“It’s not the end of the world at all,” he said. “It’s only the end for us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it.
I dare say it will get along all right without us.”
I’m a total sucker for stories about “ordinary people” thrust into extraordinary circumstances, who discover inner resources they didn’t know they had, which enable them to triumph over adversity.
It’s a formula that certainly worked very well for Dick Francis, British jump-jockey turned mystery writer. But in the 1940s and ‘50s, it was another British-born writer who used that formula to best advantage. Only the title of his darkest book is still familiar to most Americans, and that’s because of the 1959 film: On the Beach.
(IMO, the re-make in 2000 was far less memorable. Its attempt
at updating the original just muddled the story.)
The public library my mom and I visited at least twice-monthly in the mid-1960s was housed in a temporary building while awaiting funding for the splendid new edifice that was still years away from breaking ground. This library was like some “shabby-genteel spinster”– a lady clinging precariously to respectability, surviving on the hand-outs of her more prosperous relatives. All the books had been donated, so I read many obscure or out-of-print authors, and lots of classics.
The first book I read by Nevil Shute was his last book, from 1960, which was the same year he died of a stroke. It was called Trustee from the Tool Room. I quickly borrowed the few other books of his that were in the library’s meager collection: A Town Like Alice, The Far Country, No Highway and Round the Bend.
The Shute books donated to our “genteel poor” library turned out to be the ones I liked best, so a tip of the hat to the unknown donor who had such discriminating taste.
Round the Bend may be the Shute book I like most of all, because it combines a picture of post-WWII, when military pilots were adjusting to civilian flying, with a cultural collision that had unexpected consequences for its pragmatic narrator Tom Cutter. He and Shaklin are unforgettable characters. The book covers thousands of air miles, racial prejudice, aircraft maintenance, philosophy, religion and the meaning of friendship.
Nevil Shute Norway (1899-1960) was an aeronautical engineer, who used his middle name as a pen-name to protect his engineering career from any negative reactions to his novels, which were often based on his experiences working for de Havilland and Vickers, and as a pilot. He worked as a stress engineer under Barnes Wallis (who would later design the bouncing bomb immortalized in the film The Dam Busters) on the ill-fated R-100 airship. When the R-100 project was canceled in 1931, Shute and designer A. Hessell Tiltman went into partnership, forming the aircraft construction company Airspeed Ltd. Their successful Envoy aircraft would be modified for military use as the Airspeed Oxford, which became the standard advanced multi-engined trainer for the RAF and British Commonwealth, with over 8,500 being built.
After Shute developed a hydraulic retractable undercarriage for the Airspeed Courier, he was recognized for his body of work with induction as a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
In 1948, with fellow writer James Riddell, he flew his Percival Proctor to Australia and back. This trip would radically change Nevil Shute’s life. In 1950, he moved with his wife and two daughters to a farming area southeast of Melbourne.
Between 1956 and 1958 in Australia, he took up auto racing as a hobby, driving a white Jaguar XK140. Some of this found its way into On the Beach.
On the Beach is unlike Shute’s other books. The optimism, although often a cautious optimism, of the rest of his writing is gone here.
The phrase “on the beach” is a Royal Navy term that means “retired from the Service.” The title also refers to the T. S. Eliot poem The Hollow Men, which includes the lines:
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.
Printings of the novel, including the first 1957 edition by William Morrow and Company, NY, contain extracts from the poem on the title page, under Nevil Shute’s name, including the above quotation and the concluding lines:
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
There’s not much room for optimism in a novel about people waiting for their turn at extinction. On the Beach was a powerful warning about the consequences of building weapons of mass destruction. If you build it, someone will use it.
Shute’s “unlikely” scenario of Albania bombing Italy, setting nuclear dominoes falling worldwide, doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched anymore. There are too many small countries and radical groups who are either seeking to get their hands on nuclear devices, or who already have their fingers on the buttons. We can only hope that cooler heads will prevail, and a single nuclear attack won’t set off “Mutually Assured Destruction.”
I much prefer Shute’s vision of life’s possibilities in his “good reads.” Think I’ll track down some copies and re-read them. After so many years and so many other books, it’ll be like the first time. “Everything old is new again” is one of the advantages of my Golden Years.
- Torquay Beach, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia
- Photo of Neville Shute
- A Percival Proctor
- Aire River mouth at Bass Strait, Victoria, Australia
- “There’s still time Brother” – still from the 1959 film of On the Beach