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Jan 19, 2007 12:06 am

Nevil Shute (1899-1960)

Perhaps no book gave greater inspiration to the anti-nuclear bomb movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s than On the Beach. The story, which appeared in 1957, had many elements which were prophetic, or near prophetic. Set in 1962 (the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis), it depicted the aftermath of a nuclear exchange that was sparked by the Israeli-Arab conflict. The only survivors were the people of Australia and a few refugees including an American submarine crew. These survivors face doom in the rest of the novel, however, as the levels of radioactivity slowly, but inexorably, rise.

Although most of the political activists who drew inspiration from On the Beach were leftists, the author, Nevil Shute, counted himself as a friend of low taxes, entrepreneurship, and an enemy of socialism. Born on January 17, 1899 in London, Shute had a successful career as an aircraft engineer. He played an important role in the early development of airships and later founded his own aircraft construction company.

As a businessman and successful novelist, Shute understood the destructive impact of statism and high taxes on creativity. Several years after World War II, he fled to Australia because of his disgust with the policies of the Labour party. As the author of the introduction to one of his works wrote, Shute, “saw all the original acts of the Labour Government as stultifying to the initiative, designed to stifle the kind of technological creativeness he represented, designed to level down to mediocrity by legislation, rather than to elevate to freedom and better living by adventure and competition.”

Shute's novels revealed his strong belief in individual merit and respect for hard work. In A Town Like Alice, a woman who no longer needs to work because of an inheritance, discusses her future in a conversation with her lawyer:

I knew of several charitable appeals who would have found a first-class shorthand-typist, unpaid, a perfect godsend and I told her so. She was inclined to be critical about those;"Surely, if a thing is really worth while, it'll pay," she said. She evidently had quite a strong business instinct latent in her."It wouldn't need to have an unpaid secretary."

"Charitable organizations like to keep the overheads down," I remarked.

"I shouldn't have thought organizations that haven't got enough margin to pay a secretary can possibly do very much good," she said."If I'm going to work at anything, I want it to be something really worthwhile."

In Ruined City, a banker uses creative but dubious methods, including bribery, to save a town and bring in new business. After serving time in jail for fraud, he returns to the town and finds a bronze plaque above the shipyard gate which reads:




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Andrew D. Todd - 1/19/2007

Well, I recall having run across it in Buckley. However, Bon Mots of that sort are commonly borrowed back and forth.

Jesse Walker - 1/19/2007

William F. Buckley made a famous retort to that: "He's not a communist, he's a golfer."

I've always seen that line attributed to Russell Kirk.

Andrew D. Todd - 1/19/2007

Let's see, are we talking about _Strike From Space_ (1965), the book Schaffley wrote with R.Adm Chester Ward. It's been some time since I looked at it. I couldn't get through it, because it seemed to be a rather silly book, mostly fueled by hostility to Robert McNamara. At any rate, _On the Beach_ came out a bit after the time when the John Birch Society discovered that Eisenhower was a communist. William F. Buckley made a famous retort to that: "He's not a communist, he's a golfer."

David T. Beito - 1/19/2007

Thank you for the fascinating summary. I have not read any of Shute's work and, unfortunately, his autobiography was not at the UA library.

I first heard of Shute only a couple of weeks ago when I read about him in the biography of Phyllis Schafly by Don Critichlow. Critchlow mentions the irony that Schafly, who had once been a Taft conservative, agitated against On the Beach when it came out as leftist propaganda.

Andrew D. Todd - 1/19/2007

You might look at Shute's autobiography, _Slide Rule_(1954) as well. Shute had a very definite sense of how close to the wind he was running as managing director of Airspeed. The issue was usually the valuation of aircraft which were in the process of becoming obsolete, but which would be wanted anyway if there was a war.

It is an oversimplication to claim Shute as a Libertarian. He was a man of the establishment, in the same way that Joseph Conrad was. I think he would have been more of a Kirkean conservative, and he would certainly have been disgusted by Ayn Rand. What was implicit in Rand's thinking was that no one was ever going to trust her with power. Shute was someone who was trusted with power, a "man under authority." In _So Disdained_ (1928), one of the earliest of his novels, the English countryside, complete with vicar, squire, and butler, is presented in an enormously sympathetic way. Shute favored there being a sizable class of gentlemen of inherited means. As he argued, in _Slide Rule_, it is necessary to have officers and higher civil servants who can afford to do the right thing, even if it gets them cashiered. Shute's father had himself been a higher civil servant, a postal official.

Shute was a man of the time of the world wars. His elder brother was killed in the First World War, and he himself was in the training pipeline when the war ended. During the Second World War, Shute served as an officer in the Royal Navy, starting as an "elderly yachtsman," and then, when his credentials had been appraised, as a staff officer. He was very comfortable with the armed services, and by extension, with places like government laboratories. For example, look at the portrait of the Royal Aircraft Establishment in _No Highway_ (1948), and of the character of Theodore Honey, the classic absent-minded professor, or as Shute puts it, "an inside man."

Well before there was a labor government, Shute was enthusing about the United States and the British Dominions. See for example, the portrait of Canada in An Old Captivity (1940), as well as that in _No Highway_. For that matter, note the description of the unspoiled Eskimo in _An Old Captivity_. In Landfall (1940), the heroine feels a sense of liberation about leaving England, because she is getting away from people who judge her by her accent-- she is not a lady born, but the daughter of a non-commissioned officer. There is the same sense of enlargement _Round the Bend_ (*). The narrator, on arriving in the newly independent Middle East, is suddenly free to do all kinds of unconventional things, like crossing the color-bar, that is, ignoring the whole carefully cultivated system of racial distinctions which had been ingrained into him.

In _Trustee From the Tool Room_ (*), the hero has recovered some diamonds which have been illegally smuggled out of England, but instead of doing the economically rational thing, and depositing them in America, beyond the reach of the British government, he smuggles them back into England so that he can pretend they never left. The people who smuggled the diamonds out are dead, but the hero is concerned to protect their reputation. There was a strong element of "render unto Caesar" in Shute's thinking.

_Round the Bend_ (*) is about a man who founds a religion based on craftsmanship, and the ethical values of craftsmanship. Significantly, one of his admirers, an Arab prince, donates money to keep the sage's workplace free of usury. Then there is the naval lieutenant in _Landfall_, commander of a trawler, who has spent twenty years between the wars being unhappy as a small businessman:
"War came and he was called up. Twenty years slipped off him like a cloak. Gieves, the naval tailors upon Portsmouth Hard, gave him another sort of cloak, on tick. The Admiralty gave him _Rosie and Kate_, of Grimsby. God gave him happiness, and he set to work." (p. 58, pbk. ed. n.d.)

Most Secret (*), another of Shute's war novels, culminates in the hero's heroic suicide. Shute was certainly not a radical free-marketeer. He wasn't a radical anything.

(*) going by memory here, about half of my set of Nevil Shute vanished in the course of moving, some years ago.