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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Lord Nuffield in fiction

If you thought that the founder of my college, William Morris (Viscount Nuffield), would be unlikely to turn up in a work of fiction, you would be wrong. I came across this passage in Nevil Shute's 1932 thriller Lonely Road:

I don't know what time it was when we drew up before the motor garage in Longwall Street, but I remember chucking a sovereign to Jardine to catch as we stood upon the pavement waiting for the young manager to come and open up. In that place there was a light in the offices upstairs to all hours of the night. I think he used to design cars up there by night after the work of the garage was over for the day; I remember going up there one night when I was late and drinking coffee with him and listening as he told me of the cars he had in mind to build. Cars for everybody; the cars of a dream. He was very lean and restless; he brushed his hair straight back from his forehead and he worked all night.

The context is a rather stream of consciousness opening chapter such as you would not expect from a writer who is usually regarded as a bit of a middle-brow hack.

Shute was an engineering student at Oxford immediately after WW1 and it is entirely possible that he might have made Morris' acquaintance then. It is well known that they had professional contact later when Shute was working in the aviation industry.

His reputation as a writer faded in the 1960s when he began to be perceived as stuffy and old-fashioned. Certainly there are an awful lot of stiff upper-lipped heroes and English roses at the centre of his plots. His politics - which as he got older moved sharply to the right - probably didn't appeal much to literary folk. 

Nevertheless some of his novels give you very interesting insights into the mood of the times he was writing about. For instance, What Happened to the Corbetts, written in 1938 is extraordinarily insightful about the effects of mass aerial bombing on the morale of the civilian population. Whereas in Coming Up for Air Orwell deals in rather windy generalities, Shute actually gets down to detail even if, as it turned out, he was wrong about some things.

Shute led an extremely interesting life. His father was head of the postal service in Ireland during the Easter Rebellion and actually had his office in the GPO building taken over by the rebels. In the first days of the fighting Shute and his mother, sitting in a Dublin hotel suite, actually controlled the only telephone line between Dublin and London! 

It's remarkable what a 3rd class engineering degree from Balliol can do for you.

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