Book Review: What Happened to the Corbetts

This book, which has been mentioned in some ‘resilience’ circles as a ‘worth-reading’, is most definitely a book of two halves. Written by Nevil Shute in 1938, and about the impacts of aerial bombardment on an English city, it opens the morning after the night before. Southampton has been bombed, and the Corbett family (34 year old John, a solicitor; his wife Joan, a 6 year old, a 3 year old and a baby) have taken refuge in their garage (with the help).
The next day has people dusting themselves off and repairing the damage. John digs most of a bomb shelter/trench, but the next night there are no bombs and he wonders if he’s over-reacted. The rest of the first half the book is this repeated – a call and response of event, shock, adaptation and the search for a new normal – Shute is a master at of(slowly) gathering menace.
For Corbett has under-reacted, of course (we’re only 30 pages into the novel), and the bombs keep falling and everything starts to fall apart, slowly. The Corbetts are helped by their salt of the earth neighbour (Shute lays on the class solidarity thing with a trowel), but as Southampton’s water system packs up, and cholera and typhoid take hold, the Corbetts leg it for their small yacht in the Solent, but not before almost everyone is so terribly terribly decent and proper and thoroughly British. The Corbetts’ resilience is helped by the fact that they aren’t short of a bob – and even (especially?) in wartime the adage that life is a shit sandwich (footnote 1) holds.)

Food and water – and milk for their baby – become harder to find, and pretty soon Corbett uses a loaded gun to force people to sell him tinned milk. And then… either Shute didn’t know how to continue it (unlikely, given his obvious gifts as a story teller) or else he lost his nerve/didn’t want to spread alarm and despondency, and the story, which was tiptoeing towards the abyss, tiptoes away.
With their 15 days worth of tinned milk, the Corbetts set sail for the relative safety of the Isle of Wight, and the novel sadly turns into a sorts of Swallows and Amazons adventure. They’re refused permission to land (quarantine – the Defence of the Realm Act has been invoked) they are blown off course they pick up a near-drowned airman, deliver him to the British Navy and then … well, there’s always Canada, after all, far away from where the bombs are falling.
In 2011, our situation (or should I say, our shituation) is that there is no Canada, there is no America, armoury of the Free World waiting to save us all.

People who have read and enjoyed Nevil Shute will see many of the themes he picks up after the war already formed here (war as the best time a young person will have, with opportunities to test themselves) etc, but the less devoted reader will probably best stop about 2 thirds of the way through and then read the last three pages.

Footnote 1 – the more bread you have, the less shit you have to eat.

Shutes to read
On the Beach (but then, Dwight Towers would say that, wouldn’t he?!)
Requiem for a Wren – stunning, about the things War will do to people…
No Highway (must watch the Jimmy Stewart movie!)

Shutes to read if you like your propaganda laid on thick (but still well written!)
Pied Piper

Nigel Balchin
Darkness Falls – wonderful (I suspect) evocation of what the Blitz was like.
The Small Back Room – brilliant stuff on innovation (Tim Kastelle might like?!)

Pure World War 2 fantasty
Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

Another World War Two novel on the subject of survival and resilience
King Rat by James Clavell

Max Brooks
World War Z

Stuff I have yet to read
Alas Babylon

A surgeon friend has said that Corbett’s first duty is to protect his own family.
Corbett rubbed his chin. “That’s very different to the ideas one’s always had. I’ve always thought that in a war the right thing was to join the Army, or the Navy, or the Air Force, and fight for the country.”
The surgeon said: “Witha bloody great sword, I suppose.”
He shook his head. “I know those were the old ideas,” he said. “But a new war – and this war’s very new – brings new conditions and the old ideas won’t fit. Then you’ve got to hack out a new set of ideas for yourself, and do the best you can. Put away the red coat, and invent a khaki one.”
He got up from the desk. “Good luck, and remember me to Joan. Remember what I said about getting them away.”
Corbett turned to go. “Good luck to both of you.”
“We’ve got it,” said the surgeon quietly. Corbett glanced at him.
Gordon said: “I’ve got no children to look after. And Margaret – she’s working like am. I’ve got my luck, and she’s got hers. I’m working sixteen hours a day where I’m most needed, at work I can do damn well. I never worked better in my life. I don’t get any money for it. I don’t expect anyone will even remember that I’ve done it, when this is all over. But this is my peak, and I know it. This is waha tI came into the world for. Whatever I do after this will be- just spinning out my time.”
He picked up a raincoat from the chair. “And now if you don’t mind, old man – I must get back to the hospital.”
page 69


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