The Australian book you’ve finally got time for: On the Beach by Nevil Shute | Australian books

I often wonder how many people bought On the Beach when it came out in 1957, assuming it was a novel about a group of gorgeous, sun-kissed surfers catching breaks all summer long. On the Beach is instead about a bunch of miserable Melburnians waiting to die slowly and horribly from radiation poisoning after the world has been annihilated in a nuclear holocaust started by the Albanians.

Nevil Shute Norway (he dropped Norway when writing) must have been fond of the beach, because he invented a beach-based weapon of mass destruction called the Panjandrum. Figuring it might be a tad suicidal to launch a frontal assault on the Nazi machine gun nests in Normandy, the British called upon Sub-Lieutenant Norway to come up with a device capable of breaching defences while everyone sheltered in the landing craft. The Panjandrum was two giant wheels connected by a drum, powered by rockets and loaded up with explosives. The idea was you rolled it out of the boat, lit the fuse and stood well back, whereupon it would spin up the beachhead like an out-of-control Burning Man installation and blow the Nazis to smithereens.

Nevil Shute signing books in 1953.
Nevil Shute signing books in 1953. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

It didn’t work. In testing, the Panjandrum ran amok, haring off along the beach at 100km/h, launching missiles in every conceivable direction. It almost wiped out the entire Allied high command, who were observing from a very unsafe distance. It later appeared on Dad’s Army.

Disenchanted with Britain, Shute moved to Australia in 1950 and wrote one book a year until his death in 1960. First out of the gate was A Town Like Alice, which saw him quickly accepted as a major Australian writer.

On the Beach sold millions of copies upon release and was hailed as the most important Australian book ever written. A movie was immediately rushed into production, starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins, directed by Stanley Kramer. It came out in 1959, only two years after the novel.

Despite hewing fairly closely to the book, even going so far as to shoot scenes in Frankston, Berwick, Melbourne CBD and on Phillip Island, the movie was not a success. An apocryphal quote was famously (and erroneously) attributed to Ava Gardner, in which she described Melbourne as “the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world”. The quote was fabricated by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Neil Jillett for a satirical piece and endures in Victorian folklore to this day.

As a microcosm of 1950s Australian paranoia and inadequacy, On the Beach is a dynamite isolation read. Despite lending moral support to the United States during the brief war, Australia’s cities didn’t even merit a couple of nukes. Instead, invisible death in the form of fallout is slowly creeping south. Cairns, Brisbane and Sydney succumb, their voices falling silent. Melbourne is hailed as the last outpost of humanity, a major diss to Hobart.

Gregory Peck walks with Ava Gardner in a scene from the 1959 film On The Beach.
Gregory Peck walks with Ava Gardner in a scene from the 1959 film On The Beach. Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty Images

For a while, Melbourne embraces its status as party capital of the world. Shute has characters dance the night away, drinking brandy and running riot on Swanston Street. In restriction-era Australia, this alone makes the novel a hedonistic delight, but the main point of excitement is generated by the arrival of an American nuclear submarine, commanded by handsome, veritable “sad Keanu” Dwight Towers. Unfortunate survivors of the apocalypse, the crew mope around port, a boat without a fleet.

Dwight falls for feisty local Moira Davidson, even though he has a wife and kid back home (he knows they’re probably dead) but their end-times relationship is curtailed by a mission from the prime minister. A nonsensical morse code signal has been picked up emanating from Seattle and the USS Scorpion is being sent to investigate if radiation levels have fallen. Royal Australian Navy officer Peter Holmes accompanies the Americans, leaving his wife and baby daughter behind in Frankston (an unnecessary cruelty). Civilian Julian Osborne (a cynical, ferocious performance by Fred Astaire in the film) joins the expedition as science officer.

Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire
Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire in On the Beach. Photograph: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

No prizes for guessing that the journey is in vain. By the time the submarine returns, radiation is almost upon the city. Chemist Warehouse doles out suicide pills, forcing those with pets and children into a nightmarish scenario. It’s looking bleak for our heroes, but things pick up when Osborne, determined to check out in a blaze of glory, buys a Ferrari for a hundred quid and enters it into the last ever Grand Prix, which is open to anyone.

Some 280 drivers turn up and the book suddenly becomes the Fast and Furious franchise entry of our dreams. Every amateur street racer in Melbourne gives it a go, tricked-out sedans lining up next to Maseratis. No one cares if they get killed and pretty much everyone dies in a ball of flame as they spin off the course.

A more poignant, romantic fate awaits Osborne, as it does star-crossed lovers Dwight and Moira. Still, On the Beach offers a hellish vision of an alternative Melbourne, one where every citizen eventually finds themselves staring at a handful of cyanide pills. The closing scenes of the movie were shot early on a Sunday morning in the city. The streets are empty. Newspapers tumble in the wind. It’s game over.

• Chris Flynn is the author of Mammoth, out now through UQP

• On the Beach by Nevil Shute was reissued in 2019 in Australia by Text Publishing

Source: The Guardian

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