The modernist cry that form should follow function could never be more apt than as a description of my favourite peeler.
I do a lot of peeling – potatoes, carrots, cucumber, apples, parsnips, pears, even root ginger from time to time – and during my peeling career I’ve found no better peeler than this one (pictured above). It’s a perfect piece of economical engineering (it’s made of just three pieces of steel – blade, rod and handle – and a single nut to hold the rod in place). Its swivelling blades automatically bite at the correct cutting angle, however you wield it. Its aperture is wide enough to prevent even the stickiest peel from clogging. It’s robust and easy to clean, and its handle is perfect for wrist-rotation manipulation around the most recalcitrant of fruits and vegetables.
But this Platonic ideal of a peeler is surprisingly hard to find (this one was bought in Czechia more than fifteen years ago). Its merits aren’t visual. I sought in vain for one of these for my kitchen in London, making do with peelers that don’t swivel, peelers that clog, and decadent peelers that are designed for the eye rather than for the hand.
Elegance before utility (the narrow blade will clog on the very first potato)
Too difficult to hold
Too clever, and so much more to wash up afterwards
By BIC? I’ve never got the hang of peelers that have handles at a right angle to the blade, but there’s a hugely expensive Swiss-engineered set like this that are rated as the best in the world.
You could found a religion on good engineering. Actually, I don’t mean that facetiously. It makes a more plausible starting point than the immaculate conception, or walking on water, or words overheard in a cave, or even the resurrection, come to that. In fact there’s a character in one of Nevil Shute’s best and most peculiar novels – Round the Bend (1951) – who does exactly that.
Nevil Shute was a man’s man, though not, I think, only a man’s writer, since I know that my mother enjoyed his novels as much as I do. They’re constructed of vast slabs of what he might have called ‘masculine prose’ – a plain style that eschews subtlety, implication, allusion or poetry. If Henry James is a fine cheese soufflé, then Nevil Shute is a Ploughman’s Lunch.
He was a hugely successful novelist from the 1920s until his death in 1960, but he’s hardly read nowadays. I’ve read around ten of his novels over the last two years, on my Kindle, and I couldn’t put any of them down. I’ve thought often about why I enjoy them so much. It can’t be because they are subtle explorations of the human psyche. Shute’s novels are black and white, and morally unambiguous. His men are either strong-jawed heroes or they’re effeminate cowards. His women are strong-jawed too, and not only confined to the kitchen and the nursery. But they’re either devoted to their men, or they’re shallow temptresses unworthy of more than a dismissive paragraph or two. Nevil Shute’s currency is certainty, patriotism, frontier morality, strength and confident heterosexuality. (I’ve read nearly all of his novels, and as far as I can remember, there wasn’t a single gay character, or any mention of the possibility of one, in any of them, nor even a tinge of sexual uncertainty. He lived and wrote entirely on the straight and narrow.)
Nevil Shute (born Nevil Shute Norway) was born in 1900 and trained as an aeronautical engineer. He worked as chief stress calculator on the construction of the great airship, the R100, during the 1920s. He wrote novels in his spare time, protecting his engineering career from possible damage by using Nevil Shute as his pen name.
He abandoned Britain in 1950, scornful of post-War Britain, and particularly of the National Health Service. He thought the country had become decadent, inefficient, a nanny-state under socialism, unfit for strong-jawed heroes like himself. He settled in Australia where many of his later novels were set. In Australia, men were men, and Queens could be Queens. (In one of his sillier novels – In the Wet (1953) – the British Royal Family, dispirited by the awfulness of socialist post-war Britain, and the rise of anti-monarchist sentiment, decamp by supersonic jet for a new palace near Adelaide.)
His writing is often remarkably prescient (in No Highway (1948), for example, he foresaw the dangers of metal fatigue) and almost always engaging, for the simple reason that he tells a very good story extremely well. There’s just the right balance of supporting detail to give his characters and events a plausible context, but never so much as to impede the hurtling of the plot towards its conclusion.
His oddest novel, and the one he considered his best, is about a religion founded on aircraft engineering (not vegetable peelers). That sounds absurd, but the character in Round the Bend who inadvertently starts the movement, a Chinese engineer, teaches that detailed and intricate work done well, with discipline and responsibility, is a kind of prayer, a form of meditation. It’s an engineer’s version of Buddhism, perhaps, based on practice rather than theology.
Religion, art and feeling aren’t usually hot topics in Nevil Shute’s novels, but I suspect there was more to the man than most of his writing reveals. Though he might have been suspicious of a man who loves to cook, he would surely have rejoiced in the perfection of my peeler.