In the US, people make sandwiches. In the UK, people cut sandwiches. I have loved this Britishism since my first trip to England when I kept seeing signs for “fresh cut sandwiches”. In most Nevil Shute novels there is some sort of quest/mission/journey for which someone—usually the hero’s romantic interest—cuts some sandwiches to take on the quest/mission/journey.
In So Disdained, as our hero prepares his plane for a long distance flight set for early the next morning, all I could think was “Somebody has to cut him some sandwiches!” But it was already late at night and his chaste love interest wasn’t on the scene. Who in the hell was going to cut him some sandwiches? When he returned to his cottage later that night, the love interest shows up and finds out about his impending flight. She makes no indication she is going to see him off, but I know my Shute. I knew as I read that somehow she was going to get him some sandwiches to take along and probably a flask of something. Alcohol? No he would be flying, can’t fly under the influence. Coffee? Yes, she was going to give him a flask of coffee to go with the sandwiches. That must be it.
Lo and behold, Moran is roused the next morning by the girl (I really wish I could remember her name). She is going to make him breakfast before his flight. I wondered if that would take the place of the sandwiches. Two poached eggs wouldn’t really hold him over long…wait…what’s happening…oh look she has indeed cut him some sandwiches to take along. And she produced a flask of coffee? No, it was alcohol after all, a flask of brandy to go with the sandwiches he stuffs in his pockets.
I bet they were delicious. And what says love more than someone making you a sandwich?
So Disdained by Nevil Shute
Having already read about 12 of Nevil Shute’s novels, you need to understand how surprised I was to be surprised by So Disdained. I thought I had a pretty strong handle on the Shutian hero. To a fault, he always does the right thing. One could argue on a philosophical level whether the right thing to do is always the right thing to do, but in Shute’s case the right thing to do is generally very much tied up with God and country (metaphorically speaking, I’m not sure how Shute felt about God). And although Shute hated Britain’s drift toward Socialism—so much so that he emigrated to Australia in the 1950s—his heroes tend to act pretty selflessly for the sake of others and of society as a whole. His thesis seems to be that humans, when given the freedom to do so, will do the right thing. But now that I sit here thinking of it, my thesis may not hold water. I’m not sure the protagonist in What Happened to the Corbetts was thinking very altruistically. But let’s just set that aside for the moment.
Published in 1928, So Disdained is Shute’s second novel and was written a good decade earlier than the next earliest of his novels that I have read. A brief description of the plot set-up will demonstrate why I was so surprised. While driving home late at night near Winchester, Peter Moran (the estate manager for Lord Arner) picks up pedestrian in the middle of the countryside. It turns out that the man, Maurice Lendon, was one of Moran’s squadron mates in 1917. Not long after the two are reunited Moran realizes that Lendon is on an aerial spy mission for the nascent Soviet Union. And, here is where the surprise comes in, Moran acts on loyalty to his old squadron mate rather than loyalty to his country. The surprise is compounded by the fact that Lord Arner is a government minister and Moran is soon part of high level discussions about the search for this spy plane and he chooses to lie and cover for Lendon rather than assist the government. Later in the book Moran/Shute praise the fascists in Italy, but that is a whole other kettle of fish—and is a means to end, to stop the Soviet’s in their spying. So why was Moran/Shute so morally squishy at the start about where his loyalty should be? Part of me thought it might be because the Soviet Union wasn’t as poisonous politically in 1928 as it became in later years. But Shute’s alliance with the fascisti in Italy to defeat the dirty communists suggests that that wasn’t true. Loyalty to his squadron at the possible expense of his country? Closer, but not entirely right wither. Compassion for Lendon and his somewhat messed up personal life? That seems to be the most believable reason. But still seems somewhat un-Shutian.
It’s fiction and it’s a long time ago, does it matter? Bottom line is I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
And there were sandwiches.
(Check out these 1920s-era sandwiches.)