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No Highway: re-reading a book after 60 years

No HighwayNo Highway by Nevil Shute

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s interesting to re-read a book after a long time, and see whether your opinion of it has changed. I first read [authoer:Aldous Huxley]’s Brave New World when I was about 17, and found it very exciting and stimulating. I re-read it when I was 57, and after 40 years found it rather flat and dull. I’ve just finished reading No Highway after a gap of about 60 years, and found it as good as when I first read it.

It was interesting to see what I remembered and what I had forgotten. I was about 13 or 14 when I first read it, when I was still crazy about aeroplanes and wanted to be a pilot. By the time I was 15 my ambitions had dropped, and my main interest was cars. From the age of 11 to 14 most of what I read had something to do with aeroplanes, and if No Highway had not been about aeroplanes I would probably not have read it at all.

When I first read the book the most memorable things were the technical bits to do with the aircraft. I could recall the love story vaguely, but I could not recall the British Israelite angle at all, though it is quite prominent in the story, though I did recall the part with the planchette.

De Havilland Comet

De Havilland Comet

I read it about the time that the first commercial jets, the De Havilland Comets, were in the news because of unexplained crashes. I seem to recall that when it was determined that the cause of the crashes was metal fatigue I knew what that meant because it was central to the plot of No Highway but it is possible that it was the other way round — that I understood the point of the plot because of the real-life incidents with the Comets.

It was the first book by Nevil Shute that I had read, and because I had enjoyed it I went on to read others written by him, though I still thought (and after re-reading it still think) )that No Highway was one of his best. I think it has aged well. Of course, one is aware that it belongs to its time, and that many things have changed since then. On the technical side the most obvious thing is air navigation. Back then the cabin crews were small (because the planes were smaller and carried fewer passengers) but the flight-deck crew was large, including, in addition to two pilots, a flight engineer, a navigator and a wireless operator. Advances in electronics have made the last two redundant.

Social attitudes too are different. One of the most noticeable is that sex has replaces smoking as one of the most commonly-described recreational activities. Another is that sex roles were much more rigid back then: males were useless at cooking and cleaning and buying clothes for children; females were useless at research and design.

I find the social differences interesting too, because I’m also reading a historical novel, Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. When reading historical novels I always have one eye out for anachronisms, things that the author gets wrong about the period in which the novel is set. No Highway is set in our past, but it was contemporary when it was written. So when I first read it, it was much closer to the time in which it was set and I did not notice such things, but the second time around, it gives an authentic view of a vanished past.

There are some less obvious things too. The scientist doing research on metal fatigue, Theodore Honey, also has some other interests that seem bizarre to his colleagues and associates — calculating the end of the world from the dimensions of the Great Pyramid and the like. These interests made them doubt his competence as a scientific researcher, and that would probably also be the case today too. But what his contemporaries thought was equally crazy was his designing of moon rockets, yet within 10 years the launching of artificial satellites showed that that was feasible.

Another, and perhaps a minor one, yet which strikes me as significant, is when the designer of an aircraft is announcing plans for important modifications. The accountaint asks if this will require night-shift work and overtime, except on Sundays. The chairman of the airline then asks that “in view of the extreme urgency of this matter to us, may I ask if Sunday work can be authorised?” To which the designer replies, “On no account would I agree with that. If you want work done on Sundays, you must go elsewhere. It is uneconomic upon any account, and it strikes at the root of family life, which is the basis of the greatness of this country.”

That reminded me that there was a brief period, in the middle of the 20th century, when the interests of Mr Gradgrind were eclipsed, and more basic human values were allowed to take precedence over economic ones. It lasted until the 1980s, when Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan reinstated Mr Gradgrind.

Give it another 60 years, and some things in the book may need to be annotated, because there will then be no one around who lived thourgh that period. But I thought it was a good read back then, and it’s still a good read now, and probably will be in 60 years’ time too,

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2 thoughts on “No Highway: re-reading a book after 60 years

  1. Interesting to note that Wikipaedia reports Nevil Shute as once being an aeronautical engineer.

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