I do love a good old fashioned novel, full of straightforward but excellent storytelling and a nice mixture of action and romance. The kind of stories, in short, that Nevil Shute made a career of writing and of writing well. It had been ages since I last read anything by him but when I picked up Pastoral earlier this year I was reminded of just how entertaining his books are.
Published in 1944, Pastoral is set at an air force base in Oxfordshire during the Second World War. Though centered around the romance between Flight Lieutenant Peter Marshall and WAAF Section Officer Gervase Robertson, what the book does particularly well is give a sense of how bomber crews and those supporting them at command experienced the war.
After only a few encounters, Peter is certain that he wants to marry Gervase. She is lovely, good at her work, and, most importantly, knows about fishing. I think that is an excellent recommendation for any man or woman. But, rather than biding his time until he knows Gervase feels the same way about him, Peter impulsively proposes. Not surprisingly, Gervase refuses him. She is only nineteen and, though Peter is not much older, doesn’t feel the same sense of certainty or urgency that he does.
Peter, who has been flying bombers for 15 months and has been on 51 raids, has seen too many of his friends shot down or not return home after raids. He, with his 15 months of experience, is considered one of the old timers and certainly one of the very lucky few. But it isn’t the fear of being shot down that throws him off his game: it is the rejection he receives from Gervase. As the Wing Commander says, “The great adventure on this station isn’t bombing Germany…They don’t think anything of that. Falling in love is the big business here.” The usually calm and steady Peter becomes brusque with his crew and careless with his work. When grounded, this is not a major problem. In the air, it has disastrous results.
I adored the tense scenes both in Peter’s bomber and in the operations room back in Oxfordshire but, most of all, I loved the scenes with the senior officers gossiping about and despairing over their underlings’ behaviour:
The wing commander sat up suddenly. “If she’s going to marry him, I wish to hell she’d get on with it,” he said irritably. “I’m fed up with her. If young women would just stop and think before they shoot the boyfriend down, we’d have a lot more pilots.”
The old squadron leader nodded. “Girls have to be very wise these days,” he said.
“So do commanding officers,” said Dobbie. “I’m going to get a job as Aunt Ethel in Betty’s Weekly when the war’s over.”
You know things won’t end horrifically after reading exchanges like that. Of course they don’t and it is all quite excellent.