Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Hounded to death: the last years of T. E. Shaw. 14. More than "messing about in boats"

Shaw's close friend, Clare Smith (the wife of his commanding officer)
with Shaw as passenger driving "Biscuit" an 18 foot, 1925 Biscayne
Baby speedboat built by the Purdy Boat Company, New York.
In 1929, Shaw acted as personal assistant to his commanding officer, Sydney Smith's organizing the 1929 Schneider Seaplane Contest and they are presented with a Biscayne Baby in gratitude.

Later, in February of 1931, Shaw and Clare Smith are drinking coffee while watching seaplanes shooting at targets on the water when Shaw notices one of them flying erratically and then crash into the sea. Shaw became a hero yet again, Taking control of the situation, he took a boat and some men out to the wreck and dove in the water to discover men trapped inside the plane. Three were rescued, but nine men had drowned.

Shaw's concern about the R.A. F.'s use of boats predates this incident but certainly added to it, but his letters reveal another importance to him: he could gain some respite from his unwanted fame, from the press and the politician's rumor-mill, Throw himself eagerly into hard work and yet again achieve something worthwhile without adding to the sort of fame the public needed. He could become the "quiet hero" on his own terms without attracting unwanted attention:

To Bruce Rogers, December 12th 1929: 
"The weather is very bad: we do much extra work therefore. Two of our motor boats were sunk last week." 
To Lady Astor, January 19th, 1930: 
"I am duty crew here (one week's engrossment in motor boats on the Sound and Caltewater) so cannot be spared for the Naval Conference. 'Sink the Lot' would be my advice, only alas I have not been asked it!"
To James Hanley, December 28th 1931: 
"I have owed you a letter for months: it has sat much on my conscience. Here is the Haslett back, anyway. For months I have been in Hythe, near Southampton, testing R.A.F. motor boats and engines. That explains some of the delay, and much of my distraction. When at this job I cease to think about books and writing". 
To Clare Smith. January 2nd. 1932: 
"I have taken root in Hythe, almost. The Air Ministry want to adopt a hydraulic oil-motor engagement of gears, in the 200 class, and for weeks we have been re-designing and modifying the systems offered us. I hope it is nearly finished. It has been very difficult. I have orders, also, to write a handbook on the 200 boats. This shows me how little I know. Between these jobs my days and my nights are wholly occupied. Hence I neglect everything else. No music; no books. All work, they say, is dulling. At least it leaves me unconscious of time and neighbours."
Shaw makes some attempts to sound regretful of his workload, but not convincingly so. His importances had shifted: no longer was it with people; with the plight of the Arabs; with literary work. The machine would not worship him, nor would it betray him. He had started to exhibit more of the INTJ than his former INFJ. His close relationship with a few women at that time was also significant: they were unavailable, romantically, but they were also a new type of woman. Women had fought the system and gained their right to vote in 1928 and this was part of the culmination of a major change in society brought about by the circumstances of the First World War. I remember clearly, back in the mid eighties, of meeting such a woman who would have been of young adult age in the early twenties. Although very old, she had a liveliness about her; a twinkle in her eye and a sharp wit that I found lacking in many younger but still elderly women of my parent's generation. I also had a friend in Calgary in the seventies of that same generation. Marion Cooper had wanted to become a marine architect when a young woman in Scotland, but such things were not open to women at that time. She became an important interior designer instead (designing the interiors of Rideau Hall in Ottawa and The Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary) When I knew her, she owned an art gallery and was a mentor to many young artists, myself included. At the age of seventy three, her doctor advised her to give up cross-country skiing.  And later, I discovered that when my maternal grandmother frequently said to me "A little bit of what you fancy does you good" the line was taken from a rather ribald music-hall song. Perhaps Granny was a flapper! Shaw admired people who were genuine and their own selves and his relationships with his independently-minded female friends in those days gave him joy, but did not divert him from the more important quests he then sought.

Tomorrow, what became the most unfortunately significant machine in Shaw's life: the Brough Superior motorcycle.

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