Round the Bend: Pages 1 through 10
ROUND the BEND
Nevil Shute, 1951
```(annotated and with added blue highlights by al-Brunardot)
In my Father's house are many mansions;
if it were not so I would have told you.
I go to prepare a place for you.
ST. JOHN 14.2
Some men of noble stock were made, some glory in the murder blade,
Some praise a Science or an Art, but I like honourable Trade!
JAMES ELROY FLECKER
I CAME into aviation the hard way. I was never in the R.A.F., and my parents hadn't got fifteen hundred pounds to spend on pilot training for me at a flying school. My father was, and is, a crane driver at Southampton docks, and I am one of seven children, five boys and two girls. I went to the council school like all the other kids in our street, and then when I left school Dad got me a job in a garage out on the Portsmouth Road. That was in 1929.
I stayed there for about three years and got to know a bit about cars. Then, early in the summer, Sir Alan Cobham came to Southampton with his flying circus, National Aviation Day, he called it. He operated in a big way, because he had about fifteen aeroplanes, Avros and Moths and a glider and an Autogiro, and a Lincock for stunting displays, and a big old Handley Page airliner for mass joyriding, and a new thing called an Airspeed Ferry. My, that was a grand turnout to watch.
I knew from the first day that to be with that circus was the job for me. He was at Hamble for three days, and I was out at the field each day from early in the morning till dark. The chaps fuelling and cleaning down the aircraft let me help them, coiling down a hose or fetching an oil drum for them to stand on; when there was nothing else that wanted doing I went round
the enclosures picking up the waste paper that the crowd had left behind and taking it away to burn in a corner of the field. It was fun just doing that, because of the aeroplanes.
I got the sack from the garage on the second day.
On the evening of their last day, I went to the foreman of the ground crew and asked him for a job. He said I was too young, and they were full up anyway. He said that he was sorry.
I went home all down in the dumps that night. I must say, Dad and Mum were good. They didn't lay in to me for getting the sack from the garage, although they might well have done. I'd told them airily that I was going to get a job with the circus, and when I went home I suppose they saw by my face I hadn't got it. They were ever so nice; Ma opened a small tin of salmon for tea to make a bit of a treat for me. The show was going on to Portsmouth, twenty miles away, and when I told them I was going over there next day, all Dad said was, "That's right. Keep trying."
I went to Portsmouth on an early bus and I was out at the airport long before the first machines flew in, helping the ground crew to put up the first enclosures round the edges of the aerodrome. The foreman scratched his head when he saw me, but they were always shorthanded so they didn't turn me off. He must have said something to Sir Alan, though, because while I was holding a post straight for another chap to hammer into the ground, Sir Alan himself came up behind me.
"Who are you?" he asked. "I thought we'd left you behind at Hamble."
"My name's Tom Cutter," I said.
"Well, what are you doing here, Tom?"
"Helping to get this post in, sir," I said. I was a bit shy at being talked to by a knight.
"Haven't you got a job?"
"Got the sack day before yesterday," I said. It sounded bad, but I didn't know what else to say.
"Is that because you spent so much time out here with us?"
"I suppose so," I said reluctantly.
He snorted. "Well, don't be such a young fool. Go back and
ask to be taken on again. There's no work for you here. What was the job?"
"I was in a garage, sir. I can't go back. They took on another boy."
"Well, we can't take you on here. We're full up. I've got hundreds of boys writing to me for jobs every day, hundreds and hundreds. I've got no jobs to give."
"Mr. Dixon told me that there wasn't any job," I said. "I just thought that if I came over while I'm doing nothing, I could help, picking up the paper and that."
He stared at me so long in silence that I felt quite awkward. I know now what a good answer that was. "I'm blowed if I know," he said at last, and turned away. I couldn't make head or tail of that.
I went on all that morning helping put up the enclosures, and when dinner time came round the foreman said I'd better go and get my dinner in the mess tent with the rest of the men. It was good of him, because being out of work I hadn't got any money to chuck around. I went and helped park the cars in the car park when they started to come in for the afternoon show, and then I watched the show again. They had stunt displays, and wing walking, and a parachute descent, and a pretty girl flying a glider. They had a public address loudspeaker system rigged up, and the announcer stood up once and said that Sir Alan Cobham had offered to let any pilot of the last war try his hand at flying again. A pilot dressed up as an old tramp came out of the crowd and did a bit of clowning with the announcer, and tripped over his umbrella and fell flat, and got into an Avro back to front and took it off the ground facing the tail, holding his hat on, waving his umbrella, and shouting blue murder, and went into the best bit of crazy flying ever seen in England, bellowing all the time to be told how to land it as he went crabbing down the enclosures three feet up, and the announcer bellowing back to him. My, that was fun! They finished up with a Gretna Green elopement of a couple in a terrible old Model T Ford, with Father chasing after them all over the aerodrome in a Moth and bombing them with little paper bags of flour and rolls of toilet paper.
I'd seen it all before, but I could have watched that show for ever. I'd go and see it again, even now.
I went and helped unpark the cars and get them away after the show. Sir Alan had been flying the Handley Page himself most of the afternoon, joyriding, taking up twenty-five passengers at a time. He handed over to another pilot at about five o'clock and came through the car park to his caravan for his tea. He was always in a hurry, but never in too much of a hurry to notice the humblest detail of his big concern, and he checked when he saw me.
"You still here?" he asked.
"I been helping park the cars and that," I said.
"Oh. Get any tips?"
"Three and six," I said.
"Fair enough. Want to earn five bob?"
I grinned and nodded.
"I'll give you five bob if you'd like to do the girl in Gretna Green this evening. Think you can do it?"
"Oh, aye," I said. "I can do that all right. Thank you, sir."
I was young, of course, and I'd got a fresh, pink and white face in those days, so I could make up as a girl quite well. All I had to do was to dress up in the most terrible women's clothes and drive about on the aerodrome in the old Ford, trying to get out of the way of the Moth. The Ford was driven by a boy about my own age, Connie Shaklin. Connie was short for Constantine; he was a cheerful, yellow-skinned young chap with straight black hair who put me in the way of things. He was dressed up as a young farmer in a sort of smock and we did the turn together; we never turned that Ford over, but we came bloody near it sometimes. It was good fun; we wheeled and skidded the thing all over the aerodrome, shrieking and hugging and kissing while the Moth dived on us and bombed us. The show ended, of course, with my skirt getting pulled off and me running off the field in a pair of red flannel knickers, covered in flour and with streamers of toilet paper all over me, while the crowd laughed fit to burst.
I got the five bob and Sir Alan himself said I'd done very well. That was the first money that I ever made in aviation.
I made eight and six that day in all, and when I got home
I'd got four and twopence left, clear profit, after paying for my bus fares and my tea. I showed it to Dad and Mum and told them I was going over to the show again.
Next day they let me do the Gretna Green girl in both performances, and gave me ten bob for the two. For the rest of the day I picked up paper and carried things about for the ground engineers; there was always something to work at. Then I helped in the car park again and got some more tips, and when I went back home that night Dad said I was getting my nose in.
The show moved on to Winchester and I followed it there, but after that it was going to Newbury and that was too far for me to go over every day. I asked the foreman about a job again then, and he said he'd speak to Sir Alan for me. Next day was a Saturday and Dad was off in the afternoon, so I got him to come over in case they said I was too young again. Sir Alan saw Dad for a minute and said I was a smart boy, but if I came I'd have to be laid off in the winter. Dad said he thought it was best for me to do what I was keen on, and we'd take our chance about the winter. When we got on to the bus that night to go back home I'd got my job in the air circus, four quid a week, which was more than I'd been getting in the garage.
Thinking back over my life, I know of two or three times when I've been just perfectly, radiantly happy. That was one of them.
I went all over England, Scotland, and Wales with the show that summer, from Falmouth to Inverness, from Kings Lynn to Swansea. I did labouring work and Gretna Green, and helped with the aeroplanes whenever I got a chance. That was mostly when some passenger had been sick on the floor. From that I got to washing off the dirty oil with a bucket of paraffin and cleaning down generally, and by the time the season ended I'd picked up quite a bit of knowledge about those particular aeroplanes, just by keeping my ears open and working on them whenever I got the chance.
I got laid off when the show packed up for the winter, but Mr. Dixon said that I could come along next year if I wanted, and if I turned up or wrote in the first week of April there'd be a job for me, Sir Alan himself came round on the last evening
and shook hands with us all and thanked us, and when he came to me he asked what I was going to do.
I said, "1'11 get a job of some sort for the winter and come back again next year, if that's all right."
"Mr. Dixon tells me that you want to be a ground engineer," he said.
"That's right, sir," I replied. "I was going to go to evening classes in the winter."
"Fine," he said. "If you do that, bring along some kind of a report with you next spring. If it's a good one, I'll see you get a bit more to do with the aeroplanes."
I went back home, and I got a job with a coal merchant, going round with the driver of one of those chariot coal carts drawn by a horse, delivering coal at the houses. It was all right as a job because it didn't tire your mind, and I got off sharp at five every evening with plenty of time to clean up and have tea and go out to my classes at the Southampton Polytechnic.
I did mathematics and mechanics and engineering workshop that winter, and it kept me pretty busy. On top of that I read two technical books about aeroplanes that I got out of the library, and understood about a quarter of them. When the spring came round I got a good report, and I took it along with me in April when I went to Littlehampton to join up with the circus again. I showed it to Mr. Dixon and he showed it to Sir Alan, and he sent for me and asked me if I'd like to be an apprentice with the ground engineers. That meant I'd be working on the aeroplanes all the time. My, I was pleased, and so were Dad and Mum when I wrote home. I liked humping the coal all right, but it wasn't half as much fun as working on an aeroplane.
Being an apprentice didn't mean that I did anything very difficult upon the aeroplanes. I still had the job of cleaning out the cabins and washing off the oil from fuselages and wings, but there were also sparking plugs to be cleaned and filters to be checked, and as time went on I got to working with the ground engineers more and more. I still did the Gretna Green girl with Connie twice each day although I had begun to shave, and this brings me to Connie.
When I joined the show the first year, it never struck me that
there was anything unusual about Connie. After all, the whole show was a bit unusual from start to finish, and Connie was a part of it; the fact that he looked strange was just another one among a mass of new, strange things. He looked a bit foreign. He was about my age, but taller and rather thin. He had straight black hair and a yellowish tinge to his skin; in spite of that he had firm, well-cut features. He was a good-looking, striking chap. He was a darned good friend to me, right from the first.
Once one of the pilots, irritated over something that Connie had or hadn't done, said, "Where's that bloody Chink?" It was a surprise to me at the time, but when he said that I thought of the Chinese laundry at the corner of our street at home, and I could see what he meant. Connie was much taller than either of the two men in the laundry and he'd got a leaner look about his face, but he did look a bit Chinese, when you came to think of it. Still, that didn't mean a thing to me; Connie was just like any other boy except that he knew a good bit more than most of my other friends.
He was an apprentice like me, but he'd started a bit higher on the ladder; he'd been to a good school. Sir Alan had had some trouble at Penang on his first pioneering flight out to Australia, and Connie's father had helped him, I think; that's how Connie came to be an apprentice in the air circus. Connie and I became very close friends, perhaps because our backgrounds were so different. Our Gretna Green turn brought us very close together in more senses than one; we were always thinking up new gags for it, most of which Sir Alan stopped us doing after the first time because he said they were too rude.
Again, that second summer we went all over the British Isles, staying a day in each place and giving two shows each day. There was never a whole day off; in an air circus like that you take your week-ends in the winter. We were improvising all the time to keep the aircraft in the air; we had plenty of tools and good materials to work with, but all the work had to be done out in the open field. It was a grand training for an engineer, because in each emergency you had to work out quick what was the best way to tackle it with the facilities at your disposal. I've changed an engine many a time in the lee of a haystack, by lashing
up a sheer legs of scaffold poles over the nose of the machine and borrowing the farmer's tractor to pull the wire rope, like a crane.
It's not quite true to say that we had no time off, however. We often stayed at the same place over the week-end. We had the afternoon and evening shows on Sunday as usual, but there was never very much to do on Sunday morning. Connie sometimes used to go to church, but Connie was unusual; I can't remember that anybody else did.
I knew more about church than most boys in our street, because until my voice broke I was a choir boy at St. John's. I never talked about it on the circus because it sounds a bit sissy to say you've been a choir boy, but I was. I wouldn't have been, but for Mum. She said that if I'd got a good voice it was my duty to use it, and she made me go. I never got anything for it but the outing to the Isle of Wight each summer, and when my voice broke I got out of it. If I'd been working in Southampton Mum would have made me join up as a tenor when my voice steadied down, but the air circus got me out of that, of course. It wasn't worth doing just for the winter months.
The thing that interested me in Connie's church-going was that he just went to any old church there was. He went to the nearest, whether it was Anglican or Methodist or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic. He went to a synagogue one time, at Wolverhampton. If it was raining or if we'd had too much beer on Saturday night he wouldn't go at all, but if it was a nice fine morning and nothing particular to do, he'd ask somebody where the nearest church was and go to it.
I asked him once if it was all right, just going into any church like that. He grinned and said, "Blowed if I know. I've never been chucked out."
"I'd be scared of doing the wrong thing," I remarked. "However do you know what to do in a synagogue?"
"Just sit at the back and watch what other people do," he said. "If they start doing anything comic, like going up to the altar or anything like that, I just sit still and watch."
"Don't they mind you doing that?"
"I don't think so. A Roman Catholic priest came up one time
as I was going out and asked me who I was. I told him I was just looking, like in a shop. He didn't mind a bit."
He collected churches, like another boy might collect cigarette cards or matchbox covers. The gem of his collection was at Woking, where he found a mosque to go to. He had a bit of a job getting to that one because the big day at a mosque is on a Friday, but he was a very good apprentice and a hard worker, so the foreman let him go.
Once, I remember, I asked Connie what he really was, Church of England, or Presbyterian, or what. "Blowed if I know," he said. "I was born in Penang and my father was a Buddhist. But he died four years ago, and then we came to England. I was Church of England at school."
I stared at him. "Where's Penang?"
"Just by Malaya," he told me. "But we don't live there now. Mother brought us to England when my father died. She was born in Irkutsk, so she's Greek Orthodox."
Connie knew an awful lot more than me, of course, and I didn't want to go on looking stupid, so I let Irkutsk go. The Greek part stayed in my mind, and I remember months afterwards looking at a map of Greece in the Public Library, trying to find Irkutsk where Connie's mother had been born. But all that came later; at the time I only asked him, "Is your Mum in England now?"
He shook his head. "She's in California, at a place called San Diego, with my sister. Mother got married again."
It was quite outside my range, of course; California was somewhere abroad where they made Syrup of Figs. "Oh . . ." I said vaguely.
I was young, of course, and I was loaded down with new experiences. Until I joined the circus I'd never been more than five miles from my own street in Southampton, and I'd got an awful lot to learn. I must have seemed slow at times, because it wasn't till that second season was half over that I realized what being an apprentice meant. It meant that I'd got a regular job, that I wasn't going to be laid off in the winter, like I had before. Connie and I were going to spend the winter at Littlehampton
working on the aeroplanes, overhauling them for their certificates of airworthiness so they'd be all ready for the spring.
The circus ran for four years and that was the end; the last season wasn't so good as the first three had been, and it looked as if the public were getting a bit tired of it. Sir Alan packed it up, and went on with his development work on refuelling aeroplanes in flight. He was very good with us apprentices. He went to a great deal of trouble to find us jobs in other places in the aircraft industry. He got me a fine apprenticeship with Airservice Ltd at Morden aerodrome just south of London, overhauling and repairing aeroplanes in a big way in a grand, modern shop. I owe a great deal to Sir Alan over that.
I had to say good-bye to Connie then. Like me, he wanted to go on and take his ground engineer's tickets, but neither of us could do that till we were twenty-one years old. He was going out to California to his mother; he told me that there were aircraft factories out there in San Diego and he wanted to get into one of those. I was very sorry to part from Connie, because we'd been together for three and a half years and had a lot of fun; although he knew such a lot more than I did, he was never stuck up about it. Being with him in those early years was very good for me. We said we'd keep in touch by writing, and of course, we never did.
I went to Airservice in the autumn of 1935, and I stayed with them for ten years. It was a good firm to work for, and I got on well. I got my A and C certificates for the maintenance of engines and airframes as soon as I was old enough, in 1936, and I got the B and D certificates for complete overhauls in 1938; by that time I was earning over ten pounds a week, including overtime. I didn't spend it on girls, and I didn't spend much of it on beer. I spent it mostly on flying. The firm had a scheme that gave cheap flying instruction to its staff, and I took my first private pilot's A licence in 1937. By the middle of the war, when pilots were short and regulations lax, I was test flying the Tiger Moths we had rebuilt after a crash as a regular thing. I used to finish the inspection in the shop and then just take it out and fly it. It saved such a lot of time and bother looking for a test pilot.