Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 320 pages; 2009.
As a teenager in the 1980s, I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War nuclear arms race. At the time there was a very real fear that Armageddon was just around the corner. It frightened me so much I still remember writing English essays about nuclear war and angst-filled poetry about world peace.
Australia may have seemed a long way away from the two main adversaries, the USA and Soviet Union, but anxiety about the nuclear threat was very real at that point in time.
I still remember the terrifying image, depicting Sydney Harbour after a nuclear strike, on the front cover of Red Sails in the Sunset, an album by Australian rock band Midnight Oil. I bought it upon release in 1984 and remember feeling incredibly impassioned by the lyrics, which were filled with political messages about the nuclear threat we all faced. (The band’s singer, Peter Garrett, even went on to stand for the Nuclear Disarmament Party although he didn’t get voted in.)
Not long afterwards, in 1985, the McClelland Royal Commission investigated secret British nuclear tests on Australian soil, including Maralinga, in the 1950s. I still remember the veterans who had been subject to the blasts being interviewed on TV news broadcasts. This short film (below) sheds further light on what happened.
Meanwhile a Greenpeace campaign was in full swing to protest against French military testing of nuclear weapons on Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific. The protest turned nasty when the French Foreign Intelligence Services sunk Greenpeace’s flagship, The Rainbow Warrior, in the port of Auckland in July, 1985.
It was about this time that I read Nevil Shute’s nuclear holocaust novel On the Beach. I was 15 or 16 and remember being totally gripped by the story. It all seemed unbearably sad, totally realistic and did absolutely nothing to dispel my fear of Armageddon being just around the corner!
Twenty-five years later, would it live up to my memory of it?
Before I answer that, let me explain the story.
It is 1963. The entire population of the Northern Hemisphere has been wiped out by nuclear war and now the radioactive cloud is drifting slowly south, killing everyone in its wake. As the most southerly city on the Australian mainland, Melbourne is the last bastion for human habitation. And it is here that the American Navy has retreated. When a faint morse code signal is detected coming from the United States, a submarine is dispatched to make contact…
The novel is largely set in the naval dockyards of Williamstown (which, ironically, is the Melbourne suburb of my birth) and the fictional Falmouth (which, I suspect is a town on the Mornington Peninsula), although a great part of the action is set on a nuclear-powered submarine. However, I use the term “action” quite lightly, because not a great deal happens in the book.
Essentially, everyone knows that death is looming large but instead of going completely crazy about the situation, all the characters carry on their day-to-day lives as if everything is hunky dory. In Shute’s world it’s clear that civilisation is robust and there’ll be no succumbing to riots or looting or anything immoral. Indeed, there might only be two weeks to live but if you want to go and buy a lawn mower, you can simply pop into the local hardware store and you’ll receive the usual friendly customer service to which you’ve become accustomed. I suspect this business-as-usual approach is merely a reflection of the times in which it was written (On the Beach was first published in 1957), but it seems quite odd and dated today.
In fact, there’s a lot about this novel that appears ludicrous when viewed with modern eyes, and I have to admit that there were times I thought the characters behaved so ridiculously or said unbelievably silly things that I wanted to throw the book across the room. After awhile I began to view the entire novel as a comedy, and while there’s certainly a lot of gallows humour in it, I’m not sure that was Shute’s intention.
Peter looked at the price tag, picked up the mower, and went to find the assistant. “I’ll take this one,” he said.
“Okay,” said the man. “Good little mower that.” He grinned sardonically. “Last you a lifetime.”
For the most part I found the characterisation poor — the male characters in particular are almost indistinguishable from one another — but there was one shining light in the form of Moira Davidson, a 20-something single woman, who has a penchant for drinking vast quantities of brandy and flirting with men. She strikes up a platonic friendship with Dwight Towers, the captain of the US Scorpion, around which most of the story hinges.
Mary, the wife of Peter Holmes (the central character), is also well-drawn, in the sense that her sheer naivety makes her stand-out from the rest of the cast.
But strangely for a book about the death of the human race, there’s very little emotion aside from one touching scene in which Mary and Peter discuss how to deal with their young baby, Jennifer, when the radiation sickness strikes.
Shute also tends to write in a fairly stilted manner, using phrases that seem ridiculous — “The breakfast came upon the table” — and referring to characters by their nationality or occupation — “The Australian”, “The scientist”, “The Commander” — which grate with constant repetition.
While On the Beach is an entertaining, dare I say it, fascinating read, its purpose is not so much literary but cultural, revealing as it does a 1950s mindset coming to terms with the end of the world. I suspect this is one of those novels you love first time round, but a second reading only serves to reveal its weaknesses and Shute’s writerly quirks.