Book review by Sean Farrell and Frank O’Shea
Nevil Shute. On the Beach. Text Publishing, Melbourne 2019. With Introduction by Gideon Haigh. 352 pp.
RRP: $24.99 h/b
It is easy now to forget how close the world may have come to nuclear war during the Cuban crisis of 1962. In a way, we have become blasé about nuclear weapons, though there are strenuous attempts to stop countries like Iran and North Korea from developing them. Indeed, there is a case to be made that the fear of nuclear war has receded and the big danger for the future of our planet lies not with nuclear weaponry but with the reckless use of resources brought about by human greed and unchecked population growth.
The theory seems reasonable but with the growing spread of nuclear weapons, as evidenced by Pakistan and North Korea for example, the threat of miscalculation, or misunderstanding, leading to a nuclear exchange is still a real one. Does anyone seriously doubt that Iran will acquire nukes before much longer, with Saudi Arabia and one or two others hard on its heels? The stopper on the bottle containing the nuclear genie is coming loose.
Nevil Shute wrote On the Beach in 1957; it was turned into a film two years later, directed by Stanley Kramer. Melbourne people still bristle when they are reminded of the unflattering things Ava Gardner, one of the stars of the film, said about their city. Shute, who came to Australia after the War and died here in 1960, wrote several dozen novels and an autobiography, but will be most remembered for this, his bleak visionary tale of the last days of homo-not-very-sapiens. As a writer he was very much a man of his time: English, middle class, public school educated. His books are well plotted, understated and devoid of graphic sex or violence. This very understatement is perhaps what makes On the Beach so effective.
The novel is set in Australia in 1964, two years after a nuclear war has devastated the northern hemisphere. By then a number of European countries, not just the heavy hitters, have acquired nukes, increasing exponentially the chances that they would/could be used. The cause is never stated but a mistake, a number of political blunders, are hinted. Cue North Korea or Iran or Pakistan today. Shute, as an engineer, was conscious of the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons and, from his aviation experiences, of the constant possibility of something going wrong.
There have been many books written about a nuclear – or other – Armageddon, normally featuring societal breakdown, involving hunger, anarchy, violence, cannibalism and rape and usually a deus ex machina salvation for a small band of heroes to survive and rebuild. Shute’s book is different. In it, humanity north of the equator has ceased to exist and the deadly radiation clouds have begun to reach the southern hemisphere. It is only a matter of time before they reach Melbourne and beyond, exterminating mankind in the process. There is no escape, nowhere to flee.
Shute poses the question: what does a civilised community do, faced with this reality? It is a stark question, written when the Cold War was still maturing and when those countries with the capability were striving mightily to acquire nuclear weapons – France did so in 1960, China in 1964 and Israel probably in 1967. And the current summer in Australia reminds us that it is a question the world needs to face today if we are to deal with the problems arising from climate change.
It could be objected that the book is an over simplistic portrayal of the aftermath of a nuclear war in which there would be survivors and in which the effects of radiation would be varied, prolonged and not immediately fatal. It could equally be pointed out that in such a situation, where there was a major thermonuclear exchange, a nuclear winter would probably follow hard on the complete breakdown of orderly government, so that, in a short time, in the graphic words of one commentator ‘The survivors would come to envy the dead.’ Few would relish in any event being around to test whether or not nuclear war was survivable!
It may be worth mentioning that the science in the story is elementary at best. It assumes that a theoretical device called a cobalt bomb is the cause of the devastation. It was proposed by, among others, the hawkish Edward Teller, one of those advising the Americans on nuclear efficiency pre- and post-Pearl Harbour: it would create devastation, not by explosion as much as by the resulting radioactivity which would have a half-life of over five years.
Shute portrays a society in which the utter helplessness of their predicament takes time to sink in, and in which an unconscious consensus emerges to continue normally for as long as possible. Farmers plant crops which will never be harvested; householders plant gardens which they will never see in bloom; shops remain open and people still pay for goods; the chief preoccupation of the Melbourne Gentlemen’s club is to calculate whether their best wines and spirits will last the crisis. As the radiation rolls across Northern Australia, racing car enthusiasts organise the last ever Australian Grand Prix in which cars are driven with such abandon that the many fatalities are expected and accepted. Suicide pills are made available for those who want to use them. Others await the end quietly, embracing death by a variety of means. The last US nuclear submarine is scuttled with her crew on board. The world ends, as T S Eliot put it, not with a bang but a whimper.
The book is almost a classroom-example of the changes that have come over fiction in the last sixty years. It is easy to see the difference between the work of modern novelists and those from the nineteenth century, Dickens or Hardy or Jane Austen, say. But here you see what excited book-lovers when the Boomers were buying and before the changes of the swinging sixties. On the Beach has no violence and no rough language; there are chaste kisses, but no sex or suggestions of sex. The book does not use heroic deeds or acts of derring-do to keep the reader glued to a story. People are polite to each other and respect authority. But the low-key account of how the human race destroys itself makes for a deeply disturbing and thought-provoking book.
On the Beach was well received when it appeared. Half a century later the Economist called it ‘still incredibly moving.’ It is all of that – the last chapters are emotionally draining – and the novel merits its timely revival by Melbourne publishers Text in an era where the issues it raises are still very much relevant.
There is a fascinating connection between Nevil Shute Norway, to give him his full name, and the 1916 Easter Rising. He was born in 1899, one of two sons of Arthur and Mary Louisa Hamilton Norway, a British civil servant who in 1912 was appointed head of the Irish Postal Service and Manager of the GPO in Dublin. The family spent six years in Dublin, living first in Mount Merrion, then in the Hibernian Hotel. Nevil’s older brother Frederick, aged 19,was killed on the Western Front in July 1915.
Over several years Arthur Hamilton Norway organised a major renovation and refurbishment of the shabby GPO building. It reopened to the public less than a month before the Rising. Norway was summoned to Dublin Castle early on Easter Monday shortly before the GPO was occupied, to help plan the arrest of Nationalist leaders on Easter Tuesday(!). Mary Louisa, together with Nevil, on Easter holidays from school, arrived soon after Pearse had read out the Proclamation. She demanded to see whoever was in charge and was introduced to Pearse, who assured her that the safe and contents in her husband’s office would not be harmed. It was later discovered unopened in the ruins of the GPO.
Nevil subsequently volunteered as a Red Cross stretcher bearer for the wounded of both sides and was later honoured by St John’s Ambulance. His mother wrote a fascinating eye-witness account of Easter Week, based on letters written to her sister. It describes in vivid and dispassionate detail many of the incidents of the week. One passage in particular has entered the histories of the Rising. Describing the savage fighting and destruction on Thursday, she wrote:
It seemed as if the whole city was on fire, the glow extending right across the heavens, and the red glare hundreds of feet high, while above the roar of the fires the whole air seemed vibrating with the noise of the great guns and machine-guns. It was an inferno!
Sean Farrell is a retired Irish diplomat. Frank is a member of the editorial team at Tintean.