THEY don’t make novelists like Nevil Shute any more: a self-made millionaire who served in both world wars, allergic to literary society, disdainful of critics and against state support for the arts.
Nor are novels like Shute’s in vogue today. They feature no bad language, barely a hint of sex, showcase mainly ordinary people, seldom feature an obvious villain and proceed at a stately pace to generally positive conclusions.
Fifty years ago, Shute published what deserves to be regarded as this country’s most important novel.
On The Beach is the story of a group of everyday Australians dealing with a fate almost beyond imagining: the annihilation of themselves, along with their planet, in the aftermath of a short but deadly nuclear war.
It was the first book of its kind and still among the most shocking. Most novels of apocalypse posit at least a group of survivors and the semblance of hope. On The Beach allows nothing of the kind.
Even the war, we learned, was a mistake, escalating from a tit-for-tat regional conflict in the Middle East, because nuclear weapons had become so cheap that “every pipsqueak country could have a stockpile”.
Australians, spared the flames of atomic destruction, now helplessly await the plague of radiation.
Set in Melbourne, and in the landscape around Shute’s home on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, On The Beach chilled a generation.
Within months it had been serialised in more than 40 newspapers.
Most famously, the rights to adapt it to the screen were acquired by Stanley Kramer. With its unforgettable concluding views of Melbourne’s deserted streets, On The Beach (1959) was shot on location with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, and became the first American film shown in the Soviet Union.
In hindsight, the year of On The Beach’s publication marked a turning point in the Cold War, where a state of paralysed public acquiescence gave way to fear and alarm, from which emerged the likes of Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and America’s Council for a Sane Nuclear Policy.
So why is Shute barely known today? In truth, he is an awkward figure to accommodate in a pantheon of Australian literary heroes.
For one thing, he was not an Australian but a transplanted Briton; for another, he regarded himself not as a writer, but as an engineer.
Shute’s real name was Nevil Shute Norway – he truncated his identity in print for fear of ridicule from other engineers. He helped design Britain’s most successful airship, went into business manufacturing light aircraft with great success then helped design things that kill in an admiralty thinktank called the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development.
Shute began writing full time only after World War II. Five of his novels were filmed, the best known being No Highway (1951), starring Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, and A Town Like Alice (1956), with Peter Finch.
By this time, disappointed by Britain’s post-war malaise, and detesting its Labour Government, he had brought his family to Australia. He had visited while crossing Asia in his private plane, been excited by its emergent prosperity and gravitated to Melbourne, finding Sydney tawdry.
Shute, indeed, had strong views on many matters, almost all of which would offend members of today’s left-liberal intelligentsia.
A monarchist who disapproved of the equalising effects of democracy, he once conjectured that Australians owed their success in the arts, sciences and sport to “large meat meals”.
He loved machines, especially those that went fast: to research the climax of On The Beach, in which the last of mankind competes in a mad and lethal grand prix, he raced his Jaguar XK140 at Phillip Island Raceway.
Probably Australia’s wealthiest creative artist of the ’50s, he wrote to Sir Robert Menzies that state support for writers gave them an “inflated view” of themselves: “I see no point in subsidising young writers to produce what the public does not want to read.”
Yet it’s exactly because it is a novel in tune with the conservatism of its time that On The Beach succeeded, revealing the besetting issue of their time – and, in some ways, of ours.
For with India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran either nuclear states or very near it, the proliferation that Shute feared 50 years ago is every bit as much a 21st century phenomenon.
In researching Shute for The Monthly, I read all 23 of his novels, pored over his manuscripts, stayed in his house, sat in his car, made friends in the worldwide army of “Shutists” who keep his name and works alive.
I also wondered why our creative artists seem to have given up on a mass audience for issues of magnitude, and why politics divides us even on the matter of our preferred catastrophes.
* Gideon Haigh’s article on Nevil Shute appears in June 6’s The Monthly
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