Book review: Round the Bend, by Nevil Shute

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Suppose that God's next prophet is an aircraft maintenance engineer.

I read an odd novel that my wife had been recommending for years: Round the Bend, ©1951 by Nevil Shute. It's written as the autobiography of a man obsessed with airplanes from an early age, who eventually establishes an air transport business in the Persian Gulf and the Far East. It's very plainly written, and the reader learns many details about the operation of aircraft and the challenges of growing a business in that distant region in the post WWII years. In fact there are so many day-to-day details that it's almost boring — except that there is something unexpected going on among the ground crew.

The chief engineer — and he is a very, very good engineer — is inspiring the rest of the crew to do their very best work. And he is doing it by appealing to their religious beliefs. Among the Buddhists he speaks in terms of Right Thinking and Right Action; among the Islamic people he uses words from the Koran. He seems able to get men of any faith to bring that faith into the most mundane bits of their daily lives:

"...We are men of understanding and of education, on whom is laid responsibility that men may travel in these aeroplanes as safely as if they were sitting by the well in the cool of the evening. We are not men like camel drivers or shepherds, and God will demand much more from us than from them. ...

"With every piece of work you do, with every nut you tighten down, with every filter that you clean or every tappet that you set, pause at each stage and turn to Mecca, and fold your hands, and humbly ask the All-Seeing God to put into your heart the knowledge whether the work that you have done has been good or ill. Then you are to stand for half a minute with your eyes cast down, thinking of God and of the job, and God will put into your heart the knowledge of good or ill. So if the work is good you may proceed in peace, and if it is ill you may do it over again, or come to me and I will help you to do well before God."

This is thought-provoking stuff, even for an agnostic like me. Almost all of us, I think, have strong ideas about right and wrong. Even atheist Ayn Rand urged us to honor the best within ourselves. So the sermon above is the same, whether you are following God's will, or Buddha's example, or your own conscience.

But applying this to everything you do? Okay, maybe we aren't all aircraft maintenance engineers, with lives at risk if we fail to tighten a nut properly. But most of us are automobile drivers. The lives of our passengers and others on the road depend on our actions. Or perhaps we're canning food, or constructing a house, or cleaning a gun. What do we owe to those around us, and to ourselves, when we do these things?

As always, whenever I think of one "ultimate" principle of living, a couple others rear their heads in seeming contradiction. For starters, how much care do we owe to those around us? The world's best driver could be asking himself "What would Jesus do?" at every busy intersection — but he could do even better for the safety of others by staying at home and not adding one more car to the traffic congestion.

Also, in another book a wise woman once wrote "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly." In other words, if the best you can do is a bad job, it may be better to do it badly than not at all.

I think these two ideas supplement the principle put forth in Round the Bend, rather than contradicting it. The basic issue is how conscious we are of our personal moral code in the small acts of our daily lives. Frankly, this concept scares the crap out of me. Trying to do the right thing all the time? Damn! There's all sorts of fun stuff I'd have to skip, and all sorts of difficult stuff I'd have to do!

Anyway, let's bypass the question of whether I'm going to remake myself as Saint Bill, and get back to the book. The premise is that this philosophy spreads like wildfire, primarily among the aircraft engineers. It's a religion for modern times and modern people — no arbitrary rules or arcane rituals, just doing your job the way it should be done. I wonder if that could happen? A religious revival (or revolution) based on the love of doing things right?

Nevil Shute — despite being the author of the apocalyptic novel On the Beach — seems to have a positive outlook on humanity. One thing I've noticed in the two novels of his that I've read (and my wife confirms that this is generally true for the others): there are no villains. There are many people who do bad things. But they do them out of ignorance, or stupidity, or selfishness, or narrow-mindedness — all the normal human reasons. There's a lack of characters who do evil for evil's sake. I find this refreshing.

A reader in 2018 may be disappointed by the entirely secondary status of female characters in the story. But that was how much of the world was, 67 years ago. It's also part of the characterization of the first-person narrator, as is the detailed diary-like writing style: he loves his aeroplanes a lot more than he loves women. And another reason for the style of writing doesn't become clear until the second-last page.

My overall opinion: enjoyable to read, carefully crafted, and philosophically stimulating. Recommended.