Monday, 26 August 2019

Double standards and the end of the world

On the Beach We're all going to die but most of us don't know when, unlike the characters in Nevil Shute's book On the Beach.

The story takes place in 1963, around five years after the book was written. A nuclear war that started by mistake and lasted thirty seven days has wiped out all human life in the Northern Hemisphere. As the world tilts on its axis, the deadly fallout is slowly carried into the Southern Hemisphere, and in Melbourne, the scientists calculate that there is up to 9 months left before residents of the city will start to die from radiation sickness. The story describes how some residents prepare for death.

By far the best character is Moira, a young woman who, at the beginning of the book is biding her time drinking double brandies and partying. She meets the rather dull and upstanding American submarine commander, Dwight Towers, and as their platonic relationship develops, she follows his example and prepares for the end of days by doing something useful. The men find dignity through their work, and get to go on dangerous submarine scouting missions. In their spare time they drive fast cars. Moira however goes in for mending Dwight's clothes and learning shorthand and typing. Well, the book was written in the 1950s, and the author was rather middle-class.

The minor character Douglas Froude also deserves a mention. He's great-uncle to John Osborne, the scientific officer. As a member of the Pastoral Club Froude discovers "over three thousand bottles of vintage port still left in the cellars," and when asked what he's going to do about it, he says there's only one thing to do, "Drink it, my boy, drink it - every drop." Here again, it's perfectly acceptable for the old goat to drink himself into a stupor, whereas Moira "drinks too much. Still, she does it on brandy they tell me, so that makes a difference."

On the Beach very much reflects the decade in which it was written. If you can get over that, it's a great premise. Initially one might find it ridiculous to imagine that in the face of certain death most people would just continue to go about their daily lives, but by the end, one wonders if that might actually be the best thing to do.

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