The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute

The Chequer Board cover

The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute was first published in 1947 and it was my friend and one time neighbour Christine who pointed me in its direction, and I’m glad she did as it was a really good and interesting read.

John Turner, a flour salesman has been having health problems for a while, he had been badly wounded during the war and it was thought that he wouldn’t survive his wounds. He does get better but the fragments of shrapnel still lodged in his brain years later have started to give him problems, the upshot being that he is given around one year to live.

John married just before the war but over the years he and his wife have grown apart, his prognosis brings them together again and when John decides to track down the men he feels had given him the will to live again when he was in hospital, his wife helps him track them down.

It was a very disparate bunch of chaps who talked to John when he was unable to move and having to lie flat in a hospital bed. One was a very snobby RAF pilot, another was a young black GI who had been based in Cornwall, and a young corporal charged with murder. Their stories and experiences have been in John’s mind since the war. He feels they saved his life and before he dies he wants to know what has happened to them over the years.

I think the most interesting story is the one about the experiences of black GIs in Cornwall. The black soldiers were given the task of setting up camp before the white GIs turned up in Cornwall and the black men caused quite a sensation in the small town, making themselves very popular as they were very obliging, helping people to fix things that had been left neglected and broken due to the fact that most of the local men were off at war.

Everything changes though when the white GIs turn up and take exception to having to share the local pub with ‘niggers’. The US high heid yins decide that the pub will be off limits to the black GIs but the pub owner objects to that and bans the white US soldiers.

According to this book there had already been trouble in two other English towns where there had actually been shoot-outs between black and white US soldiers.

The Chequer Board goes some way to explaining Daphne du Maurier’s attitude towards the US in her book Rule Britannia. (1972)

This is the first book I’ve read by Nevil Shute and I’ll definitely be reading more.