Every so often I like to say something in this blog about a favourite aviation book, and Nevil Shute’s 1951 novel Round the Bend certainly qualifies as a favourite. I’ve read a few Shute novels before (and since, and I’m still missing a few) but this one along with A Town Like Alice, ranks among his best works, in my opinion. It is said that Shute himself regarded Round the Bend as his finest novel.
The “Supreme Storyteller” strapline that Pan paperbacks of this era applied to Nevil Shute is not unjustified. Shute’s style is instantly absorbing and draws the reader in completely. Round the Bend is no exception. The hero and narrator is Tom Cutter, a matter of fact working-class man from Southampton, who explains in a very homespun first-person style how he got into aviation as a boy by simply hanging around helping the ground staff at Sir Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus when it visited Hamble in the early 1930s. Cutter works for Cobham, and when the Air Circus is wound up in the mid-30s Cutter gets a job with a large British concern carrying out aircraft repair and maintenance. During Second World War, Cutter is posted to Egypt to head the employer’s repair organization in the Middle East . He also embarks on a disastrous wartime marriage which results in a “Dear John” letter and his wife’s suicide on his return to the UK at the end of 1945. Finding that postwar England is no place for him, he purchases and restores a De Havilland Fox Moth and flies it by stages to Bahrein. Why Bahrein? Cutter explains in his narrative that if you look on the map and find the hottest, most uncomfortable piece of territory, you will find business opportunities which many other Englishmen will not even consider. “A British pilot would rather go bankrupt than get Prickly Heat.”
From this small start he builds an air-freight business, servicing the burgeoning oil industry in the Arabian Gulf. While delivering a load to Indonesia, Cutter encounters an old friend from his days in Cobham’s Flying Circus. Constantine “Connie” Shaklin has had a varied career in aviation as a ground engineer in the United States, Canada and Thailand, but most recently been working for an American gun-runner and mercenary who supplies arms to Indonesian rebels fighting for independence from the Netherlands. At the time of their meeting, the gun-runner has been shot down and is awaiting imprisonment. Cutter recruits Connie and acquires the gun-runner’s remaining aircraft.
Connie is something of a mystic with eclectic religious interests. Even as a British Citizen of mixed Chinese and Russian ethnicity, he starts bringing the tenets of the Koran (and later the words of Buddha) into the maintenance shop. The standard of work in the hangar improves dramatically, and word of the “New Maintenance” spreads from Bahrein to Karachi, across the Indian sub-continent and into Thailand and Indonesia. Is a religion or is it simply quality control using religious principles? Various of Shaklin’s followers have their own views. Cutter is interested to see that Muslims and Buddhists are able to see Shaklin’s wisdom and even to a small extent to worship or meditate together, as he and his Sikh Chief Pilot also do at different stages in the book.
Along with a few others around the Web I’ve spent some time trying to identify some of the thinly disguised (and some undisguised) aircraft which appear in the narrative. Some, like the Fox Moth, Dakota and Liberator (to name but three) are not renamed or disguised either because they do not affect the narrative structure sufficiently or would detract from the narrative is they were renamed. I smiled when Tom Cutter mentioned “a new thing called an Airspeed Ferry” when reminiscing about Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus. Airspeed Ltd. as the reader may know, is the company that Nevil Shute Norway co-founded with Cobham serving as a director, so it’s charming in a way that Shute couldn’t resist the temptation to name-check one of his own creations.
After the Fox Moth, the next aircraft Tom Cutter wants to acquire is a Basing Airtruck, which appears to most observers to be a thinly disguised Miles Aerovan. I’ve been racking my brain trying to see what the connection is between Basing and the many iterations of Miles Aircraft, and one day I’ll come up with something plausible. The Aerovan first flew in 1945, and only 52 were produced over the two years or so that it was in production. One example was even acquired by the Israeli Air Force and used for a month in 1948 before it was destroyed. In the novel, Cutter acquires two Airtrucks for his business.
The next aircraft that Tom Cutter acquires is a Cornell Carrier, which formerly belonged to the American gun-runner. The true identity of the Carrier has been something of a mystery. It’s not a Dakota, sine they crop up by name throughout the novel. We learn it’s a large American aircraft with twp big Pratt and Whitney engines, and that Tom Cutter had never dreamed of getting one since they were outside his league . I’ve read a couple of comments on the Web that the Carrier must be a Fairchild C-82 Packet, but I’m not convinced. I would suggest that the real identity of the Cornell Carrier is the Curtiss C-46 Commando, if only because it shares the same initials as the Cornell Carrier. Despite being demonized by some of the upper echelons of the US Army, the C-46 was produced in large numbers (around 2100 built), many of which found their way into civilian use and several of which continue to be used to this day.
In the novel, Cutter’s business expands across the East to the point at which he needs to acquire yet another large freight aircraft. The aircraft he wants is a Plymouth Tramp, since he can’t get another Carrier. The Tramp, he says is a large aircraft and the British counterpart to the Carrier although a little easier to load. The acquisition lands him in trouble with the British community in Bahrein (all except the oil company, that is) since one of the local sheikhs makes him an interest free loan for religious reasons.
So, what does a Plymouth Tramp look like? To me, it’s not too much of a geographical and semantic stretch to get from “Plymouth Tramp” to “Bristol Freighter.” First flown in 1946 and in production between 1946 and 1958 (and in use for longer than that) it seems the logical choice for a heavy lifting freight aircraft of the type needed by Cutter’s airline in the late 1940s and very early 1950s. I have a few personal memories of making Airfix models of Bristol Mk.32 Superfreighters as a boy, and in fact I found a few pieces of one of them in my modelling spares box the other day. Those clamshell nose doors were always a big thing for us. See the picture below.
There is much more I could say about the book, including the locations and political background. Some of the attitudes of postwar Britain suffuse the narrative. The character of Tom Cutter is unusual in that he rejects the casual imperialist line of the British Empire and finds that by using local labour, and local or Asian aircrew, he can make a considerable profit in his business. I read an article years ago which named a British aviation entrepreneur who was said to be Shute’s model for the character of Tom Cutter, although I can’t find it at the moment. Cutter’s purpose in writing the book, he says, is to record his interactions with Connie Shaklin, and consider his own role in helping Shaklin spread his knowledge and philosophy. The nature of Shaklin’s philosophy, and the nature of Shaklin himself is one of the bigger questions, and honestly, it’s worth reading the book to find out more.