Gideon Haigh is a journalist and one of the very best cricket writers in the world today. He has written for The Age, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, The Times and Wisden Cricket Monthly, amongst many other publications, and he has been editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack Australia. His cricket books include Mystery Spinner: The Story of Jack Iversen (runner-up for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year prize in 2000), The Big Ship: Warwick Armstrong and the Making of Modern Cricket, Silent Revolutions: Writings on Cricket History and Downed Under: The Ashes in Australia 2006-7. He is also the author of Asbestos House: The Secret History of James Hardie Industries. In this essay Gideon discusses Nevil Shute's On The Beach.
The essay first appeared in the June 2007 issue of The Monthly, magazine of Australian politics, society and culture. It is posted with Gideon's kind permission. Because of its length I am spreading it over four posts.
Gideon Haigh on On The Beach by Nevil Shute
Nevil Shute Norway was an engineer. His business was aeroplanes. Writing? A 'pansy occupation'. His older brother Fred - now there was a writer. Then Fred was killed in France, aged nineteen. 'If Fred had lived we might have had some real books one day, not the sort of stuff that I turn out,' said Nevil. 'For he had more literature in his little finger than I have in my whole body.' Nevil Shute Norway dispensed with his surname, fearful that 'hard-bitten professional engineers might consider such a man not a serious person'.
Yet fifty years ago this month, Shute published arguably Australia's most important Australian novel - important in the sense of confronting a mass international audience with the defining issue of the age. On The Beach, the story of humankind's thermonuclear extinction, sold more than four million copies. Shute was the first genuinely popular mainstream novelist to envision apocalypse, and one of only a handful to see the horrific mission through by leaving no survivors - just a silent irradiated planet, adrift in space.
Shute was a Briton. But, set in his new home of Melbourne, no novel could be more explicitly Australian than On The Beach, or make such provocative creative use of Australia's distance from the rest of the world: as the last habitable continent, Australia is suddenly the most important place on earth, at the very moment of its greatest impotence and ignorance, awaiting dooming winds from an incomprehensible war in the northern hemisphere.
Australians were shocked to see themselves so cast. Nineteen-year-old medical student Helen Caldicott was radicalized into a lifetime's anti-nuclear activism: 'Shute's story haunted me... Nowhere was safe. I felt so alone, so unprotected by the adults, who seemed to unaware of the danger.' It was in the US, however, that the book had its greatest impact, rousing readers from an uneasy stupor, becoming one of the Cold War's most powerful cultural artefacts.
Early on July 22 1957, a false alarm of nuclear attack sounded in Schenectady, New York. Only one man, reported Harper's, roused and evacuated his family. Everyone else, including civil defence officials, emulated the mayor, who 'rolled over and went back to sleep'.
Into this eerily somnolent world was On The Beach released. Debate was underway in the US about fall-out from nuclear testing in Nevada, and Shute's publishers had brought forward the book's release, sensing its topicality. Shute was pessimistic. A decade had passed since the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists had set its famous 'doomsday clock' ticking, but the incident at Schenectady epitomized the apathy and complaisance of the times; thus Einstein's observation that nuclear weapons had changed 'everything except the nature of man'. The atomic bomb was still identified with resolving the Second World War; the five-year-old hydrogen bomb was seen as a lesser scourge than communism. People seemed unshockable.
Advance copies of On The Beach had been sent to a host of politicians, including the next US president John F. Kennedy, and senior military officials. Some had offered startlingly candid endorsements, including consecutive secretaries of the US Air Force, Stuart Symington and Thomas Finletter. 'Every American should read On the Beach,' stated Symington, at the time Joe McCarthy's senate nemesis. 'I hope it is fiction,' responded Finletter, later Kennedy's ambassador to NATO. 'Are you sure it is?' Readers wanted to find out. Selling 100,000 copies in its first six weeks, On The Beach even displaced Peyton Place from the top of bestseller lists.
Some critics complained that the book's resolutely low-key depiction of human extinction was unconvincing: people just wouldn't die that way. Yet readers identified readily with the characters' quiet dignity. This conventional novel about unconventional weapons became 'the most influential work of its kind for the next quarter of a century and the only one most people ever read', says critic Paul Brians, precisely by being simple.
Shute directly addresses the most primal fears of the human race which has spent most of its history denying or compensating for the fact of personal death, and does so with a relentlessness which the complex technique of a more sophisticated writer might have muted. For once there are no distractions: no invading aliens, no super fall-out shelters to protect the protagonists, no struggle back from a dreadful but exciting postwar barbarism. There are simply a man and a woman reaching the agonizing decision to kill their only child in its crib as the rest of the human race expires round them.The passages Brians describes, where Australian naval officer Peter Holmes seeks to persuade his wife that this may be necessary, are the more harrowing for the constancy and devotion they exhibit elsewhere.
She watched him with growing hostility. 'Let me get this straight,' she said, and now there was an edge in her voice. 'Are you trying to tell me what I've got to do to kill Jennifer?'By September 1957, On The Beach had been serialized by no fewer than forty American newspapers, and acquired for screen adaptation by director of the moment, Stanley Kramer. Shot on location in Melbourne with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, it would be the first American film screened in the USSR.
He knew that there was trouble coming, but he had to face it. 'That’s right,' he said. 'If it becomes necessary you'll have to do it.'
She flared suddenly into anger. 'I think you're crazy,' she exclaimed. 'I'd never do a thing like that, however ill she was. I'd nurse her to the end. You must be absolutely mad. The trouble is that you don't love her. You never have loved her. She's always been a nuisance to you. Well, she's not a nuisance to me. it's you that's the nuisance. And now it's reached the stage that you're trying to tell me how to murder her.' She got to her feet, white with rage. 'If you say one more word, I'll murder you!’
Shute loathed it. Nonetheless, a lifetime of fifteen million books sold afforded him some satisfaction. On January 12 1960, a few weeks after the film's release, he wrote an admirer, poet David Martin: 'A popular novelist can often play the part of the enfant terrible in raising for the first time subjects which ought to be discussed in public and which no statesman cares to approach. In this way, an entertainer may serve a useful purpose.' The next day, seated behind his favourite old roll-top desk, he finished a sentence in his next novel Incident at Eucla, gazed out on the towering Cypress Pine that dominated his immaculate English-style garden, and suffered a lethal stroke.
Hardcore Nevil Shute devotees call themselves 'Shutists'. Their most recent world conference was held in Alice Springs in April, organized by Dan Telfair, a retired US Army Ranger from Alberquerque, and Laura Schneider, a teacher from South Orange, New Jersey. Their network is satisfyingly fanatical and impressively dispersed. Nonetheless, Shute languishes in something very like obscurity - for reasons not far to seek. His twenty-three novels are plain, staid, even chaste: they proceed sedately towards broadly positive conclusions; they contain no bad language, no villains of note, and are almost devoid of sex. Generally, his characters are ordinary middle-class people faced by extraordinary situations, their customs and conventions evoked with a clear but kindly eye. Who can forget the telegram in A Town Like Alice (1950) that heroine Jean Paget sends hero Joe Harman whom she had feared dead at the hands of their Japanese captors in Malaya?
HEARD OF YOUR RECOVERY FROM KUANTAN ATROCITY QUITE RECENTLY PERFECTLY DELIGHTED STOP.The decline is unremarkable: it simply attests the perishability of popular art. Shute aspired to neither literary immortality, nor critical approval: 'The book which thrills the reviewer with its artistic perfection will probably not be accepted by the public, while a book which the public value for its contents will probably seem trivial and worthless artistically to the reviewer.' His obscurity also reflects the contours of the book market: the middle-class, middle-brow novelist with ideas is a discontinued line.
Shute's views, moreover, would today have him excluded from any self-respecting liberal intelligentsia. He was a rock-ribbed conservative, a monarchist, a meritocrat, an ex-serviceman, a self-made millionaire capitalist. He was indulgent of colonialism; disapproved of democracy; loathed the welfare state; and vehemently opposed state support for creative writers, informing Sir Robert Menzies that it turned them into pretentious snobs: 'It encourages him to take an inflated view of his own genius, an attitude which places him out of sympathy with his potential readers... I see no point in subsidizing young writers to produce what the public does not want to read.' He loathed 'modern art', and read little fiction, starting Voss (1957) but losing interest; he much preferred Geoffrey Blainey's Tasmanian mining history The Peaks of Lyell (1954), and wrote the twenty-five-year-old a generous letter of praise.
Not that Shute was a controversialist; suffering from a stammer, he was a diffident public speaker, a reluctant interviewee. But he was shy rather than timid. He traveled constantly, and to some of Australia's remotest reaches; his diaries and notebooks teem with factual detail and anthropological observations. He flew planes, sailed boats, raced cars, and rejoiced in machines of all kinds, even owning Australia's first dishwasher. Such values as he held, he felt, were simply the fruit of experience; they were the values that led him to On The Beach.