Keep calm and carry on: Shute (1957), On the Beach

“No imagination whatsoever,” remarked the scientist. “It’s the same with all you service people. ‘That can’t happen to me’.” He paused. “But it can. And it certainly will.”

“I suppose I haven’t got any imagination,” said Peter thoughtfully. “It’s—it’s the end of the world. I’ve never had to imagine anything like that before.”

p89

Shute is one of those authors that I’ve always been aware of. He was part of the canon when I was doing my GCSEs at private school—for reasons that, in light of On the Beach, are now very obvious—and I’m pretty sure we read A Town Called Alice for GCSE study, though it’s remarkable that I can remember almost nothing about the book beyond its title.

(It may seem a strange thing for a writer to say, but I frequently bounced very hard off of the assigned Eng Lit texts at school, despite being an enthusiastic reader outside of the curriculum. This was less to do with the critical analysis that always seems to get blamed for putting kids off literature, and more to do with the books themselves seeming boring—perhaps because a thirteen-year-old is not in the best position to appreciate the subtle nuances of angst as portrayed in the bourgeois novel, no matter how notionally or aspirationally bourgeois their upbringing and circumstances. But why generalise? All I can say for certain is that I found a lot of it to be tedious tosh, taking up valuable time that could have been spent on Terry Pratchett, David Eddings or the endless unspooling of the Dragonlance franchise novels, which was about the extent of my sophistication at the time. I found Shakespeare to be a mixed bag, too. It probably comes as no surprise that a class privately-schooled of teenage boys loved Macbeth, me included—and our teacher had the savvy and the guts to show us the Polanski movie when we’d finished the play, which was memorable to say the least—but The Merchant of Venice went way over my head, perhaps because of a studious avoidance of the topic of antisemitism in that and every other subject taught at the school, history included. Selah. I should really read Shakespeare properly as an adult, I suppose. That might be a good project for a summer.)

Anyway: digressions upon unsuccessful educational tastemaking aside, I’ve long felt I should probably read some Shute, if only because he counts among the surprisingly generous list of authors that Portsmouth can claim among its famous sons, even if the majority of them, from Dickens onwards, made a point of getting the hell out of the town as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Shute was involved in aircraft engineering projects between the world wars, and ended up in special weapons development with the Royal Navy during the latter conflict, after which he emigrated to Australia, where many of his novels are set, On The Beach among them. What makes OTB unusual is its being set somewhat ahead of the time of its writing; I’ve seen it described as Shute’s “science fiction” novel, but that would really be to do both Shute and sf a simultaneous disservice. It does, however, share something with what Brian Aldiss famously dubbed the “cozy catastrophes” of John Wyndham and others—perhaps more so than the canonical examples of the category.

For Aldiss the cozy catastrophe was a novel of disaster and/or apocalypse in which “the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off”; OTB, very much a novel of disaster and/or apocalypse, is thus notable for the fact that while its protagonists might have all of these things, they actually indulge in relatively few of them, or even actively decline and resist them. In the less-often-quoted part of Aldiss’s diss, he observes that the cozies were “anxiety fantasies” whose popularity was rooted in the ongoing fall of the British Empire—and in this sense OTB is perhaps the coziest catastrophe of them all, perhaps because written by someone very much on the side of that collapsing (or rather, as we now understand, already collapsed) empire, while Wyndham et al were a little more critical of it.

Enough preamble. The plot is pretty simple: at some unspecified date, which we might guess to be the mid-1960s, a multilateral international exchange of nuclear weapons has wiped out the entire northern hemisphere. Due to certain aspects of meteorological physics—the scientific veracity of which I am inclined to doubt, but leave that aside—the lethal fall-out and contamination is slowly and steadily making its way over the equator and into the southern hemisphere over the course of the year after the conflict itself, creeping steadily toward the Antarctic in a predictable and unhurried fashion. Our focal characters—for this is a book written in the now less fashionable omniscient third-person mode—are based in the Australian city of Melbourne, and are drawn mostly from the naval officer and landed gentry class. Most are citizens of what at the time was still considered a colony of the British Empire (to the extent that, at one point, the naval officers refer to themselves as British rather than Australian), though the closest thing to a central protagonist is a USian submarine captain, Dwight Towers, whose boat somehow avoided the nuclear war and ended up in the antipodes. The novel follows the characters as they go about the work of trying to keep the aspidistra flying in the face of a doom which is never in any serious doubt at any point: the war happened, the north is a wasteland devoid of human life, and the fallout is coming.

And for the most part, maintaining an increasingly absurd normality in the face of their impending deaths exactly what they do for the whole damned book, which is basically a paean to the imperial stiff upper lip, and to the not-unrelated sang froide and emotional discipline of naval officers in general—a behavioural stereotype which, as Shute would likely have claimed with pride, was quintessentially British in origin (and, as Shute might not have claimed, is about as close as you can get to a reification of the British class divide as seen from the vantage of the upper half thereof).

So, a cozy catastrophe in many regards, albeit absent any obvious sfnal trope playing the role of concretised metaphor. Though of course the concretised metaphor is there all along, at least for a modern reader: the nuclear war and its fallout, while almost certainly representing nothing-but-itself on one level, is also figuring the erasure of the world that empire(s) made thanks to the failure to sustain said empire(s). This is made very clear in a number of passages, notably this one near the end, in which Commander Peter Holmes explains to his wife Mary, as they both experience the escalating symptoms of radiation sickness:

“Newspapers,” he said. “You could have done something with newspapers. We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no Government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we’d been wise enough.”

She did not fully comprehend his reasoning. “I’m glad we haven’t got newspapers now,” she said. “It’s been so much nicer without them.”

p302

(Shortly afterward this passage, as they prepare to take their suicide capsules, Mary exhorts Peter not to forget to turn off the electricity at the mains. At this point I was tempted to wonder if I’d been misreading all along, and perhaps OTB was a satire… but no, no it is not.)

Earlier in the book, a discussion between other navy types reveals that it is assumed that the international exchange of nukes was kicked off by (of all things) the Egyptian airforce deciding to drop one on New York, resulting in a cascade of assumed-enemy-identification that sees the US and Russia going full defcon-1 at one another, followed by the Chinese pitching in at Russia—or is it the other way round?— in the hope of depopulating some potentially useful territory for later; the cascade is apparently sustained by the early wipe-out of military top-brass on all sides, with strategic and tactical decisions thus falling to more junior (and hence inadequate-to-situation) officers. “Ah, a lament upon the tragic foolishness of nuclear weapons, then”, you might be thinking—but you couldn’t be more wrong. The error was not nukes themselves, you see, but rather the post-imperial error of allowing little tinpot nations to have them, not to mention peddling them military hardware that they just weren’t capable of playing with like the adults.

The premise is thus profoundly reactionary, and that sense of it being an artefact of a (gratefully) bygone era is maintained by the dialogue, which is full of stiff British archaisms, the tonal shibboleths of the last generation of the old officer class; it feels almost parodic, though it was clearly written with complete sincerity.

The action, such as it is, is likewise a stiff conservative fantasy of going out with dignity, with the last representatives of Anglo civilisation keeping up appearances and sustaining the rituals as the clock runs relentlessly down. Towers’s submarine, tacitly seconded to the Royal Navy on the basis that there is no other command structure to fit into any more, is despatched first on a short recce of Australian ports further north, which the fallout has already reached—conclusion: nothing’s moving, everyone’s dead—and later on a grand tour of major population ports in and around the North American landmass, with a particular focus on Seattle, from whence a sporadic and unexplained morse transmission has occasionally been received. On investigation, this is of course an unmanned comms station with its generators still running, the morse key being periodically nudged by a loose window frame. While in the area, one submariner for whom it was once home goes AWOL, and is later seen to have commandeered a motor launch, in order to get one last day of fishing in his home town at the expense of shortening his life expectancy by a few months. This is disapproved of, but—in a gentlemanly way—left unpunished.

(I feel this is the strangest note in the book, in that there was the opportunity here to contrast, favourably or otherwise, the officers’ dutiful sustaining of order and routine with the more wilful fuck-it-life’s-too-short attitude of the boys below decks… but it’s just kind of shrugged off as one of those things. I mean, sure, what punishment could you administer that a) didn’t involve getting his rad-soaked body back onto the boat, and b) would be any more horrific than leaving the guy to die from the radiation poisoning, just a few months before everyone else got to go the same way? But nonetheless, it feels tonally very strange to me, even within the context of a novel whose overall tone is buttoned up tighter than a colonel’s uniform. The same applies to the passage quoted at the top of this piece, which again suggests an awareness on Shute’s part, through his proxies on the page, that there’s something almost pathological about the refusal to think things through, but accompanied by the seeming assumption that the pathology is a worthy and noble one. And, now I come to phrase it like that, I suppose it’s something of a piece with the imperial-hauntological attitudes underlying Recent Political Events In Britain. Hmm.)

Once back in Melbourne, Towers’s boat—and indeed pretty much all substantive operations, naval or otherwise—is laid up, and he joins in with the general winding down of all things, which is where we start to get the full conservative cozy experience. To be clear, some folk are going off the rails: the streets of Melbourne are furnished with people spending the whole of their last months of life drunk, but they are mentioned only in passing, as if to illustrate the patrician generosity of the officer class in letting them indulge their weakness in the face of annihilation. (The old boys at the gentlemen’s club, making their steady way through the sherry cellar, are viewed with something close to approval; they’re getting on a bit, after all, they’ve earned it.) But mostly it’s a crescendo of extreme normality, with farmers fixing hedges and ploughing fields, new mothers planning next year’s flower borders, a vein-popping clutch at the pearls of continuity. That said, it’s not denial, at least not on the part of the chaps—here’s Holmes, indulging his wife’s insistence that they should really get a lawnmower:

She lived in the dream world of unreality, or else she would not admit reality; he did not know. In any case, he lover her as she was. It might never be used, but it would give her pleasure to have it.

p261

The closest thing to a counterpoint to all this is Moira, a young woman who, at the beginning of the novel, is implied to have been not just drinking relentlessly but shagging any man who will lay still for long enough, but who throughout the book—after having encountered the stolid practicality of Captain Towers, with his calmly sustained refusal to internalise the annihilation of his wife and children in a navy town back in the States, and naturally fallen head over heels for the chap who doesn’t want to sleep with her—gradually cleans up her act and adopts the appropriate stiff upper lip, right to the point of driving out to a headland beyond the city, incipient radiation sickness symptoms be damned, so she can wave goodbye to Towers as he sails off into the sunset to scuttle his boat and go down at the helm. The final weeks do feature some devil-may-care behaviour from various chaps, much of it revolving around a motor race standing in for a barely sublimated death drive: much more manly to mangle yourself and others in a pile of twisted metal at 100mph than to wait for the inevitable arrival of the radiation, to which you can’t even raise your fists! But otherwise it’s wall-to-wall keep calm and carry on, utterly devoid of irony, right to the end, fade to black.

As is presumably obvious, I found it absurd, risible and quite infuriating. It was interesting read from a technical perspective; as mentioned, few folk write in third-person omniscient these days, perhaps because it’s hard to do well without losing the reader (Gwyneth Jones is the only exemplar of this approach that leaps to my mind, though perhaps it’s more common outside the walls of genre?), and I feel I learned a few things about how to keep the reader on track during transitions from one POV to another without the use of line breaks or paragraphs. It’s also, as I hope I have shown, a fascinating work from a historical perspective: not even seventy years old, it feels like something from a far more distant epoch, though that sense of the alien can perhaps be ascribed to my own political positionality as the reader as much as to Shute’s as the author. I don’t regret reading it—life is too short for finishing books you can’t be bothered with, and frankly I’d rather rage-read something that pushes all the wrong buttons than plod through with something bland and unprovocative—but I doubt I’ll read it again.

I doubt I’ll be reading A Town Called Alice, either.

2 thoughts on “Keep calm and carry on: Shute (1957), On the Beach”

  1. I think the meteorology is probably about right: Northern and Southern Hemisphere air masses really only mix where they both rise together at the Doldrums, then they turn either north or south and don’t meet again for many years. I think Shute was a pilot, they usually know their stuff on air movements.

    I guess he probably matured as a writer, but I wouldn’t put it past Shute to have wedged some satire into that book. He was a fairly astute social observer, it’s on show in Beyond the Black Stump.

  2. I really enjoyed this, Paul. I’ve never read any Shute and from what you’ve described I probably never will.

    Your issues with school curriculum reading struck a chord. When I was about 13 I was taken to task by my English teacher for reading books that were “beneath” me. The book she had spotted was a Joyce Stranger novel – short books containing people who have difficulties, resolve them through forming friendships and having animal companions and a little romance; I’d say ideal reading for a 13 year old girl.

    I was also reading at that time Rosemary Sutcliffe, Geoffrey Trease, Joan Aiken, Penelope Lively, Andre Norton, John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov, Robert A Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Melanie Rawn, Anne McCaffery, Edgar Allan Poe, Alexandre Dumas, Terry Pratchett and a whole host of other things lurking in the local library or on the shelves of Smiths. I had read “The Lord of the Rings” and “Watership Down” when I was 11. My outside of school reading was for fun, interest and entertainment. I don’t think my English teacher understood that.

    Doug had a similar experience and explained the mathematical concept around sample numbers, ie, that this sample of one book he’d been seen reading was insufficient to demonstrate a trend. Apparently the teacher wandered away, Maths not being his forte!

    I still have very fond memories of the Dragonlance series.

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