Henry Warren is an unhappy man. In his early 40s, he’s a merchant banker, running his family firm. He travels constantly, his marriage is miserable & he feels disconnected from life. When he discovers that his wife is having an affair with an Arab prince, he gives her an ultimatum. Leave the prince, leave London & the meaningless social life she enjoys so much, & move to the country to give their marriage one more chance. She refuses & Warren decides to start divorce proceedings. He makes plans to close up his London house &, on an impulse, sets off for the north of England for a walking holiday. His health is suffering, he has insomnia & feels that vigorous exercise will cure him. He sends his chauffeur home when they reach the North & plans to walk in the Borders for a week or so. However, he’s taken ill on the road & a lorry driver takes him to a hospital in the town of Sharples.
Sharples was once a thriving industrial town. Five years before, the ship building company closed down, the factories closed & most of the adult population has been out of work ever since. As Warren recovers in hospital from a twisted gut, he learns about the long term effects that the Depression has had on the people & the town. When he is admitted to hospital, unshaven after several days on the road & with no money after his wallet is stolen, he’s assumed to be a tramp looking for work. He allows this deception, telling the nurses that he’s been in America & been sent back to Glasgow after losing his job. It’s a common story & easily believed. He is horrified to realise that many of the other patients in the ward are unable to survive relatively routine operations because of malnutrition after years of just surviving on the dole. He begins to investigate the town as he recovers & an idea to rejuvenate Sharples begins to take shape.
He becomes friends with the Almoner of the hospital, Alice McMahon. A young woman of about 30, she has lived in Sharples all her life. She studied law at Durham but returned to Sharples when the Depression hit, unwilling to get on with her own life & career while her home town was suffering. The hospital barely survives on charitable donations as the patients can’t afford to pay for their care. Alice is angry that her community is suffering & falling into despair because of economic conditions they can do nothing about. She worries about the future of towns like Sharples & the families she knows there if ship building never revives & nothing else takes its place.
Warren buys the shipyard & uses his contacts with a Balkan government (which includes some spectacular bribery in the form of a jewelled green silk umbrella) to get a contract to build oil tankers. His plans don’t run smoothly though, with the workers malnourished & not able to work at full capacity for some time. He also has to engage in some questionable behaviour to get the company up & running, a decision that comes back to haunt him later. What I found interesting was that Warren, who has been a banker all his life, working in the family firm, has no qualms about his actions, even when the consequences are personally devastating. It’s an interesting moral question. How far is it permissible to go to achieve a greater good? The change in Sharples once the shipyard is operational again is overwhelmingly positive but a little dodgy dealing is needed to make it happen.
The story takes place from 1934-37. The Depression is at its height & there’s no sign of WWII on the horizon as yet although there is talk of totalitarian regimes & Chamberlain is Chancellor of the Exchequer. Warren is 43 at the start of the book & he served in the Great War so I imagine he was born in around 1892.
Ruined City was published in 1938 & I’m so glad I had a chance to read another Nevil Shute for the 1938 Club. He’s one of my favourite authors, I find his writing quite plodding & pedestrian at times but compelling for all that. I think it’s the accumulation of detail which some might find boring but I enjoy. Warren meticulously works out his plans for the ship building business, calculating percentages & interest rates. He goes to Latavia in the Balkans & spends his time losing money at cards to corrupt politicians & dancing with a Corsican girl called Pepita whose connections are integral to the success of the deal Warren needs to get an order for the oil tankers. His moral compass is thoroughly shaken up but the interest in his project turns his life around & gets him through the depression he’d fallen into after his illness & the divorce from his wife. Warren’s relationship with Alice McMahon is also very delicately done. It’s her passion for Sharples that inspires Warren’s plans & the relationship that began as that of hospital almoner & indigent patient becomes one of friendship & partnership in the plan to reopen the shipyard.
Warren reminded me of another Shute hero, Donald Ross, in An Old Captivity, & his work as a seaplane pilot. Actually, I think all Shute’s heroes have this trait of meticulousness in their work. Tom Cutter in Round the Bend was just the same. I’ve decided that Shute’s men obsessing about business or their planes is the equivalent of women in novels being careful housekeepers. The image that often comes into my mind when I read Shute is of Jane Eyre refurbishing the Rivers’ home when she comes into her inheritance. It’s the domesticity & detail that I love, whether it’s at home or at work.
I listened to Ruined City on audio, read by Gareth Armstrong. I enjoy his reading style very much. His reading of A N Wilson’s Victoria was one of my highlights of last year.