Nevil Shute: a Study in Impeccable Writing


I read a lot of Nevil Shute as a youngster – growing up in New Zealand, it was natural that his books should be in the library. I enjoyed them; he writes a good yarn, with plenty of action and interesting storylines, and his characters are strong and memorable, particularly the women. But it’s decades since I last read him, and the one I’m reading now I have never read before.

Requiem for a Wren is an exemplar of Shute’s work, and in particular his skill in purveying vast amounts of background through a few terse sentences. He’s a master at providing information without the reader being at all conscious that he’s doing so.

In the first paragraph of Requiem nothing much is happening. The narrator is an airline passenger, and the plane is beginning to descend. But look at how much information he packs into the first two sentences.

There was a layer of cumulus, about seven-tenths, with tops at about five thousand feet as we came to Essenden airport; we broke out of it at two thousand and we were on the circuit downwind, with the aerodrome on our starboard wing. I sat with my eyes glued to the window looking out at Melbourne, because this was my home town and I had been away five years.

I don’t mean the obvious – cloud cover and all – but rather the great deal of information which is implied. We now know that our narrator is Australian, and that he is an airman (very likely a pilot, given the breadth and complexity of his observations). As the book was published in 1955, the ‘five years’ remark gives us a pretty big clue that he was away at war, so now we know what kind of airman he is.

[The stewardess} smiled and said quietly ‘Would you like any help down the gangway, sir?’

I shook my head. ‘I’ll wait till the others are off. I’m all right if I take my time’

So… an injury or disability bad enough for him to potentially need help, but she is circumspect and he determined to be independent. That makes me think straight away about wartime injuries – and it turns out that’s exactly right. He goes on to meet the foreman from his parents’ sheep station, and discovers that there has been a death at the farm, but even then he’s more interested in the changes in the landscape since the war.

It’s only on page 12 that we begin get a sense of his injury, and this too is in typical laconic style.

Horses were still used by the boundary riders, but … my father drove all over the property in a Land Rover instead of riding on a horse as he always had when I was young. That suited me, for artificial feet are something of a handicap upon a horse. There was a great deal for me to learn about the property before I could unload some of the work from my parents, and I was keen to make a start.

Shute’s style is one I favour, with long passages of narrative interspersed with briefer dialogue and conversation. It’s somewhat out of fashion these days, when we are all being told ‘do, don’t tell’ and ‘don’t infodump’, although in Shute’s case it’s more like info-infusion, and his laid-back style suits the subject. Our protagonist is reluctant to display his disability, or any of the other ways in which war has changed him, and it becomes increasingly clear that this same reticence applies to the other characters in the novel, including the dead girl, whose story rapidly takes centre stage. So much is conveyed in these sparse, careful sentences that by the time he reaches the revelation at the bottom of page 53, it comes with a sense of inevitability. It could only have been this way.

I’m not going to tell you the story. Not all of you will want to read the book, but you can read the first few pages online. Have a look, and see whether you have anything to learn from this master of understated prose.

V E Day – two men, two very different stories.

196100700Lt Wm Marjot 1944

George Bearman in 1961, with my mother (she is wearing a wedding dress made by my grandmother from found materials).

Lt William Marjot, 1944.

This 70th anniversary of V.E. Day I’m remembering members of my family who lived through the Second World War. These are not attested facts – they are my recollection of stories I heard growing up, and I apologise in advance to other members of my family who may know different stories, or different versions. Each family has its own war stories, and these reflect only some aspects of the reality of world war.

William Marjot was my paternal grandfather. He actually served in both world wars, having joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman when WW1 broke out. He was on board a ship that was stationed off the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli action, and remembered the lower ranks in an uproar when the RN were not allowed to engage the Turkish guns as the Turks’ range was believed to be greater. He never forgave the British powers for the numbers of Anzacs lost while the ships stood by.

At the outbreak of WW2 he was based at Devonport Naval Base in NZ where my Dad was born. His highest formal rank was Chief Petty Officer, but he was given a field commission to Lieutenant during the Baltic convoys. He was happy to accept the Looie’s pension when he retired, but was very proud of the fact he’d risen through the ranks.

He was a fearsome Chief Petty Officer and the ratings all went in awe of him – although he was only around 5’6’’ tall he apparently had a ‘presence’. I remember him as being a gentle, quietly spoken man, so it just goes to show that appearances can be deceiving! When I was a child he always refused to tell me his war stories. He believed that children, particularly girls, should be sheltered from knowing about such things. I often wonder what he saw during those times, what he experienced, but now I’ll never know. I still miss you, Grandpa Marjot.

The wartime experience of my Mum’s Dad, George Bearman, was quite different. He was deemed ‘unfit to serve’, probably due to poor physical condition – as was frequently the case with men who had grown up in the East End and had experienced poverty and malnutrition. George spent the war fighting fires and performing search and rescue operations during the blitz in London. Proof that military service was not the only way in which a man may serve his country.

By the time that I remember him, more than twenty years after the end of the war in Europe, he was a sick man, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, and my grandmother had been the main breadwinner for many years. The wartime experiences of the women in my family were in many ways even more harrowing than those of the men, but I’m not ready to tell those stories yet. Just to remember two men who were beloved figures in my life, both of whom served their fellow men in conditions of great hardship and thoroughly deserve to be called war heroes.