Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

A wartime comfort read…

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It’s 1940 and elderly John Howard is feeling useless because no one wants his service in the war effort. His son has been killed in the Battle of Heligoland Bight and his daughter now lives in the US with her husband. So feeling a little lost he decides to take a holiday in France (in the middle of a war, as you do). Once there, he learns that the German Blitzkrieg has begun and it looks like France will soon fall. He realises he has to head home while he still can. An English couple at his hotel can’t leave for England straight away and beg him to take their two young children with him. Howard is hesitant – he may have been a father but he’s never had to look after young children by himself. However, he agrees and they set off. But the German invasion is happening faster than he expected and soon the transport system of the country collapses. Howard must make his way as best he can, and as he goes he finds himself collecting other children of various nationalities to take to safety.

On the whole I quite enjoyed this gentle, heart-warming story, but not nearly as much as the other Shute novels I’ve read. Published in 1942, it must have been written during the early days of the war, when France had capitulated and Britain was standing alone against the mighty Nazi war machine; and is clearly directed at those people in Britain and America who were at home worrying, while Europe raged and British sons and grandsons were already in the Forces, fighting in several arenas and preparing for the day when they would be strong enough to liberate France and drive the Nazis back. It is designed to show the innate goodness, generosity and courage of the Brits, as opposed to the nasty Germans and the cowardly French, and our expectations that the Americans, if they would not fight with us, would at least provide sanctuary for refugees. It’s not quite propaganda, but it comes close, as much contemporaneous wartime fiction did.

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Some of the attitudes irritated me. That it was considered best to get English children back to England makes perfect sense, and yes, I could even see that some French parents might have wished to send their children to Britain or America if they could. But when Howard started randomly picking up children who had been separated from their families and deciding that they too should be sent to America rather than trying to find their relatives or leaving them with local authorities, it seemed high-handed in the extreme. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to these little children after the war – would they ever be reunited with their families? And I imagined grandparents discovering their son or daughter was dead and their grandchildren had mysteriously vanished for ever without a word or sign. The children themselves, those who had been orphaned, seemed remarkably easily comforted by the idea that they’d be going to the utopian Land of the Free – what’s a dead parent or two in comparison with the chance to learn English and play baseball? I think it was when the Nazi wanted Howard (his enemy, remember) to take his child too that I felt Shute had pushed it too far.

Nevil Shute

This has been more critical than I initially intended. It is quite a sweet story, a bit slow and rather repetitive, but quite cosy, if such a thing can be said about a story set in a country occupied by the Nazis. But as I thought about it to write my review I realised I had real reservations about the underlying messages in it (confirming my general view that thinking is a Bad Thing and should be avoided at all costs). Understandable, of course, given the time of writing, since clearly the readership of the time would have wanted the British and Americans to be portrayed as the good guys (which in that particular war we largely were, at least in Europe), even to the point of suggesting some kind of innate superiority. But I have to say that reading it with modern eyes, I found it a little too sycophantic towards our American cousins and a little too self-congratulatory about our own perfections as a people. In terms of tension in the storytelling, the book begins with Howard relating the story to a man in his London club, so we know from the beginning that he and the children made it to England safely. Again, I can well see that at the time the readership probably did not want to be reading books that left them tense and scared over the fate of fictional children when their real lives were already full of fear for their own children, but it does mean that there’s never any real sense of dread, even when Howard and the children meet with dangerous situations along the way. A wartime comfort read for those waiting and worrying at home, and I’m sure it would have been better appreciated by its intended readership than by cynical old me.

I listened to the audio book narrated by David Rintoul, and he did a very good job.

Audible UK Link

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

War and peace, and cattle…

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A Town Like AliceWhen solicitor Noel Strachan makes a will for an elderly client, it seems straightforward – the client’s nephew will inherit all his money. But the war intervenes and, like so many young men, the nephew dies. So when the client also dies a couple of years after the war, the money goes to his niece, Jean Paget, but with a clause that makes Strachan her trustee until she is thirty-five. This brings the two together, and elderly Strachan develops a sentimental attachment to young Jean. Over the next few years, they write long letters to each other, and it’s from these that Strachan is now telling us Jean’s story.

When the war broke out, Jean was working as a typist in colonial Malaya and, along with a group of other English people, was taken prisoner by the Japanese. The men were promptly sent to a prisoner of war camp. The women and children were not so lucky. Marched for hundreds of miles around Malaya while the Japanese tried to find somewhere to leave them, illness and exhaustion was too much for some of them. The hardier ones eventually found themselves a kind of refuge in a small village where they waited out the war. Now that Jean has come into some money, she wants to pay the villagers back for their kindness, and so starts her new journey, first to Malaya and then all the way to Willstown, an old mining town in the outback of Australia, where she finds a new challenge on which to turn her resourceful nature.

What a great storyteller Shute is! His style is oddly plain – no great poetic flourishes or literary tricks. But he brings a whole range of characters to life: the rather lonely widower Strachan, the women and their captors in Malaya, the people in the Australian outback and, of course, Jean herself. He doesn’t fill the pages with descriptions of their emotional inner life – he simply tells the often horrific story of the women’s march and leaves the reader to do the work with her own imagination. It’s far more effective than if every emotional twinge was handed to the reader on a plate. It leaves space for each reader to imagine how she would have coped – would she have survived?

Nevil Shute

For me, the Malayan section is quite a bit stronger than the Australian section, because of the sense of danger and uncertainty and the picture of the cruelty so many prisoners suffered at the hands of the Japanese. The Australian section has a more domestic feel – not a bad thing, simply less to my taste. However, we are given a great depiction of the primitive style of life in these isolated towns at that time, cut off from their neighbours by the huge distances of Australia, so unfamiliar to those of us on this crowded little island of Great Britain. Jean finds that girls don’t stay in Willstown – there’s no work for them and no form of entertainment. They’re not even allowed to go into the one bar in town – strictly men only. So they leave for the cities as soon as they’re old enough, and that makes it hard to keep single men on the cattle ranches too. Jean decides that somehow she must make Willstown into a town like Alice Springs, with enough opportunities for work and fun to keep young people around.

I’ll be honest – at this stage I began to find Jean intensely irritating. She seems to be the only one in town who ever has an idea, or is capable of making a plan. Everyone else, men and women alike, mostly stand around either doubting her or gasping in amazement at her ingenuity. But fortunately there had been enough before that stage to prevent this section from dragging the book too far down, and I liked the other characters, especially Strachan. Don’t get me wrong – I liked Jean too, I just wanted to roll my eyes at her every now and again when she came up with a new cunning plan. But I loved learning all about the cattle ranching, and the way the isolated homesteads kept in touch by radio, and the sense of community that exists even across the huge distances between the ranches, with neighbours pitching in to help out in a crisis.

I was considerably less tickled by the constant racism that infests the book, both in Malaya and Australia, and the fact that Shute clearly held these attitudes himself. But it was standard for the time, so I was able to overlook it for the most part. I could imagine it might be harder to overlook if you were an Australian Aboriginal person being forced to read this in school, though – I wondered if it’s on the curriculum. I also wondered if Australians were OK with the idea that a young woman from England needed to solve all the problems they were clearly incapable of solving for themselves. But then I told myself to shut up and stop over-analysing, and just enjoy the story, which I did!

Robin Bailey
Robin Bailey

Robin Bailey’s narration is great. He has the perfect accent for Strachan – that very proper English post-war voice that we’re all so used to from films of the era. But he also does what sounds to me like a very good Australian accent, and he reads the book as if he’s totally involved in Jean’s story himself, just like Strachan is.

Rose recommended this one to me after I’d enjoyed On the Beach, and I’m very glad she did. An excellent read or listen, and I’m looking forward to exploring more of Shute’s work – I think I can now count myself as a fan!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

This is the way the world ends…

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A devastating nuclear war has been fought across the world, wiping out almost all life. Only in the far South have people survived, so far, but they know that the poisonous fallout is gradually heading their way and the scientists have told them there is nothing they can do to save themselves. We follow a group of characters in the city and suburbs of Melbourne as they figure out how to spend their last few months of life…

Shute’s depiction of the end of the world is a bleak and hopeless one, but it’s shot through with the resilience of the human spirit. This stops the read from being quite as bleak as the story – just. In most dystopian fiction, there are options even at the worst of times: will humanity rise again, or sink into savage brutality? Will some feat of courage or science stave off the end and bring about a resurrection, perhaps a redemption? There’s none of that in this. Any time anyone hopes that survival may be possible, that hope is promptly and definitively dashed by the scientists. So all there is is one question – how will the people choose to live and die? As civilised humans or as terrified beasts? It’s the ‘50s, so take a guess…

Born out of Cold War fears of nuclear holocaust, this is a terrifying look at how easily humankind might bring about its own destruction. While that fear no longer consumes us to the same degree – oddly, since our combined nuclear arsenal now is even greater than it was then and a narcissistic moron has control of the biggest button – we have replaced it with other terrors: new pandemics, the failure of antibiotics, soil exhaustion, over-population, water wars, and of course our old friend, global climate change. We are uniquely creative in finding ways to bring our species to the brink of extinction, so the question of whether we will face our communal death with dignity is ever present. Shute chooses to suggest that we will. I’m not so sure.

Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire in the 1959 movie version

It’s very well written with the characterisation taking the forefront – the war and science aspects are there merely to provide the background. Peter and Mary Holmes are a young couple with a new baby. Peter is a man, therefore he understands the science and has accepted the inevitable. Mary is a woman, therefore the science is way beyond her limited brain capacity (it’s the ‘50s) and she’s in a state of denial, planning her garden for the years that will never come. Peter is in the Australian navy, and has been assigned as liaison to the last American submarine to have survived, under the command of Captain Dwight Towers. Dwight knows his wife and two children back in America must be dead, but he is clinging to the idea that they will all be together again, in some afterlife that he doesn’t quite call heaven. Peter and Mary introduce Dwight to a friend of theirs, Moira Davidson, a young woman intent on partying her way to her end. These four form the central group through whose experiences we witness the final months. Gradually, one by one, more northern cities fall silent as the invisible cloud creeps closer.

If you’re expecting action, then this is not the book for you. The things that happen are small – difficulties with milk supplies, decisions having to be made about how to deal with farm animals, the heart-wrenching subject of what to do about domestic pets, whom the scientists think will survive for a few weeks or months longer than humans. Is suicide morally permissible when death is inevitable? Do people pack the churches or the pubs, or both? How long do people keep going to their work, to keep the streets clean, the shops open, the lights on? It’s a slow-moving but fascinating and rather moving depiction of an undramatic end – all the bombs and war and destruction occurred far away; for the people of Melbourne, nothing has outwardly happened and yet every part of their existence has been irrevocably changed.

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I found myself wondering how such a book would be written today. I imagine it would be filled with roving gangs, pillaging their way through the remainder of their lives, raping and murdering as they went. There would be desperate attempts to dig shelters, stockpile resources, store seeds and genetic material against a possible distant future. Perhaps people would be looking to escape into space, or build protective suits or find a way to place themselves in stasis. Refugees would flood southwards in advance of the cloud and turf wars would break out over territory and food. Rich people would be holed up in gated communities with armed guards to protect their useless hoards of gold and jewels. And poor people, just as stupid and greedy, would be looting everything they could lay their hands on. There would be screaming, hysteria, fights, panic, drunkenness, crazy cults and orgies. People would be leaping like lemmings from cliffs. No doubt thousands of young people would be recording it all on their iPhones, hoping against hope that they’d go viral just once before they die, while TV executives would have turned it into a mass reality show, complete with emoting diary room scenes… “So how do you feel about knowing you’re going to die horribly…?”

Nevil Shute

But in Shute’s version, there’s an acceptance, a kind of politeness about the whole thing, where everyone remains concerned about each other more than themselves, and people continue to pay attention to the instructions of the authorities. No refugees – people simply stay where they are until the fallout gets them, and then they quietly die. Were people’s attitudes different in the ‘50s because of books like this, or were books written like this because people’s attitudes were different? It’s this kind of stoic decency that makes me so nostalgic for that world, even though I suspect it never really existed. If humanity succeeds in bringing about our own extinction, then I’d love to think we could face it with this level of dignity. But I don’t.

A thought-provoking and intelligent portrayal of one possible end – well written and with excellent characterisation, and which, as so much early science fiction does, tells us as much about the time in which it was written as the future it’s ostensibly about. Not perhaps the most cheerful read in the world, but thoroughly deserving of its status as a classic of the genre.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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