Somerset Road, Ealing, Middlesex, he was educated at the Dragon School, Shrewsbury School and Balliol College, Oxford; he graduated from Oxford University in 1922 with a third-class degree in engineering science. Shute's father, Arthur Hamilton Norway, became head of the Post Office in Ireland before the First World War and was based at the main post office in Dublin in 1916 at the time of the Easter Rising. Shute himself was later commended for his role as a stretcher-bearer during the rising. On 13 June 1915 his elder brother, Fredrick Hamilton Norway, aged 19, was wounded at Epinette, near Armentières, and was evacuated to Wimereux where he died, on 4 July, with his parents by his side. He was buried at Wimereux Communal Cemetery, Pas-de-Calais.
Shute attended the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, but because of his stammer was unable to take up a commission in the Royal Flying Corps, instead serving in the Great War as a soldier in the Suffolk Regiment.
An aeronautical engineer as well as a pilot, he began his engineering career with the De Havilland Aircraft Company. (He used his pen-name as an author to protect his engineering career from any potential negative publicity in connection with his novels.)
Dissatisfied with the lack of opportunities for advancement, he took a position in 1924 with Vickers Ltd., where he was involved with the development of airships, working as Chief Calculator (stress engineer) on the R100 airship project for the Vickers subsidiary Airship Guarantee Company. In 1929 he was promoted to Deputy Chief Engineer of the R100 project under Barnes Wallis and when Wallis left the project he became the Chief Engineer.
The R100 was a prototype for passenger-carrying airships that would serve the needs of Britain's empire. The government-funded but privately developed R100 was a success in that it made a successful 1930 return trip to and from Canada and while in Canada undertook local trips to Ottawa, Toronto and Niagara Falls from Montreal. But the fatal 1930 crash in France of its government-developed counterpart R101 while flying to India ended British interest in dirigibles. The Secretary of State for Air, Lord Thomson, was killed in the crash along with many senior figures in the airship development programme. The R100 was immediately grounded and subsequently scrapped. Shute gives a detailed account of the development of the two airships in his 1954 autobiographical work, Slide Rule. His account is very critical of the R101 design and management team, and strongly hints that senior team members were complicit in concealing flaws in the airship's design and construction. In The Tender Ship, Manhattan Project engineer and Virginia Tech professor Arthur Squires used Shute's account of the R100 and R101 as a primary illustration of his thesis that governments are usually incompetent managers of technology projects.
A site was available in a former trolleybus garage on Piccadilly, York. Despite setbacks and tribulations, including the usual problem of the start-up business, liquidity, Airspeed Limited eventually gained significant recognition when its Envoy aircraft was chosen for the King's Flight. With the approach of war a military version of the Envoy was developed, to be called the Airspeed Oxford. The Oxford became the standard advanced multi-engined trainer for the RAF and British Commonwealth, with over 8,500 being built.
On 7 March 1931, Shute married Frances Mary Heaton, a 28-year-old medical practitioner. They had two daughters, Heather and Shirley.
By the outbreak of the Second World War, Shute was already a rising novelist. Even as war seemed imminent he was working on military projects with his former boss at Vickers, Sir Dennistoun Burney. He was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a sub-lieutenant and quickly ended up in what would become the Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development. There he was a head of engineering, working on secret weapons such as Panjandrum, a job that appealed to the engineer in him. He also developed the Rocket Spear, an anti-submarine missile with a fluted cast iron head. After the first U-boat was sunk by it, Charles Goodeve sent him a message concluding "I am particularly pleased as it fully substantiates the foresight you showed in pushing this in its early stages. My congratulations."
His celebrity as a writer caused the Ministry of Information to send him to the Normandy Landings on 6 June 1944 and later to Burma as a correspondent. He finished the war with the rank of lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves (RNVR).
Shute's first novel, the novella Stephen Morris, was written in 1923, but not published until 1961.
His first published novel was Marazan, which came out in 1926. After that he published one novel roughly every two years through the 1950s, with the exception of a six-year hiatus while he was establishing his own aircraft construction company, Airspeed Ltd. His popularity slowly grew with each novel, but he became far more famous after the publication of On the Beach in 1957.
Shute's novels are written in a simple, highly readable style, with clearly delineated plot lines. Where there is a romantic element, sex is referred to only obliquely. Many of the stories are introduced by a narrator who is not a character in the story. The most common theme in Shute's novels is the dignity of work, spanning all classes, whether an Eastern European bar "hostess" (Ruined City) or brilliant boffin (No Highway).
Another recurrent theme is the bridging of social barriers such as class (Lonely Road and Landfall), race (The Chequer Board), or religion (Round the Bend). The Australian novels are individual hymns to that country, with subtle disparagement of the mores of the United States (Beyond the Black Stump) and overt antipathy towards the post-World War II socialist government of Shute's native Britain (The Far Country and In the Wet).
Shute's heroes tended to be like himself: middle class solicitors, doctors, accountants, bank managers, engineers, generally university graduates. However (as in Trustee from the Toolroom), Shute valued the honest artisans and their social integrity and contributions to society more than the contributions of the upper classes.
Aviation and engineering provide the backdrop for many of Shute's novels. He identified how engineering, science, and design could improve human life and more than once used the apparently anonymous epigram "It has been said an engineer is a man who can do for five shillings what any fool can do for a pound."
Several of Shute's novels explore the boundary between accepted science and rational belief, on the one hand, and mystical or paranormal possibilities, including reincarnation, on the other hand. Shute does this by including elements that can be considered fantasy or science fiction in novels that are classified as mainstream. These are based in elements that would be considered religious, mystical, or psychic phenomena in the British vernacular when they were written. These include: Buddhist astrology and folk prophecy in The Chequer Board; the effective use of a ouija board in No Highway; a messiah figure in Round the Bend; and past and future lives with a psychic connection, near-future science fiction, and Aboriginal psychic powers in In the Wet.
Twenty-four of his novels and novellas have been published. Many of his books have been filmed, including Lonely Road (as The Lonely Road in 1936), Landfall: A Channel Story (as Landfall, in 1949), Pied Piper (as The Pied Piper in 1942 and as Crossing to Freedom in a CBS made-for-television film in 1990), On the Beach (as a 1959 film and a two-part miniseries in 2000), and No Highway (as the 1951 film No Highway in the Sky). A Town Like Alice was adapted into a film in 1956), serialised for Australian television as a miniseries in 1981, and broadcast on BBC Radio 2 in 1997 as a six-part radio drama starring Jason Connery, Becky Hindley, Bernard Hepton and Virginia McKenna, who had starred as the novel's heroine, Jean Paget, in the film version. The work was dramatised by Moya O'Shea, produced by Tracey Neale and David Blount, and directed by David Blount. It won a Sony Award in 1998. Shute's 1952 novel The Far Country is unrelated to the 1955 film of the same name, but was filmed for television as six one-hour episodes in 1972, and as a two-part miniseries in 1987.
Shute's final literary publication occurred more than 40 years after his death. The Seafarers was first drafted in 1946–47, was subsequently rewritten, and then put aside. In 1948, Shute again rewrote it, changing the title to Blind Understanding but leaving the manuscript incomplete. According to Dan Telfair in the foreword of the 2002 publication, some of the themes in The Seafarers and Blind Understanding were incorporated in Shute's 1955 novel Requiem for a Wren.
In 1948, after the Second World War, Shute flew his own Percival Proctor light aeroplane to Australia and back, with the writer James Riddell who published a book Flight of Fancy based on the trip in 1950.
On his return home, concerned about what he saw as decline in his home country, he decided that he and his family would emigrate and so, in 1950, he settled with his wife and two daughters on farmland at Langwarrin, south-east of Melbourne. In Slide Rule, quoting from the diary he kept during the R100's successful test flight to Canada, Shute had written in 1930, "I would never have believed after a fortnight's stay I should be so sorry to leave a country." In 1954 he introduced that quote, "For the first time in my life I saw how people live in an English-speaking country outside England," and said it was interesting in the light of his later decision to emigrate to Australia. Although he intended to remain in Australia, he did not take out Australian citizenship, but at that time it would have been an unnecessary formality as he would have had the same rights as an Australian citizen because he was a British subject.
In the 1950s and 1960s he was one of the world's best-selling novelists, although his popularity has since declined in Australia.
Shute died in Melbourne in 1960 after a stroke.
Norway Road and Nevil Shute Road at Portsmouth Airport, Hampshire were both named after him. Shute Avenue in Berwick, Victoria was named after him, when the farm used for filming the 1959 film On The Beach was subdivided for housing.