by Nevil Shute
A few days ago, I engaged in some quasi-light-hearted discussion with a friend by text. On the surface it was no more than suggested times and places to meet for a drink, but sub-text being what it is, it evolved into a series of jabs, feints and counter-punches that could be politely summarised as ‘what’s the point of everything?’, specifically relating to the need or otherwise for society to be bound by money. The root of all evil can plummet the sunniest of exchanges south into murkier waters, and this was no exception.
Some background. Both sides of the debate have spent the majority of their working lives sitting at ergonomically designed desks in the City of London, provided by what used to be called ‘multi-nationals’, lately ‘global corporates’, staring at streams of figures that purport to explain the ‘state of the universe’ to anyone inclined to believe there’s little of interest north of fund management and south of wealth protection. One of us has bought (I use the term without irony) into it, one of us hasn’t – work it out for yourself. Does that make me a hypocrite? I don’t know; do gluten intolerants work at bakeries?
Terms like ‘Champagne socialist’ were tapped out in the hope of a cheap laugh and like a far-Right activist plugged 24/7 into InfoWars, I was sufficiently triggered to throw clichés involving Mammon back across the Cloud. Having suggested that the human race got on without too many issues prior to the invention of money, and that it would be nice to think morals come before your next £20 note, I was told that morals won’t pay the rent. Pithy, and valid. Or, it would be, if you ignore the premise that without money, you wouldn’t need to pay rent.
You see how ‘which pub?’ and ‘what time?’ can be mere servants to the real issues of the day?
In 1957, Nevil Shute’s On The Beach was published. Shute, an Englishman who spent his working life as an aeronautical engineer and, latterly, developing weapons as part of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, arguably created the first literary exploration of how the newly available Atomic bomb might bring humanity’s reign as Earth’s top-predator to a premature close. We are well versed – some would say swamped – in speculative fiction these days. The majority tends towards a nastily violent and grisly ending. Shute opted to build a scenario based upon T S Eliot’s post-Word War One poem The Hollow Men, and in particular, the last four lines:
‘This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.’
1957. In the UK, rationing was a recent memory, having ended only 3 years before. It was 12 years after VE Day, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Operation Hurricane, the UK’s first test of an atomic device, took place in 1952. Elvis hadn’t gone to Germany. The Beatles were a skiffle band called the Quarrymen and McCartney was due to meet Lennon at a garden fête. The Cold War was a small but worryingly chilly spot on the list of things to do for bored statesmen for whom conflict of any shape was the only satisfying career path.
The novel is set in 1963. A Third World War has occurred. What would come to be known in the post-atomic era as mutually assured destruction, M.A.D., occurs in the northern hemisphere. The Earth’s weather systems gather up and channel the fallout into the southern half of the globe. It spirals slowly down through the Tropics, a blanket of misery causing all living things to suffer a painful, protracted death by radiation poisoning. In Melbourne, the last American submarine and its newly appointed Australian liaison officer take one last sortie to identify if anyone north of the Equator has survived.
Here at the end of the world, in the bright days of an antipodean Winter, the end of the world is a presence both real and unreal. Aside from a lack of some essentials such as petrol, life goes on. Men still retire to the warmth and safety of their clubs at midday for a stiffener. Wives meet for coffee and host congenial cocktail parties for friends. Families continue to swim before dinner and farmers bemoan the lack of transportation for their milk. Shops are open. Banks are open. The Australian dollar will still buy you hardware in Melbourne. It’s not denial so much as a calmly surreal acceptance that Nature is about to deliver the fruits of their own species’ stupidity. Details of the war arrive piecemeal, fired into conversations over dinner or in a Naval briefing, lodging in your brain the way tiny slivers of glass break the surface of the skin. The civil and military authorities and the population of Australia know their fate but are powerless to stop it. They can only wait, for a miracle, or more likely for the curtain of invisible particles to reach them and exact their merciless impact. They wait for Godot, knowing Godot will turn up.
Reading On The Beach in 2019 is a sobering exercise, but one occasionally laced with a particularly English dose of cliché. Despite being set in Australia, and featuring Australian and American characters, the language and tone is very much that of the middle-class English bank clerk. Exposition and dialogue are laid out in the clipped vowels one might expect a husband to use when leaning against the fireplace, knocking out the old baccy from his pipe and gently persuading his wife that panic solves nothing; ‘Chin up Margery old sport, be a good girl and take a breath. While we still can. It’s just radiated fallout, so three weeks of excruciating vomiting, diarrhoea and heart palpitations and it will all be over. Are my cricket whites clean?’ This is not to suggest that the novel is misogynistic or anti-female in any way, just that it’s a product of its time. It does not suffer for it. In fact, the sense of ‘and the band played on’ heightens the underlying tension in the reader, such that when the radiation is a few hundred miles north of Melbourne, Shute switches from the practicalities of the situation to a perfectly paced wind down of the main character’s lives. It’s pitched beautifully to tug at the heartstrings and have the reader bristling with the total futility of Atomic war.
‘There never was a bomb dropped in the Southern Hemisphere,’ she said angrily. ‘Why must it come to us? Can’t anything be done to stop it? He shook his head. ‘Not a thing. It’s the winds. It’s mighty difficult to dodge what’s carried on the wind. You just can’t do it. You’ve got to take what’s coming to you, and make the best of it.’
What must it be like knowing your life is ending and there is nothing you can do?
As the story nears the end, shop owners give away items for nothing, people stop turning up for work and the gentlemen frequenting their clubs do their damnedest to finish the quality alcohol. There are some wonderful set pieces and some that rip your heart out and stamp on it while you watch. I long to discuss them with you but would rather you read them for yourself and make your own judgement. An odd situation, to be sure. There is only one outcome available to Shute at the end, yet to discuss the way he does it would be to spoil your experience of it.
What is articulated in no uncertain terms is the sense that an Atomic war of any magnitude was, at the time, the ultimate expression of man’s hubris; to believe that on a planet of billions, there isn’t someone stupid enough, given the means and motive, not to use a weapon far in excess of anything required to settle an argument. Consider that in 2017 there were still circa 9,500 nuclear warheads in the world, the majority of them thermonuclear (fission, not fusion, and vastly more powerful). There isn’t a scenario you could conjure where using that amount of destructive weaponry is worth it. Shute knew it.
I never made it to the pub. I was too busy reading. The parallels between how far money and commerce have become key drivers in society, both at a macro and individual level, and the emptiness and vanity that hangs over the City of London like a financial mushroom cloud were not lost on me as I turned the pages. Wars are fought because someone wants more than someone else. Greed is good, right? Enjoy spending your money in the Nuclear Winter.
Quotes used without permission.
Published by: Vintage Classics