Reviews

Cornwall's industrial legacy, and our regular look at engineering in fiction.

Engineers in fiction: Nevil Shute

Few engineers go on to become successful authors. However, aeronautical engineer Nevil Shute (whose full name was Nevil Shute Norway) wrote an entire bookshelf of highly acclaimed works of fiction - even some with an engineering bias.

Penning more than 20 books - which were published between the 1920s and 1960s - he brought to life stories of romance and adventure with a skill that can take you back through time. His tales speak of an era seemingly more innocent; a time of true gentlemen and highly cordial manners. Many were so successful they spawned movie adaptations.

Among his most popular books was 'No Highway'. The novel tells the tale of anti-hero Theodore Honey, an eccentric engineer whose love of work affects his social skills. A widower left to bring up his daughter alone, he gets by as best as he can, spending his free time working on projects of all kinds, including space rockets and supernatural forces.

The book begins by focusing on the research undertaken within the Structural Department of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, moving on to concentrate on Honey's work into the fatigue of aluminum airframes and the possible failure time of the high aspect ratio tailplane of a new airliner, the Rutland Reindeer. This grabs the attention of his superior and so begins a frantic rush to prove Honey's theory correct and ground these planes, averting disaster.

In an impressively gripping chapter, Honey is kept out of his comfort zone while travelling to a crash site. He discovers he's onboard one of the at-risk Reindeers, and he's desperately trying to persuade the pilot to turn the plane around.

Many of Shute's novels involve aviation, and multiple parallels to 'No Highway' can actually be found in Shute's engineering career. At one point, he was chief of engineering on a project to build aircraft capable of offering regular transatlantic travel, which also ended up in a fatal air accident.

More can be read about his career in his autobiography, Slide Rule.

If these titles go down well, try A Town Like Alice, which takes you through the trials that faced prisoners of war in Malaya during the Second World War. Faced with exhaustion, illness and death, it's a tale of overcoming insurmountable odds and finding love in the process. Surviving the horrors, the protagonists begin a new life in Australia, helping build up an outback village into "a town like Alice".

Although there are no central engineer-based characters, you can see engineering thought processes appear as the town is constructed, and in many of Shute's novels you can see the engineering mind behind the author.

Both a great writer and engineer, Shute's novels are easy reads that are highly enjoyable, whatever your age or engineering background. Pick up one as a taster and see for yourself...

Keri Allan

The Winter Vault

Anne Michaels
Bloomsbury, £16.99

If you ask most people to describe an engineer, they are unlikely to use words like 'compassionate' and 'artistic'. However, these are some of the strongest traits of engineer Avery Escher in The Winter Vault, whom we first meet as he oversees the moving of the Ancient Egyptian temple of Abu Simbel. The novel - which essentially charts the love between Avery and his wife Jean - begins in 1964 as the famous temple statues are being cut into pieces, prior to the site flooding under the waters soon to be created by the Aswan High Dam.

The humanisation of Avery is appealing: his concern that moving Abu Simbel will destroy its holiness; his worry about the displacement of thousands of Nubians whose villages are fated to disappear under the new reservoir; and his sensitivity that when he looks at a building he somehow sees inside the mind of the architect. It is, he says, "a man's mind laid bare in the positioning of each doorway and window, in the geometric relationship between windows and walls."

Avery is foremost a great engineer - with all the technical skills and passion for the subject that this requires - but he is also a lover, a devoted son, and a man struggling to make sense of the world. Avery's attempts to clear his mind of science and mathematics will ring true to many engineers: "Each night he floated down from Alexandria, through the delta of date palms, past isolated dahabiyah, with their loose sails, beached on the banks. Each night before sleep, to dispel the day's equations and graphs, he made this journey in his mind."

As this excerpt shows, the writing is poetic in style, perhaps not surprising given the author, Anne Michaels, is also a prize-winning poet. Michaels' use of language continues to flow when she tackles technical words, with no awkward changing of style.

An overriding sadness permeates the book, dealing as it does with grief, personal loss and displacement. The horrors of the Second World War also rise from many pages, making this a thoughtful read. The lack of chapters and the jumping about of the story in time and location can be irritating at first, and may not suit all readers - however, if the idea of a juxtaposition of poetic literature and engineering appeals, then you are unlikely to be disappointed by this book.

'The Winter Vault' is Michaels' second novel. Her first 'Fugitive Pieces' won both the Orange Prize and the Guardian Fiction Award in 1997.

Reviewed by science writer and broadcaster Sharon Ann Holgate

Transport and Industrial Heritage: Cornwall

John Vaughan
Ian Allan Publishing, £14.99

Cornwall, if you were to believe the locals, isn't really a part of the UK. They talk about "going up country" and "crossing the Tamar to England". What's more, they have a point. Cornwall is qualitatively different from anywhere else in England. It has no motorways, no major industrial conurbations, just miles and miles of glorious coastline, spectacular moorlands, and some of the greatest gardens in the world. For many of the five million or so tourists who visit Cornwall each year, it must seem they're holidaying in an Arcadian backwater, untouched by the Industrial Revolution.

The reality is, of course, very different. The geologically-distant volcanic upheavals responsible for Cornwall's granite moorlands and cliffs also created extensive lobes of commercially important minerals. The deep mining of these mineral deposits from the early 1700s onwards put Cornwall at the very forefront of the Industrial Revolution, and at the industry's peak, around 1850, Cornwall was the world's leading centre for metalliferous mining. Mining spawned a host of related industrial activities: great foundries developed to supply the machinery needed to operate the mines, harbours were built to export the extracted ore and refined metals, and transport systems were created to carry goods and materials to and from the mines.

Cornish mining went into terminal decline around 1860, and much of the infrastructure associated with mining and its related industries has long since vanished. However, some notable examples remain; it's just a case of knowing where to begin looking. John Vaughan's book, small enough to fit comfortably into an anorak pocket, is a very reasonable place to start.

The most obvious legacy of Cornish mining is the ruined engine houses that dot the old mining areas, and Vaughan makes a good job of identifying the sites most deserving of a visit, including the cliff-hanging Crown Engines at Botallack Mine, where the mine shaft descended 1,360ft below sea level, and the Levant Mine near St Just, where on 'steam days' volunteers fire-up the 27in
whim engine.

The treatment of other aspects of Cornwall's industrial legacy is somewhat mixed, with the remaining extraction industries, quarrying and china clay faring best. The china clay industry, which has utterly transformed the landscape north of St Austell, got into its stride in the early 1900s, neatly filling the gap left by the decline of metalliferous mining. However, the mini-survey approach works less well with the likes of farming, which has to operate within complexities of modern EU agricultural policies. The section on fishing - dismissed in just five pages - faces similar problems.

Covering both industry and transport in a single relatively short book is an ambitious objective, but in the Cornish context is undoubtedly the right approach. The generally undulating nature of Cornwall's terrain and the county's relative isolation from the rest of the UK, pose significant challenges to the movement of goods and people, and has played a major role in Cornwall's industrial development.

Here, again, the coverage of the different topics varies in its effectiveness. Trains come out best, which, given Brunel's involvement in the Cornwall Railway, which first linked Plymouth and Truro in 1859, is hardly surprising.

The treatment of the modern bus service works less well - details of recent amalgamations among local bus companies are surely an extreme minority interest.

Minor quirks aside, this is a thoroughly useful book that will provide the visitor with a new, better informed perspective of the reality of Cornish life. It's copiously illustrated with photographs, many of significant historical interest.

Reviewed by Roger Dettmer, former E&T features editor now resident in Cornwall

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