Book review: Pastoral by Nevil Shute

Affecting war-time novel by a master of straightforward story-telling.

Last night Dr Wifey and I watched Sicario again. It is a brutal, cynical, violent tale, directed by Dennis Villeneuve, with great everything (performances, sound, cinematography). There’s not a lot of hugging and learning. I knew this at the outset, but still found myself looking for something to cleanse my palette a little. And so to Pastoral, one of the few Nevil Shute’s I had not read. I picked up my copy on Thursday, in Bristol, at “Beware the Leopard” bookshop (in St Nicholas Market).

Shute was an aircraft engineer turned novelist who turned (not churned) out a stream of novels between the 1920s and 50s. They usually involved middle-class people facing (usually) faceless adversity and (usually) triumphing. The nature of the “triumph” might vary – most famously in “On the Beach” everyone dies, thanks to the cloud of radiation from the Third World War finally getting to Melbourne.

Shute is probably considered hopelessly dated and even more hopelessly middle-brow. IDGAF, obvs. I recently re-read “Requiem for a Wren” and found it brilliant still (it’s a tale of not being able to leave the war behind). I wish I’d pivotted to Shute in my teens, but hey ho.

Pastoral is a straightforward tale of Peter Marshall, a competent and successful pilot of a Wellington bomber in either 1943 or more likely 1944 (the year of its publication). Peter Marshall has brought his crew through 51 missions with barely a scratch. Then he falls hopelessly, head over heels in love, and it isn’t reciprocated. Things start to go wrong, and putting them “right” is not going to be easy…

Shute is generous to all his characters, including Gervase, the woman Peter fixates on. The minor characters are well-drawn, and Shute, who spent the war doing various weapons-y tasks (see also Most Secret, and equally good, though very different novel) doesn’t waste a word.

A couple of quotes jumped out at me, as the Wing Commander on the base, Dobbie, only 30ish, is trying to figure out what to do with Peter’s drop in performance, which matters to more than just the crew in his plane.

He had among his crews a few old stagers that formed a solid backbone of experience at Hartley. However many raw and callow young men came to him, so long as he had Lines and Johnson and Marshall and Davy, and Sergeant Pilot Nutter and Sergeant Pilot Cope, he felt that the wing could play its part’ the youngsters would learn from these men and absorb their knowledge imperceptibly. The casualties were all among the newcomers from operational training schools. Nothing, it seemed, could really help these raw young men but to rub shoulders every day with the seasoned veterans of many raids. The loss of one such veteran crew was a very serious matter indeed to Wing Commander Dobbie, to be prevented at all costs. Those men were worth their weight in gold. (Shute, 1944: 115)

(Shute then illustrates that directly late in the novel)

A few pages later (I suspect editing was not top of everyone’s priorities in 1944) we get a very similar argument

He had a duty in this matter to perform. One of his best and most reliable crews had suddenly deteriorated and had put up an extremely poor performance after Mannheim. It was his duty to try and get them back to their original state of efficiency, because the example of the old hands influenced the raw young crews that came to him from operational training. He had so few of the old stagers left, the men who knew all the angles, who had great experience. If one of them went wrong, it was his duty to do everything within his power to get the matter right. (Shute, 1944: 120)

There’s very little on this novel (Shute is not “literary” enough to warrant attention). though there is a chapter by a chap called David Weir in a book about leadership.

There is of course a rich literature about the air war over Europe, novels, history, films (Memphis Belle, anyone?)

There’s also this article, on “Lack of Moral Fibre” in history/popular memory…

Dan Ellin, ‘A ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’ in Royal Air Force Bomber Command and Popular Culture’, British Journal for Military History, 6.3 (2020), pp. 42-65.

Words I didn’t know

graticule – a network of lines representing meridians and parallels, on which a map or plan can be represented

cellon – kind of comb (possibly a brand name?)

reticule – a woman’s small handbag, typically having a drawstring and decorated with embroidery or beading.

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