Chocks Away!



There are certain books your dad had on his dad shelf, and if he was anything like my father, he’ll have had a few dogeared Nevil Shutes and Eric Amblers.

I was going to feature these two authors in my forthcoming book ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ from Quercus, but the editors feel that Shute and Ambler are too well-known. I’m not sure I agree with them, though, as few readers I’ve spoken to can recall ever reading them.

Unknown-1After a wartime spent in departments like weapons development, Nevil Shute revelled in the delight of aeronautics, and wrote uncomplicated thrillers starring adventurous gung-ho pilots who used lots of flying jargon. Eric Ambler was a similar author, and produced sophisticated Europe-set 1930s thrillers, but what links them is their ability to tell 20th century stories filled with enthralling action sequences and characters you care about, linking events into larger political settings.Unknown

This basic storytelling skill lately seems to have become buried within lengthier, more self-important volumes lately, so it’s a shock to note the brevity of most Shute and Ambler novels. Like their heroes and heroines, the authors get in, do the job well and get out.

Nevil Shute’s actual surname was Norway. Like many writers in the twenties and thirties, he was fascinated by flying, so his heroes are often independent pilots. In the fifties, he switched his locations to Australia and wrote his two most famous books, the post-apocalyptic ‘On The Beach’ and ‘A Town Like Alice’, in which a young Englishwoman and an Australian cattleman survive starvation and torture during the war in Malaya, and later found a new outback town (memorably mentioned by Pete and Dud).

Sadly, uncomplicated novels about fundamentally good people are unfashionable now, and Shute and Ambler have become a minority taste.


15 comments on “Chocks Away!”

  1. Vivienne says:

    Yes – Ambler was definitely one of my Dad’s favoured authors, so it took me quite some time to think I might enjoy him too. Am now in the position of hoping that there still might be one or two of his left still to encounter. Still, looking at the illustrations, I see I can now enjoy the films as well. I also like the fact that the women in these books are pretty independent and self-reliant.

    Recently read A Town Like Alice, and agree absolutely with get in, do the job well and get out for these authors. Geoffrey Household is another chap with similar adventurous tales.

  2. Brooke says:

    Yes, bring back Shutes and Ambler. They were certainly not on my dad’s shelf; I discovered them in the days when I was rummaging in bookstores. Good, “get the job done” writers. And Household’s Rogue is not to be missed.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    Read Nevil Shute’s “Pied Piper” in the seventies and liked it. Had one over on Dad-it was on my shelf not his.

    The photo of Shute is amazing. Although he went to live in Australia he was British, yet his pic makes him look like a text book Aussie from Central Casting. Were his parents Australian or did he mutate into one whilst living there?

  4. DC says:

    In some respects it is “nice” to indulge in a bit of comfort reading. I recently re-read No Highway in the Sky and have re-visited a couple Hammond Innes’ novels. Also toss in some Allingham (recommendation from here) and add a regular dose of Conan-Doyle.

    Also discovered the 1950s ITV series, Colonel March of Scotland Yard available on Amazon Video (half hour detective stories starring the excellent Boris Karloff), so I am definitely going through some sort of vintage appreciation phase.

    I do agree there is an attraction to, as you put it “get in, do the job well and get out” story-telling.

  5. Ian Mason says:

    Properly titled “Colonel March of the Department of Queer Complaints” (Does that have a familiar ring?) is showing on Freeview in the London region on the local London Live channel. The next one’s tomorrow at 6am.

    As to Nevil Shute – coincidental I’ve had two conversations recently where my mention of “On The Beach” produced remarks of “What?” and “Eh?” respectively. If that particular work is forgotten by the general public then I don’t think it’s a stretch for Admin to add him to the list of forgotten authors.

  6. anthony williams says:

    The Mask of Dimitrios is a great read and a rather wonderful film. When I was a lot younger I wondered if it was a sort of sequel to the Maltese Falcon, on the basis that both starred Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. Reading the novel disabused that delusion.

    Likewise Nevil Shute is a great read, and after I and my then partner read it, we could only go to Alice. An interesting place, but quite a long way to go to visit.

  7. Trace Turner says:

    You were almost right, but it was my mother who read Nevil Shute. I inherited some of those and have them in my “must read someday” pile. My father was more of a Horatio Hornblower fan (also in the “to read” pile”

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Shute had an odd mystic element in his writing, too. And I can’t push “Slide Rule” too much. On the Beach was a mandatory read through the sixties, although it is one of the few Shutes I haven’t read. It’s on my pile. Ambler was certainly around our house, but I think it was Mother who read them along with Rex Stout. My Grandmother was Erl Stanley Gardner – that favourite of crossword setters.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Please, a moment for a question. I just finished watching “Made in Dagenham”, which did wonderful things for my circulation. They filled that shop with real women, loved it. It was so hot they had to strip off their outer clothes to work? Anyway, what is a paternity director? That was in the credits and I’m almost afraid to discover the answer, but really, paternity director?

  10. snowy says:

    The answers are very prosaic, I’m afraid.

    Slipping off your dress, and then putting your work coat on over your undies was quite usual in the summer. They were working in an uninsulated ‘shed’, freezing in winter and in summer the wriggly tin roof would heat up like a frying pan and radiate heat down into the space. Add in the extra heat from all the machines and the sheer sweat of hauling sheets of heavy vinyl around, it would have been very sticky.

    There is a quote from one of the Producers, Elizabeth Karlsen.

    “Q: What was the most memorable moment on the set?

    EK: The director’s wife had a baby, so he left the set late at night after wrap. You’ll see that Stephen Woolley had a credit as “Paternity Director” — the first ever.”

    It suggests that Directorial duties were passed over to Stephen Woolley, while Nigel Cole was helping with the new baby.

  11. John Griffin says:

    Some authors have seem to have a great ‘different ‘ book in them – On The Beach affected me greatly as a youngster, having originally arrived at his work as adventure stories. Another example might be PD James and ‘Children of Men’.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    There, I knew Snowy could answer my question. I pretty much had the summer heat sussed out but I would never have guessed the paternity director in a million years. Thank you again.

  13. Ken Mann says:

    OK now I have to track down a copy of the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of No Highway in the Sky.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Hmm, Ken Mann, my copy is called just “No Highway” (it’s a quote from a poem.)

  15. Jan says:

    If u r going to this forgotten authors thing you should include the wonderful Mr. James Blish.
    I know I suggest this to u every five years or so but you should Chris.

    Fantastic novels and,short stories; an alien race that confirmed the existence of the devil to a priest of the Catholic church. Little people. inside submarines in puddles.

    You can forgive him a few Star Trek novels – they weren’t too bad.

    The man left the States and came to live in Runymede. Just a genius life deserving of your attention Sir.

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