A Year of Twentieth Century Literature 1960 – 1969

This year I am reading 10 twentieth-century books which have not been made into films or television programmes but are excellent books anyway.

This month’s book needs to have been published between 1960 and 1969. I chose Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute.

Ebook at Auckland libraries
From The Book Depository
Look in second-hand bookshops
Look on Trade Me

It’s surprising how many bestsellers have been made into films or television series. I keep thinking I’ve got a great book to read and review but then a quick Google search shows me some sort of dramatized version, and I start my search again.  Nevil Shute had some of his books made into movies, but I found one that wasn’t and it’s a goody too.

Nevil Shute was an interesting guy. He was born in Ealing, West London in 1899. He graduated from Oxford in 1922 with a degree in engineering science, and he was an aeronautical engineer, and a pilot. He was also involved with the development of airships. During WW2 he was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, working on the development of secret weapons. And he developed the Rocket Spear – an anti-submarine missile.

Alongside his engineering work, Nevil Shute was writing novels, usually about pilots, or engineers.  In the 1950s and 1960s he was one of the world’s best-selling novelists. Most people remember him as the author of A Town Like Alice and On the Beach. Both set in Australia, where he and his family moved to from Britain, in the 1950s.  He died there from a stroke in 1960.

Trustee from the Toolroom, published in 1960 is the last book Nevil Shute wrote.

The story is set in the late fifties. It tells of a quiet, unassuming man living in a house in Ealing. (Shute was actually brought up in Ealing, and this house is based on Shute’s childhood home.) Keith is an engineer and journalist, he lives a simple, orderly existence with his peaceful, easy-going, but well-organised  wife, Katie. They agree to take care of their ten-year-old niece for a few months while her parents, Keith’s sister and her husband, sail to the West Indies, Tahiti, California and Canada.

She sat silent for a minute. ‘Poor old Keith; she said at last … ‘He goes on in that ghastly house and just makes his models…’

Both couples secretly feel a bit sorry for the other couple – the adventurous couple thinks life must be so dull for the peaceful, quiet-life couple, who feels sorry for the adventurous couple for having to live in such uncomfortable surroundings.

‘What’s it like in the boat? How do they cook anything?’ – ‘It’s like a caravan … They cook on Primus stoves.’  

‘With everything rocking about?’ – ‘I suppose so.’

‘It must be ever so uncomfortable.’ – ‘I think it is.’ He agreed.

Something goes wrong with the adventure, and Keith works out a careful plan that involves great discretion, engineering work, flights, boats, and more. He is an ordinary man who does an extraordinary, brave thing for the sake of someone he cares about.

Trustee from the Toolroom is still popular with readers today, sixty years after it was published, and it’s still in print too, which I think is remarkable. Readers describe the book as ‘absolutely brilliant’, ‘a feel-good story’ ‘heartwarming’, ‘wonderful’, and ‘superbly written’.

I agree with these descriptions. I like the way Nevil Shute writes in a very methodical manner. The story is unpacked with great attention to detail; we hear about the clothes, the food, the weather, the people… all in a way which is absorbing and mostly convincing.  And although I am a most un-techie sort of person, I do feel like I now know all about engineering, flying and sailing.  In fact, I feel like I could almost fly a DC6-b myself. And I know so much about engineering now too.  I even checked Trade Me for the machine room tools that Shute describes Keith using.   I did find a Herbert lathe like Keith’s one.  

Next month I’ll review a book that was written in the 1970s and never made into a film or television programme.

Write to me with suggestions and ideas for titles and to talk about books.

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