NEVIL SHUTE, “ON THE BEACH”, AND A 1916 DIMENSION
How to view the recent missile launches by North Korea, and the very public assassination in Malaysia? The benign theory has it that Kim Jung-un is not so much acting bellicose but more striving to ensure his regime’s survival by developing defence mechanisms to deter any pre-emptive strike against him. This in the knowledge that his forces could not withstand a full scale conventional assault from outside any more than had those of Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi.
The theory seems reasonable but with the growing spread of nuclear weapons, as evidenced by Pakistan and North Korea, the threat of miscalculation, or misunderstanding, leading to a nuclear exchange is very much a real one. Does anyone seriously doubt that Iran will not acquire nukes before much longer, with Saudi Arabia and one two others hard on its heels? The stopper on the bottle containing the nuclear genie is coming loose.
I was prompted to these rather gloomy thoughts when cataloguing my library recently and revisiting a novel of the Fifties. Nevil Shute wrote “On the Beach” in 1957; it was turned into a film, directed by Stanley Kramer, in 1959. Shute, who died in 1960 in Australia, wrote several dozen novels and an autobiography, but will be most remembered for this, his bleak visionary tale of the last days of mankind. Shute was born in England in 1899, became an aeronautical engineer and moved to Australia after World War Two. 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 political blunder, is hinted at. Cue North Korea again. And remember also that, when the world came closest to Armageddon over Cuba in 1962, one of JFK’s obsessions was to avoid any miscalculation or misunderstanding by either superpower in a situation where the gung-ho Cuban leadership wanted war. Shute, as an engineer, was very 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 Mankind 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 until 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).
It could be objected that this is an over simplistic portrayal of the aftermath of a nuclear war in which there would a) be survivors and b) the effects of radiation would be varied, prolonged and not necessarily 100% 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!
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 on normally for as long as possible. Farmers plant crops which will never be harvested, householders plant gardens which they will never see in bloom, the chief preoccupation of the Melbourne Gentleman’s club is to calculate whether their best wines and spirits will last to the end.
As the radiation rolls across Northern Australia, racing car enthusiasts organise the last ever Australian Grand Prix, with cars driven with such abandon that there are many fatalities. 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 not with a bang but a whimper.
“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 perhaps merits a timely revival in an era where the issues it raises are very much relevant.
There is a fascinating connection between Nevil Shute Norway, to give him his full name, and the 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 elder 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, ironically, less than a month before the Rising. Norway was summoned to Dublin Castle early on Easter Monday to help plan the arrest of Nationalist leaders on Easter Tuesday (!), just before the GPO was occupied. 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!”