Text Publishing have been particularly astute in reissuing, in a new hardback edition, Nevil Shute's famous 1957 book about the end of the world, On the Beach, which was filmed in 1959 by Stanley Kramer, starring Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins.
Ava Gardner has long been attributed to the comment, "On the Beach is a story about the end of the world and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it", but it was a deletion by an Age newspaper subeditor that changed the setting of a journalist's words. Gardner, when questioned later, said that she did not remember saying it but "would take credit for it anyway".
On the Beach was perhaps the most influential example of all the 1950's fiction which reflected the Cold War fear of nuclear annihilation. In the first six weeks after the film came out, the American edition of the book alone sold 100,000 copies and it ultimately sold more than four million copies.
Gideon Haigh, who provides a perceptive 31-page introduction to Shute and the book, argues that On the Beach is "arguably Australia's most important novel", in that it "told the world, in language that everyone could understand, that nuclear war means death. And the world listened".
Haigh follows the career path of British-born aeronautical engineer Nevil Shute Norway (1899-1960 ) and the influences on his life and work both in Britain and Australia. Shute migrated in 1950 to Australia, a setting he used to great effect in bestsellers like A Town Like Alice and On the Beach. Shute, whose manuscript archive is held in the National Library of Australia, was never a great stylistic novelist, but his books captured the popular imagination of global middle-class readers.
The events of On the Beach cover the period from Christmas 1962 to the end of August 1963, after a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere, which originated in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. No nuclear bombs landed in the Southern Hemisphere, but its inhabitants are doomed by the slowly descending radioactive cloud.
Haigh notes that Shute derived his cobalt bomb technical detail from the publications of ANU's pro-nuclear scientist Sir Ernest Titterton, the man who 'pushed the button' for the world's first nuclear weapon.
There are no scenes of mass rioting, looting or anarchy as death looms in On the Beach. Shute's focuses on a small number of characters, who, reflecting Shute's own conservative nature, are restrained in their emotions. In the novel, unlike the film, the two main characters, US Commander Dwight Towers and 24-year-old hard drinking Moira Davidson, never consummate their love.
The members of the Pastoral Club, a thinly veiled Melbourne Club, also take to drink, given that there are 3000 bottles of vintage port to be drunk in six months. Shute poignantly captures, through the Holmes family, the dilemma of whether you should kill your children first and then commit suicide. Shute's 1976 biographer, Julian Smith, termed On the Beach, "a novel about suicide". The book ends with Moira: "Then she put the tablets in her mouth and swallowed them down with a mouthful of brandy, sitting behind the wheel of her big car".
Shute reflects the courage and fortitude of the people he witnessed in the London blitz of World War II, depicting good people in dark times, as indeed we have seen with those confronting the Australian bushfires.
On the Beach was filmed on the Mornington Peninsula in a scorching 1959 Australian January. Now, in the devastating heat and apocalyptic bushfires of Australia's summer of 2019/2020, we have seen thousands of people literally on the beach awaiting evacuation. In a recent newspaper story, a young woman wrote from Canberra: "Sitting, nauseous with morning sickness, on a park bench in the bright heat of an unusually hot spring day, my partner and I watch children march past us, striking from school ... I wonder if my child will ever have the innocence I had two months ago, of not having to think about whether the air will kill you". In Shute's case, it was radioactivity in the atmosphere; now it's dangerous toxic smoke within a climate change framework.
Recent years have seen, in similar fashion to the 1950s, a plethora of dystopian novels, TV series and films, reflecting global fears about climate change. Could a powerful Nevil Shute-like novel and movie about global warming help change the political debate over climate issues?
Clinton administration climate advisor John Atcheson has written, "Shute's On the Beach made the consequences of nuclear war real, and therefore, unthinkable...In a scientifically illiterate culture such as ours, these kinds of myth-based meta-narratives may be the best way to communicate complex scientific issues like climate change". Let's hope for an On the Beach of climate change.