Monday, May 9, 2011
Pastoral - Nevil Shute
Pastoral is set on an air field in Oxfordshire during WWII. Peter Marshall is a young pilot on his second tour of duty. He's one of the lucky ones. He has survived nearly 50 bombing raids over Germany & his crew is now a tight-knit unit. Gunnar Franck is Danish, a medical student who ended up in England & is Marshall's second pilot & navigator. Rear gunner Sergeant Phillips from York is the other member of the crew & it's Phillips who introduces Marshall to the delights of fishing. All the crew become enthusiastic fishermen in their off-duty hours & the shared hobby keeps them occupied & binds them together as friends.
On a beautiful autumn afternoon, Marshall catches an enormous pike. He's proud of his achievement but when he gets back to base, no-one seems especially interested. The fish is a great, ugly thing & no one thinks it will make good eating. Section Officer Gervase Robertson, a young woman just transferred to Hartley, takes pity on him & asks to see the fish. She even agrees to eat some of it for dinner. This is the beginning of their friendship, which for Peter, quickly turns to love. Gervase is not so sure. She was brought up in Thirsk, in the North Riding of Yorkshire. She's only 19 & feels unhappy & out of place at Hartley. The WAAF officers are supposed to stay aloof from the pilots & aircrew so Peter & Gervase's relationship begins with a few clandestine walks & bicycle rides in the country.
Peter proposes marriage after only a few meetings, but Gervase has other plans for her future. She wants to work & travel for some years before she settles down. She'd have to leave the WAAF if she married & she enjoys doing her job & doing it well. She's a Section Officer, taking down & transmitting wireless messages from the crews when they're on raids. When Gervase turns Peter down, his disappointment & misery start to impact on his work. He becomes morose & snappish with his crew &, on a bombing raid over Germany, makes a mistake that could have had serious consequences for them all. The commanding officers take a dim view of the relationship & decide to encourage Gervase to ask for a transfer to another base. Gervase has another idea. She realises that her feelings for Peter are stronger than she first thought & also that his unhappiness is causing friction among his crew as well as endangering their lives. Her solution is simple but very effective & it allows her to get to know Peter & make some decisions about their future.
Pastoral may seem an odd title for a novel about bomber pilots in WWII. Pastoral implies a novel about the country with rustic yokels & shepherdesses falling in & out of love in the green countryside. However, it's not as odd as it first seems. The Oxfordshire countryside plays a crucial role in the story. It provides the respite from the war that everyone at the base needs. Peter & his crew enjoy fishing until the season ends & they then find themselves at loose ends, snapping at each other & bored. The camaraderie so vital for their effectiveness as a crew is compromised by this lack of a common interest. Peter & Gervase's romance develops during country walks, bicycle rides, fishing expeditions & a pigeon shoot as well as the odd visit to the cinema or a dance. These outings provide a counterpoint to the dangerous reality of their daily lives.
Bomber crews spent days or even weeks in idleness, repairing their planes, practising new manoeuvres & waiting for the next mission. Taking their minds off the inevitability of danger & preventing boredom was crucial, especially when every raid resulted in at least some crews being shot down & the men killed or captured. The two bombing raids that Peter's crew undertake are described in nail-biting detail. The first raid shows just how dangerous it can be if the crew are unhappy & their officer lets them down. The second is so tense I almost stopped breathing at one point!
Pastoral was published in 1944 & it has the immediacy of being written at the time of the events described. Shute was an aeronautical engineer & his experience shows in the detail of the work of the bomber crew. There are so many beautifully observed scenes. I especially liked Gervase's visit to Mrs Carter-Hayes, the owner of an estate near the base & the day Peter & Gervase spend in London. They go to the theatre & it's the first time Peter has seen Gervase in civilian dress. There's emotion but no sentimentality in Nevil Shute's writing & it's all the more moving for it. Pastoral is an absorbing book & I'm looking forward to reading more of Nevil Shute's novels.