Deliberately Engineered

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It is over fifty years since the death of Nevil Shute, who from 1940 to 1960 was probably the best-selling novelist in Britain. You could hardly not read Shute in those days. I devoured him voraciously (I am 68), as did my brother, friends, mother, uncles and aunts. Yet who under the age of 60 remembers him now? If he survives at all it is through reprints on the shelves of charity shops and memories of old black-and-white films culled from his best-known books: No Highway, A Town Like Alice, On the Beach.

He was an unusual character to take up a writing career. He read little fiction and once said in an interview, ‘I have little respect for writers as a class.’ Shute was an engineer. He worked for the de Havilland Aircraft Company (quite possibly fitting the apocryphal profile: ‘You can always tell an old de Havilland man, but you can’t tell him very much’), then for an airship project, and then with his own successful outfit building planes. His almost unreadable (except perhaps to engineers) partial autobiography, Slide Rule, recounts these early exploits in loving detail. Throughout his life he was obsessed with planes and boats which – like his other passion, travel – figure strongly in most of the novels.

In becoming unfashionable after his death Shute followed the profile of many old-style ‘entertainment’ writers. His characters rarely progressed beyond wooden representations. He didn’t do humour. Above all he didn’t do sex or immorality. (His biographer, Julian Smith, reported that Shute had never written a story in which a married man had had an affair.) Shute made no secret of the fact that he wrote to a formula: to please his readers. He believed that what they wanted was information (based on good research), a love story and a happy ending. He wrote in a serviceable prose dotted with familiar mannerisms. Characters ‘wrinkled their brows’ and had ‘clear grey eyes’. They spoke ‘steadil

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About the contributor

David Spiller has himself been accused of gloominess, but maintains that it is merely a defence mechanism.

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