The original book was published in 1957, so the events it portrays would have been, for its first readers, speculative fiction about the future, for it occurs sometime in the early sixties. The Pan Books edition I have (from which page citations are taken), was first published in 1966 and had reached a fourth printing in 1969, indicative of the book's popularity at the time.
That the book begins (on p. 5) with the famous quotation of T. S. Eliot's from 'The Hollow Men', which ends with 'Not with a bang but a whimper' ought to serve as a warning.
That passage is incongruously followed by a hopeful beginning (pp. 7-8), some of which I will quote here.
Lieutenant-Commander Peter Holmes of the Royal Australian Navy woke soon after dawn. He lay drowsily for a while, lulled by the warm comfort of Mary sleeping beside him .... . He woke happy, and it was some time before his conscious sense realized and pinned down the origin of this happiness. It was not Christmas, because that was over. ... Christmas was over, and this - his mind turned over slowly - this must be Thursday the 27th. ... He had a date at eleven o'clock in the Second Naval Member's office, in the Navy Department up in Melbourne. It meant a new appointment, his first work for five months. It could even mean a seagoing job if he were very lucky. ... He had had no appointment since he had been promoted lieutenant-commander in August and in the circumstances of the time he had almost given up hope of ever working again.Good news, right? A promotion in August and an appointment at Christmas, so what if it seems a bit odd that Peter Holmes should have waited five months for work?
That something is not quite right becomes apparent quite soon; for the narrator explains (on p. 8):
They had a small car in the garage, but since the short war had ended a year previously it remained unused. [It transpires that Peter is an able mechanic and has put together a trailer which he and Mary can pull on their bicycles.] What's up with this?Also back on p. 7:
As he [Peter] lay in bed the sunburn on his back was still a little sore from their day on the beach yesterday, and from sailing in the race. Interesting that Shute should use the words of the title of the book so soon.More on the car, p. 9:
[Peter]... had returned to Falmouth to his Mary [they had married in 1961] and his Morris Minor car. The car had three gallons in the tank; he used that unheeding, and another five that he bought at a pump, before it dawned upon Australians that all oil came from the northern hemisphere. Earlier in the same paragraph, Shute writes of a war, lasting a mere thirty-seven days, that had 'flared all round the northern hemisphere', a war 'of which no history had been written or ever would be written now'. We'll learn for certain what has happened (the book jacket has already told us, come to that), but Shute is damn good at chilling implications.Peter goes to a farm by bicycle to fetch some milk (pp. 10-2).
'I was saying to the wife,' the farmer remarked slowly, 'if I had a little trailer like that I could make it into a chair for her, put on behind the push bike and take her into Falmouth, shopping. ... I'd like to be able to do that for the wife,' he remarked. 'After all, from what they say on the wireless, there's not so long to go.'On pp. 14-6 is a lengthy description of the report of American submariner Commander Towers, commander of the atomic-powered USS Scorpion. It is too long to quote at length. The discovery of excessive radioactivity, the inability of the submarine to contact anywhere in the U.S. and the evident destruction of the Philippines by atomic weaponry, and the passage, worthy of underlining, that: 'Here he [Towers] learned for the first time of the Russo-Chinese war that had flared up out of the Russo-NATO war, that had in turn been born of the Israeli-Arab war, initiated by Albania. He learned of the use of cobalt bombs by both the Russians and the Chinese[.] [p. 15]'
The naval officer nodded. 'I'll scout around a bit today and see what I can find. You don't mind what they cost?'
The farmer shook his head. 'So long as they're good wheels, to give no trouble. Good tyres, that's the main thing - last the time out. Like those you've got.' The things the farmer says: 'there's not so long to go', 'last the time out'. I think I know what he means by them. Australia is staring at something it cannot bear to face.
On p. 17, Peter Holmes says to the Admiral:
'Will the ship be at sea for much of that time, sir? I'm married, and we've got a baby. Things aren't too easy now, compared with what they used to be, and it's a bit difficult at home. And anyway, there's not so long to go.' There it is again. The Admiral's response is not to chide Peter, but to note that 'we're all in the same boat.'On p. 18 as Peter considers his options and whether he can afford to be away from Mary for two months (one of two missions the Admiral tells him the Scorpion will be taking).
It should be all right for him to go, so long as nothing further went wrong. But if... the radioactivity spread south more quickly than the wise men estimated ... Put away that thought. There we have it. Brutal.On p. 23, Peter invites his commanding officer, the American Towers, to stay at his home for a couple days. Towers gives it some thought:
'My wife would like it if you could come.'On p. 24, Peter apologises to Mary for not being able to join her on the beach, in the words I used as the title of this post (referring back to the plans they made on p. 8). If I were to write a marginal comment here, ti would be:
'That's mighty nice of you,' the captain said thoughtfully. He took another drink of coffee as he considered the proposal. Northern hemisphere people seldom mixed well, now, with people of the southern hemisphere. Too much lay between them, too great a difference of experience. The intolerable sympathy made a barrier. With such understatement does Shute turn the screw.
The significance of this is as yet unclear, but it probably signifies something more than just a reference to a locale.On p. 25, we learn that Mary, in fact, would not like it if Towers could come. Her reaction upon learning of Peter's invitation to the American officer:
She stared at him in consternation. 'Not Commander Towers?'Later we are introduced to Miss Moira Davidson, a friend of Mary's and a party girl who agrees to help keep the good Commander Towers occupied. Apparently she lives off brandy (having sworn off gin) and parties all the time. Her reasoning:
He nodded. 'I felt I had to ask him. He'll be all right.'
'Oh ... Peter, he won't be. They're never all right. It's much too painful for them, coming into people's homes.'
He tried to reassure her. 'He's different. He's a good bit older, for one thing. Honestly, he'll be quite all right.'
'That's what you thought about that RAF squadron leader,' she retorted. 'You know - I forget his name. The one who cried.'
He did not care to be reminded of that evening. 'I know it's difficult for them,' he said. 'Coming into someone's home, with the baby and everything. But honestly, this chap won't be like that.' Chilling to hear a dispute between a husband and wife over his impulsive invitation, when the people invited are those whose homes and loved ones have been lost forever; 'they', of course, are 'northern hemisphere people'.
They [Peter and Moira] turned to walk together to meet the train. 'What time did you go to bed?' he asked.And again, on p. 30:
'About half past two.'
'I don't know how you can keep it up. I couldn't.'
'I can. I can keep it up as long as I've got to, and that's not so long now. I mean, why waste time in sleeping?' She laughed a little shrilly. 'Just doesn't make sense [p. 28].' Yet another statement of quiet desperation. Moira was probably a bit of a party girl to begin with; in the aftermath of the war, when 'there's not so long to go', she is almost in as it were a frenzy.
One must concentrate on the present and forget the past.Which is Commander (now known as Lionel Dwight) Towers admonishing himself mentally not to think about holidays he would have liked to have had.
On pp. 36-40, Moira and Dwight talk. Their discussion of how the radioactive particles are gradually making their way into the southern hemisphere would take too long to quote in full. But it is a conversation one feels that they don't really need to have. Despite her apparent ignorance (earlier Moira has already shown a great ability for pretense at ignorance), Moira probably knows the answers she asks of Dwight. It is only that they are talking about it because it is there to be talked about, and what else, in the end, is there to talk about? The passage also reveals a great deal about Moira's character: she is taking what has happened badly (and who can blame her?): 'it's not fair', she says, more than once.
Skip a bit. No marginal commentary until the end of the third chapter, when Moira and Dwight are once again in conversation at the Holmeses.
They are talking about a cruise another American nuclear submarine, the Swordfish (based in South America) made to North America and Europe (pp. 92-4). The Swordfish at one point entered New London, 'in Connecticut... [at] the mouth of the Thames River. ... It was their home port. ... It's the main US Navy submarine base on the east coast[.] ... Most of them lived there, I guess or in the general area. Like I did.' Conversation turns, predictably, to Dwight's family. Pp. 94-6 (end of chapter). Moira shows she is more than she lets on. Dwight and Moira play-act, talking about his children as if they were still alive and about to begin new chapters of their lives; knowing full well, as they admit at the end, that it is all a game of 'let's pretend'. The chapter ends with the sentence, 'They walked together in silence to the beach.' The beach signifies something more than just its location, but what that is I don't yet know. Perhaps it is the last place where the fate awaiting everyone can be set aside for just a little while. Not a return to primeval innocence, but a forgetting of the future, a place for 'just now'.
I was just about to complain that Shute wasn't characterising Peter Holmes or his wife Mary well (he has done a rather good job with Moira and Dwight), when he gives them a passage at the beginning of the fourth chapter in which they discuss plans for a garden (pp. 98-9). Peter and Mary drag Moira and Dwight into it.
The girl glanced at the American. 'Someone's crazy,' she said quietly. 'Is it me or them?'Another example of the naturally slackened naval discipline (which I noted above): Dwight - the captain, of all people - is quite happy to go round with hole-ridden socks and a button missing from his shirt (pp. 105-6). But is anyone surprised by this? Interestingly, though, the American navymen still don't drink while on duty (see, e.g., p. 20); they have not slacked off on this point, probably because it is a way of reminding them who they are.
'Why do you say that?'
'They won't be here in six months. I won't be here. You won't be here. They won't want any vegetables next year.'
Dwight stood in silence for a moment, looking out at the blue sea, the long curve of the shore. 'So what?' he said at last. 'Maybe they don't believe it. Maybe they think that they can take it all with them and have it where they're going to, some place. I wouldn't know.' He paused. 'The thing is, they just kind of like to plan a garden. Don't you go and spoil it for them, telling them they're crazy.'
'I wouldn't do that.' She stood in silence for a minute. 'None of us really believes it's ever going to happen - not to us,' she said at last. 'Everybody's crazy on that point, one way or another.' [pp. 99-100] Interesting. The 'play-acting' seems to be being taken a little more seriously; but I think that it is Peter and Mary's way of coping with what they know will happen to them, whether they believe it or not, just as Dwight copes with it by imagining what he will do with his family when he returns home (knowing full well he shall not return home and that his family is dead) and Moira by trying to get outside herself by drinking and partying. I wonder in what ways we all do this sort of thing? To what extent is it normal? Healthy? Unhealthy?
Dwight sat up on the sand. They are on the beach. 'All this beautiful warm water going to waste,' he remarked. 'I think we ought to use it.'
Moira stood up. 'Make the most of it,' she agreed. 'There's not much of it left.' [p. 104] So they don't really escape from the knowledge of what is going to happen to them on the beach; as Moira and Dwight's subsequent conversation as they swim (again, about Dwight's past and family; pp. 104-5) shows, they are prepared to talk about their former lives. Perhaps the beach is really where they come to grips with what is going to happen. Also, is it just me who thinks that the proverb 'carpe diem', which Dwight and Moira essentially appeal to, is only wholly appropriate in situations such as the one the characters of On the Beach face? Normally we always have to look to the future because we have to deal with the consequences of our actions in the future, as do future generations. But of course in On the Beach, there IS no future.
Moving along. P. 116; Dwight has been invited by Moira to spend a few days at her family farm. In conversation about the spreading radioactive particles with her parents:
'Thank you, I believe I will.' [said Dwight] Dwight is referred to as 'the captain' for the most part during his visit with Moira's family; her father as 'the grazier'. He stood up and poured himself a drink. 'You know,' he said, 'now that I've got used to the idea I think I'd rather have it this way. We've all got to die one day, some sooner and some later. The trouble always has been that you're never ready, because you don't know when it's coming. Well, now we do know, and there's nothing to be done about it. I kind of like that. ...'It turns out that not everyone is play-acting, at least, not all the time:
'You're a regular naval officer,' the grazier said. 'You're probably more accustomed to this sort of thing than I would be.'
'Will you evacuate?' the captain asked. 'Go some place else when it gets near? Tasmania?'
'Me? Leave this place?' the grazier said. 'No, I shan't go. When it comes, I'll have it here, on this veranda, in this chair, with a drink in my hand. Or else in my own bed. I wouldn't leave this place.'
'I'd say that's the way most folks think about it, now that they've got used to the idea.' Unsentimental Dwight. Under ordinary circumstances, Dwight's attitude would be, in my view, a bit off. Actually, he is being somewhat disingenuous, given how he pretends to himself that his family is still waiting for him. But he and the grazier have a point, too; when it comes, they won't try to escape when they know escape is impossible. Better to die at home (a possibility for the grazier) or, I suppose, among one's comrades or friends (as Dwight may well do).
[pp. 118-9; Moira and Dwight are looking at some of Moira's old secondhand toys] [Moira] stood for a a moment looking in at the door thoughtfully. 'I never would let Mummy give any of my toys away,' she said quietly. 'I said that I was going to keep them for my children to play with. Now there aren't going to be any.'
'Too bad,' he said. 'Still, that's the way it is.' He pulled the door to and closed it on so many sentimental hopes. Unsentimental Dwight again - I do not say it in condemnation. But Dwight's unsentimental approach is, as we have seen and likely will see again, a front.
[Mary] reached out, dropping the dead cigarette, and took the box from [Peter]. The box contains pills so that people can die before they suffer the eventually unavoidable effects of lethal radioactivity. She read the instructions printed on it in black. At last she said, 'But, Peter, however ill I was, I couldn't do that. Who would look after Jennifer?' What?On we go. As the end draws near, people begin to root out fuel to drive their cars.
'We're all going to get it,' he said. 'Every living thing. Dogs and cats and babies - everyone. I'm going to get it. You're going to get it. Jennifer's going to get it, too.'
She stared at him. 'Jennifer's going to get this sort of - cholera?'
'I'm afraid so, dear,' he said. 'We're all going to get it.' Repetition.
She dropped her eyes. 'That's beastly,' she said vehemently. 'I don't mind for myself so much. But that's ... it's simply vile.' [p. 136] Did Mary hope that somehow, Jennifer would not become sick? Again, hard to blame her; many are they who are prepared to face the prospect of any ruin for themselves but couldn't bear to see it happen to their children. And she's right - it IS vile. Under ordinary circumstances the idea of a government providing the means for mass suicide is appalling - but of course the circumstances for the inhabitants of Melbourne and environs are anything but ordinary.
'Let me get this straight,' she said, and now there was an edge in her voice. 'Are you trying to tell me what I've got to do to kill Jennifer?'
He knew that there was trouble coming, but he had to face it. 'That's right,' he said. 'If it becomes necessary you'll have to do it.' In terms of probability, if 1 were the best possible conversation a husband and wife could have about their children and 0 the worst, this would be a 0.
She said furiously. 'There's a trick here, somewhere. You're trying to get me to murder Jennifer and kill myself. Then you'd be free to go off with some other woman.'
... 'Don't be such a bloody fool,' he said sharply. ... 'There's another thing you'd better think about ... Jennifer may live longer than you will.' He held up the first red box. 'You can chuck these in the dustbin,' he said. 'You can batle on as long as you can stand, until you die. But Jennifer may not de bead. She may live on for days... with you dead on the floor beside her and nobody to help her. ... Do you want her to die like that?' [p. 137] Can't quote the passage in full, reading it to quote it again is heartbreaking. Mary on the next page realises Peter is right, but still. You can't blame her for wishing Jennifer wouldn't be hurt, and by rights what Peter is suggesting would be vile. But we can often deny the reality of the situation until somebody says it.
Like a sponge squeezed by the pressure of circumstances, Australia began to drip a little petrol, and as the weeks went on towards August the drip became a trickle. [p. 198]Things are getting progressively more depressing, at least for the reader. Except for the two-month long submarine mission (pp. 155-81, the whole of the sixth chapter with a brief interlude for Mary and Moira), the try-outs for the Australian Grand Prix is one of the most sustained events in the book, and consists of a bunch of drivers living out their death wishes (pp. 199-209). The reason it takes up such space is that it is a showcase for one of the other main characters, a fellow by the name of John Osborne, scientist and racing enthusiast.
Dwight Towers... had become mobile. The First Naval Member had sent for him one morning and, with poker face, had declared that it was only fitting that the Supreme Commander of the US Naval Forces [consisting at this point of the Scorpion, which is not even going anywhere anymore] should have transport at his disposal[.] [loc. cit.]
The Australian Grand Prix at that time was the premier motor race of the southern hemisphere. [p. 199] Shute turning the screws again.
'There's not so long to run now, anyway.' [said Peter to Dwight.; p. 212] A recurrence of the phrase from the first chapter, in different form. By this time it is August, radiation sickness has occurred in Sydney, and time is running out.Peter and Mary discuss future plans.
'When is the Grand Prix going to be?' [asked Dwight]
'I'm having a bit of a row with them over that,' said the scientist. 'They've got it down for Saturday fortnight, the 17th, but I think that's too late. I think we ought to run it on Saturday week, the 10th.'
The scientist glanced at [Peter]. 'I've got it now. You've got it, we've all got it. This door, this spanner - ... . The air we breathe, the water that we drink ... .' [p. 213] He sounds like Yoda talking about the Force; only the omnipresent substance about which John speaks is radioactive dust (I omitted a phrase where he mentions it by name).
'So all of Africa is out. [said the General; the General, Douglas Froude, is John's uncle; John and Peter are visiting him at one of Melbourne's most exclusive clubs] I've had some good times there, back in the days before the First War, when I was a subaltern. But I never did like that apartheid ... Does that mean we're going to be the last?' Oddly, this is the least oblique of any commentary on social life by Shute in the whole book; I say 'least oblique' because it was the only sort of comment which caught my attention. Of course the book as a whole is a commentary on life, but it is hard to digest and come to grips with a whole book, even one so short as On the Beach.
'Not quite,' his nephew said. 'We're going to be the last major city. They've got cases now in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, and they've got a case or two in Auckland. After we're gone Tasmania may last another fortnight, and with South Island of New Zealand. The last of all to die will be the Indians in Tierra del Fuego.' Some epitaph.
The scientist shook his head. 'There's nobody there now, so far as we know.' He smiled. 'Of course, that's not the end of life upon the earth. ... There'll be life here in Melbourne long after we've gone.'
They stared at him. 'What life?' Peter asked.
He grinned broadly. 'The rabbit. That's the most resistant animal we know about.'
The General pushed himself upright in his chair, his face suffused with anger. 'You mean to say the rabbit's going to live longer than we do? ... You're telling me the bloody rabbit's going to put it across us, after all? They'll be alive and kicking when we're all dead?'
The General sank back in his chair. 'The rabbit! After all we've done, and all we've spent in fighting him - to know he's going to win out in the end!' [pp. 215-6] 'The rabbit' is Australia's most destructive pest, having spread like wildfire upon arrival. To this day, I believe, a great deal of time and effort is spent on the part of Australians to deal with rabbits. I suspect that for an Australian this passage would be one of the most depressing: 'to know he's going to win out in the end!' Shute must have smiled when he learned that rabbits were most resistant to radiation sickness.
They got short drinks, and presently she said, 'Peter, now that we've got petrol, couldn't we have a motor mower?'There is a lengthy passage when Moira and Dwight go fishing up in the mountains, as a bit of a holiday.
'They cost quite a bit,' he objected, almost automatically.
'That doesn't matter so much now, does it? And with the summer coming on, it would be a help. I know we've not got very much lawn to mow, but it's an awful chore with the hand mower, and you may be away at sea again. If we had a very little motor mower that I could start myself. ... I think it would be a lovely thing to have.'
She lived in a dream world of unreality, or else she would not admit reality; he did not know. In any case, he loved her as she was. It might never be used, but it would give her pleasure to have it. [p. 223] Interesting that Peter considers Mary's inability to stare reality in the face, when, of course, we've already seen him do the same thing with the garden; and many times Dwight has talked about his family as if they were still alive, and Moira has gone along with that (in fact they do such a thing just a bit earlier in the book, on pp. 219-20).
[Dwight] sat in the back seat of the car fingering the little rod as they drove out into the suburbs, looking at the streets and houses that they passed in the grey light of the winter day. Very soon, perhaps in a month's time, there would be no one here, no living creatures but the cats and dogs that had been granted a short reprieve. Soon they too would be gone; summers and winters would pass by and these houses and streets would know them. Presently, as time passed, the radioactivity would pass also; with a cobalt half-life of about five years these streets and houses would be habitable again in twenty years at the latest, and probably much sooner than that. The human race was to be wiped out and the world made clean again for wiser occupants without undue delay. Well, probably that made sense. [pp. 229-30] In the running for most depressing passage of the book.
'This is such a lovely place,' she said. 'Can you believe - really believe - that we shan't see it again?'By the last chapter, sickness has at last appeared in Melbourne. This is it.
'I'm going home,' he said quietly. 'This is a grand country, and I've liked it here. But it's not my country, and now I'm going back to my own place, to my own folks. I like it in Australia well enough, but all the same I'm glad to be going home at last, home to Connecticut.' He turned to her. 'I shan't see this again, because I'm going home.' Dwight goes to church punctually, but says of himself that he is not religious. 'Going home'; he knows from the report of the Swordfish that he can't really go, and of course he would not find a crew for Scorpion to go. 'Going home' for Dwight is death. What else could it be?
'Will you tell Sharon [Dwight's wife] about me?' she asked.
'Sure,' he said. 'Maybe she knows already.'
She stared down at the pebbles at her feet. 'What will you tell her?'
'Lots of things,' he said quietly. 'I'll tell her that you turned what might have been a bad time for me into a good time. I'll tell her that you did that although you knew, right from the start, that there was nothing in it for you. I'll tell her it's because of you I've come back to her like I used to be, and not a drunken bum. I'll tell her that you've made it easy for me to stay faithful to her, and what it cost you.'
She got up from the stone. 'Let's go back to the hotel,' she said. 'You'll be lucky if she believes a quarter of all that.'
He got up with her. 'I don't think so,' he said. 'I think she'll believe it all, because it's true.' [pp. 236-7] This is quite the passage. What Dwight says is true. Moira has helped him get through to the end (almost) without becoming a wreck. She has also changed, going from party girl to trying to earn certification as a typist. Of course she is not wholly innocent (on pp. 234-5 she rues the fact that she doesn't have a few years to make Dwight forget about his family and start a new life with her), but she has been able to love Dwight rightly. Theologically, Moira is the character who eventually displays the most self-giving love.
'I'm glad John got what he wanted,' the girl said. [On the radio they heard that John Osborne won the Australian Grand Prix.] 'I mean, he wanted it so much. It must kind of round things off for him.'
The American beside her nodded. 'I'd say things are rounding off for all of us right now. ... You glad we came, though?'
She nodded. 'I've been very happy Dwight, all day. I don't know why - not just catching fish. I feel like John must feel - as if I've won a victory over something. But I don't know what.' [p. 238] Ordinarily it would be a bit cute that a major character would win a race like that, but circumstances for the characters being what they are and at this point in the book as a reader, you don't feel so badly about it. I think Moira's victory has been, as John's really was, over herself.
They stood in silence for another ten minutes. Finally the Admiral reappeared, grey faced. 'Very good of you to wait,' he said. 'I've been a bit unwell ...' [he is suffering from diarrhoea, one of the initial stages of radiation sickness] He did not resume his seat, but remained standing by the desk. 'This is the end of a long assocation, Captain,' he said. 'We British have always enjoyed working with Americans, especially upon the sea. We've had cause to be grateful to you very many times, and in return I think we've taught you something out of our experience. This is the end of it.' He stood in thought for a minute, and then he held out his hand, smiling. 'All I can do now is to say good-bye.' [p. 243] Something I wanted to remark upon was the habit of the Australian navymen to refer to themselves as 'British'. I doubt that it is something they do now, but perhaps it was an official naval term for Commonwealth navies when they referred to themselves as 'Royal X Navy'. Dwight to go down with the ship.I'll say no more; the last few pages are, as you might expect, heartbreaking. Although I should note that whatever the beach represents, it is lost after Dwight, Peter and John return from the Scorpion's lengthier, second voyage, as no one returns to the beach after that mission. Allow me to finish with an epitaph, as it were, of the book, written by one Gideon Haigh in 2007:
'I've been so terribly worried,' [Mary] sobbed. 'But now it's going to be all right.'
Nothing was further from all right, he thought, but he did not say so. 'What's been worrying you?' he asked gently.
'People get this thing at different times,' she said. 'That's what they say. Some people can get it as much as a fortnight later than others. I might have got it first and had to leave you, or Jennifer, or you might have got it and left us alone. It's been such a nightmare...'
She raised her eyes to his, smiling through her tears. 'But now we've got it all together, on the same day. Aren't we lucky?' [p. 250] Earlier Mary has been pretending she wasn't sick. Jennifer, the baby, has already thrown up. Mary is crying from relief, because now they've all got it together, they'll die together. Okay, maybe THIS is the most depressing passage in the book.
Presently she said. 'Peter, why did all this happen to us?? Was it because Russia and China started fighting each other?'
He nodded. 'That's about the size of it,' he said. 'But there was more to it than that. America and England and Russia started bombing for destruction first. The whole thing started with Albania.'
'But we didn't have anything to do with it at all, die we - here in Australia?'
'We gave England moral support,' he told her. 'I don't think we had time to give her any other kind. The whole thing was over in a month.'
'Couldn't anyone have stopped it?'
'I don't know ... Some kinds of silliness you just can't stop,' he said. 'I mean, if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honour requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there's not much that you or I can do about it. The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness.'
'But how could you have done that, Peter? I mean, they'd all left school.'
'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 someting might have been done with newspapers, if we'd been wise enough.' [pp. 257-8] Taken as Shute's thought on what might be done to prevent such a horror as he narrates, this is a ridiculous solution; I'm sure Shute knew it must be. But if this speech is not viewed as Peter being Shute's mouthpiece but as something he is saying because he does not know what else to say, perhaps, or as something to reassure Mary, it feels right. Although perhaps, if Peter is acting as a mouthpiece, there is a point: no doubt many disasters could be avoided if we looked at life differently. It is merely that the magnitude of the disaster in the book makes any solution seem silly; but perhaps that is part of the problem, too. We can't imagine so big a problem being avoided by so simple a solution, but many times that is how it must be. It will not be heroism that preserves us from such a fate, but men and women continually striving in small ways for peace.
[On the Beach] was the first book of its kind [I have no idea whether Haigh confirmed this] 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.It is somehow right that it should be so.