I read a lot of Nevil Shute’s work in my early teens, his storytelling gifts leaving me gripped and transported away from everyday life. Most memorable was On the Beach. I read it under the bedclothes with a torch, finishing around 3am, its post-holocaust, end-of-the-human race world so vivid, and terrifying in a silent Australian night suburb that I still remember it clearly.
Discussing this with a friend, she confessed she’s also been a fan, and said being Australian-born I had to read In the Wet, set in the Australian Outback, which I’d missed as a child. The same storytelling skill is evident here, even if the structure is so tricksily clever, and rather clunkily symbolic (the bush animals gathered around the flooded hut, watching a moment of death and rebirth) that it reminds me of that modern phenomena the just-graduated-from-creative-writing-MA first novel.
Written in 1953, the novel, read now, works as a portrait of its own time. It is horrifying in its language around race issues, although not viciously so – and probably progressive for its time in that the uncomplicated pilot hero who saves the Queen (a high-ranking pilot who has risen from a poor background) is part-Aboriginal. And while quite positive in its portrait of women characters, it is a reminder that the idea any senior official might be female was then entirely unimagineable. They can however be very capable, Oxford-educated secretaries.
And it also reveals Shute’s deeply rightwing politics – something that as a young teen I was unaware. That’s evident in his future history – most of the book is set in his idea of the Eighties, in which the British and colonial (Australia/Canadian) politics have gone in different ways. British still has a one-person-one-vote democracy, and consequently a populist government of low-capacity Labour Party MPs, while the colonies have opted for a system in which people who in various ways have been “successful” get their voting counting in multiples of up to seven. On Shute’s account this produces a much “better” government of successful men who rule far more wisely.
Lying behind the difference are two very old ideas – the fear of democracy and the demagogue, and the assumption that rank and success are a measure of merit – but must, I’d think, also reflect ideas that must have been around at the time Shute was writing, although I’ve not come across them before.
Britain too is entirely socialist – in the old sense of the government owning means of production and indeed here all of housing, and is strongly centrally planned. In a Britain where a neoliberal oligarchical consensus today rules, that sounds very odd indeed, but is interesting that in the Fifties this looked like a likely future.
So In the Wet is an interesting read still, and being a typical Shute transports you for a couple of hours to another world with a gripping narrative and interesting characters. His work has gone out of fashion since his death, and I’m not sure that I can make sufficient claims of literary merit or importance to suggest it should come back. That’s not to say he’s not still worth reading.