Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

December Books 13) Slide Rule

13) Slide Rule: An Autobiography, by Neville Shute

Probably my last book of 2007, and it's good to end on a high note - thanks, nickbarnes, for the recommendation; it was a good call. It's a book in three parts: the first couple of chapters describe Shute's boyhood and youth, where the most exciting part is his close observation of the Easter Rising of 1916 - his father, as it happens, was the Secretary of the Irish Post Office, so there is a certain immediacy to Shute's account, from an angle one doesn't often get - that of a middle-class English teenager pressed into service as a stretcher-bearer.

Then a bit over half the book is devoted to a fascinating account of Shute's involvement with the R100, the private sector counterpart to the doomed state-funded R101 British airship. This was at the cutting edge of technology, a prestige engineering project every bit as important in its way as the moon landings, which was to open up mass travel between the continents at a time when it was thought that aeroplanes would never be able to be big enough or fast enough to satisfy the commercial demand. Shute clearly loved his own creation (he was deputy to Barnes Wallis but ended up de facto in charge) and goes into fascinating detail about the problems they faced, both technical and political; and looming over the narrative, of course, is the eventual R101 disaster, which he blames on the failings of senior civil servants as technical managers and on the general policy of having any state-run industry (and specifically the ego of Lord Thomson, the Air Minister, who paid for it with his life and the lives of dozens of others). I admit my most substantive encounter with this story before was the (excellent) Doctor Who audio Storm Warning, in which Thomson's part, renamed "Lord Tamworth", is played with considerable creative licence by Gareth Roberts (Blake from Blake's 7), but there's nothing like the real thing.

The final chunk of the book, a bit over a third of it, is Shute's account of setting up his own aircraft company, and the difficulties of running a hi-tech startup in the context of the Great Depression. Again, an interesting human tale of innovation, struggle against the odds, the difficulties of balancing the books and the personalities, the intimate involvement of people and capital; I think it ought to be required reading for anyone thinking of setting up their own business. On top of that, the looming clouds of war - in Spain, China and Ethiopia, and coming up close to home - were crucial in making the company break even by the time he was eased out with a golden handshake in 1938.

Shute isn't shy about his politics, which are certainly to the right: I guess that being caught on the wrong side of a revolution at 17, and then seeing your professional colleagues killed by the hubris of a Labour government minister, may well be formative experiences, but he also argues for the retention of the moneyed aristocracy as a source of start-up finance for innovation. I'm not in huge sympathy with him on these points, but I like his clear and occasionally self-deprecating prose; the two books of his that I have read, Pied Piper and Trustee from the Toolroom, are both rather enchanting tales of older men who accidentally go on long journeys to do good deeds, and it's interesting to see where this comes from.
Tags: bookblog 2007, bookblog: biography, writer: nevil shute
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