September 15, 2009

Nevil Shute: On the Beach

Posted in Shute Nevil at 8:00 am by John Self

Nevil Shute was always one of those authors I intended to read, but my excuse for not having done so was that his books weren’t available in nice editions in the UK. (I didn’t say it was a very good excuse.) Until recently, the curious House of Stratus kept him in print here, in editions that looked more like textbooks than novels. Now, Vintage Classics have reissued all his novels, though only four (A Town Like Alice, Pied Piper, Requiem for a Wren and this one) have been given cover illustrations. The rest are, I understand, print-on-demand editions and have identical text-only covers a little like Faber poetry books.

Nevil Shute: On the Beach

When I saw that On the Beach was published in 1957, three years before Shute’s death, I wondered if it was a rare example where an author’s most famous book is one written late in his career. The reason why On the Beach is so well known is easily seen: its bold conceit is that it describes the last months of human life on earth following a nuclear war.

The 50s and 60s were a boom time for popular dystopias, and the loose environmental future-fear of Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, Christopher’s The Death of Grass and Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! probably explain why they’re once again in vogue. Shute’s springboard in On the Beach, however, was specifically Cold War-related: China and Russia have exploded thousands of nuclear warheads in territorial battle. This is conveyed in a needless ten-page dialogue to explain to the reader how the nuclear devastation came about. I’d have preferred it to remain unspecific, though the details were probably more effective and frightening for readers at the time (the book is set a few years in the future, in 1963).

As a result of the war, the whole northern hemisphere has been devastated by radiation, and no humans survive (though dogs and rabbits will outlive them: no mention of cockroaches though). Winds are bringing the radiation south, and one of the last countries to be affected is Australia. By the time we join the narrative, even northern cities like Darwin have succumbed to radiation death, and Melbourne is a holdout. We join a series of largely undifferentiated characters for their last days.

Rather like The Death of Grass and The Day of the Triffids, the spirit of 1950s British stiff-upper-lip remains (Shute was born in England but settled in Australia after the war.) There is little hysteria, other than one affecting scene – at least to a new parent like me – where a couple discuss what will have to be done to their baby when the clouds come. The only signs of a crumbling of social order are in the last days, when shopkeepers no longer care whether they receive payment: but continue to turn up each day and serve their customers. Unlike later writers such as Golding or Ballard, Shute seems to be assuring us that the veneer of civilization is robust. At times the stoicism seems parodic, as characters joke about the suicide pills being made available by the government.

“Everybody’s after these,” she said, smiling. “We’re doing quite a lot of business in them.”

He smiled back at her. “I like mine chocolate coated.”

“So do I,” she said. “But I don’t think they make them like that. I’m going to take mine with an ice-cream soda.”

(Smiling seems to be Shute’s shorthand for characters who are in a good mood. When they’re really happy, there’s a lot of grinning.) Out of context it looks like a satire on social mores (“You’ve got to take what’s coming to you and make the best of it”), but even when a character does express fear, they’re quickly tramped down. One character wishes she were dead already: “it’s like waiting to be hung.” “Maybe it is,” says her companion. “Or maybe it’s a period of grace.”

This made me think of parallels with Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, where the characters and their truncated lives represent us all. Similarly, On the Beach could be an extension of all our lives taken to the extreme: we all know that we will die sooner or later, so why bother continuing to plant flowers for next season, taking part in car racing, or any of the other quotidian tasks that the characters here do? As a distraction? As work for work’s sake? (“Even if we don’t discover anything good, it’s still discovering things.”) Because the alternative is, literally, nothing?

There is the occasional joke, sometimes gallows humour (“Before the war it had probably been the best club in the Commonwealth. Now it certainly was”), and sometimes a sort of poking fun at how human insularity is abandoned at just the wrong moment, when one woman says she can’t imagine how American towns must look devoid of life, then adds, “I never saw them, of course. I’ve never been outside Australia.” Surprisingly, there is almost no suggestion that anyone expects a life after death, though this enhances Shute’s bleak vision.

On the Beach is old-fashioned and a traditional popular novel, with a good deal of exposition in dialogue (“We’re all going to get it. We’re all going to die of it. That’s why I want to tell you just a bit about it,” begins one such reader-friendly prompt.) Yet part of the appeal is the fustiness of the dialogue and telling – which presumably they weren’t when it was published half a century ago. (Abbreviations, unchanged in this new edition, are equally archaic: frig for refrigerator, and bizarrely, it’ld for ‘it would’.) A period piece, the interest of On the Beach – a prime slice of apocalypse fiction from the middle of the last century – is more cultural than literary. For a book by a writer known as a popular storyteller, there’s not much story in this book, other than The End is more and more nigh. I intend to read one or two of his others to see if they appeal, but I do wonder, if it wasn’t for the high concept idea behind On the Beach, whether Shute would still be read today at all.

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54 Comments »

  1. ijsbrand said,

    I still read him. Because Nevil Shute may have been the writer that taught me to read English. I really liked some of his books in translation, when I was twelve or something like that. Unfortunately, not a lot was translated.

    Don’t think that a lot of his work has held up to this day, though. No Highway was once praised by Anthony Burgess as one of 99 essential novels. I don’t think that’s his best — Requiem for a Wren is a remarkably good weepy, Round the Bend is weird but good — but it still is a pageturner.

    • Tom Slattery said,

      ijsbrand,
      The Shute stories that I read have kept my attention even though they had been written for a different audience in a different time.

      And No Highway keeps its relevance in our time. We have, for instance, the new Boeing Dreamliner. I’m sure that the engineers thought it out well, and there will be extensive test flights. But in the back of my mind I have to wonder about an essentially plastic airplane that was designed by a computer. I sure hope they test it and think about it beyond the usual requirements. People who ignore fiction might be doomed to live it.

  2. Rob said,

    Funny you should mention the smiling – does he use other types of emotional shorthand too? I see quite a few manuscripts in which people smile at every moment of happiness, weep in response to the slightest piece of bad news or harsh word, scream with anger on alternating pages, and yawn at the slightest provocation… hard to accept in short bursts, over the course of a novel-length work, it adds up to a weirdly disorienting atmosphere of constant hysteria.

  3. John Self said,

    I can believe it, Rob. It’s the grinning that gets to me though. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in real life grin – well, nobody over the age of twelve, anyway.

    ijsbrand, interesting that Shute was your passport to English: perhaps that speaks well of his ability to write in straightforward language. Someone else recommended No Highway, though Vintage presumably don’t agree, as it’s one of the ones they’ve given a plain pink cover (or have they? I’m tempted to buy one of those to see if it really does look like that, or whether it’s just a placeholder because the designs aren’t online yet).

    In fact I have A Town Like Alice already, so I’ll probably try that one next (unless lots of people here immediately tell me it’s awful).

  4. Lee Monks said,

    Don’t know a thing about Nevil Shute, other than this review. I have come across the books in second-hand or charity bookshops more times than I could possibly count, and I have always instinctively avoided him. Strange, that. I always felt that his name intimated a kind of drab, provincial writing (or surely I had read something that suggested as much and had forgotten about it) concerned with grey businessmen struggling with the usual quotidian woe or secretly drinking curtain twitchers. Wrong indeed.

  5. Lisa Hill said,

    True, great literature it’s not, but back in the 1980s I read many of Shute’s later novels and enjoyed them all as light reading. I have fond memories of Requeim for a Wren, No Highway, and A Town Like Alice, which was made into a beaut film starring Bryan *drool* Brown. Shute’s autobiography, Slide Rule, is awful, and almost made me dislike him.
    I think the books have a value as an insight into a different period, not just the post war fear of the atom bomb but also that of coming-to-terms with a generation’s WW2 experiences.
    Lisa Hill, http://ANZLitLovers.wordpress.com

  6. Rob said,

    I agree, grinning does rather suggest a grubby ten-year-old boy with a freshly caught frog in his hand.

  7. John Self said,

    Well I didn’t know much more about him, Lee. Just that he was a highly popular novelist in his day and that he’s fallen out of fashion since then. That’s what we rely on the likes of Vintage, Penguin and NYRB to do when they reissue books. Perhaps many such novelists should be allowed to ‘die’, though with the advent of print-on-demand and ebooks, it may be that good books will never go missing again – just be lost in a sea of mediocrity.

    Lisa, thanks for the recommendations (and the disrecommendation of Slide Rule. There’s an interesting ranking of his books on the Nevil Shute Norway (his full name) Foundation site, which places Trustee from the Toolroom at the top of a popular vote.

    The site also includes comments on On the Beach which suggest that the book (and film) was credited with encouraging the end of the nuclear arms race. Now that that seems frankly a less pressing concern, I think this goes to show just how difficult it is to read On the Beach now and to appreciate its force back then.

  8. Mary said,

    I remember that an entire window in WH Smith’s in Windsor was devoted to A Trustee from the Toolroom in the early 60’s so he must have been a very popular writer at the time. I’ve only read `A Town Like Alice’ which I loved. It’s a very weepy romance with a nail biting search for a missing character at the end. A crusty old lawyer recounts the story ( secretly in love with the heroine of course). Even in the 70’s when I read it, the colonial attitudes to the Burmese and the Austalian Aborigines seemed racist.but the scenes on the Burma road with `Mrs Boon’ and the romance that follows are terrific.

  9. John Self said,

    Hi Mary – I believe that Trustee from the Toolroom was Shute’s last novel, published shortly after his death, so that may explain why it attracted such coverage in Smith’s window! A bit like if Dan Brown had died and The Lost Symbol was a posthumous publication.

    Hmm

    …Sorry, got a bit distracted there. Where was I?

  10. Lee Monks said,

    I hate Dan Brown. Just saying it feels good.

    • Mary said,

      Did you hear Kate Mosse defending Dan Brown on Radio 4 am yesterday? It takes one to know one…….

      • Lee Monks said,

        I didn’t but I can well imagine. What was the thrust of the defence? Do they share publishers? Why on earth does Brown need anyone fighting his corner? He’s a soaraway hackmeister. Let him and his egregious acolytes continue apace. I can’t even walk into my local Waterstones at the mo without averting my gaze. One of my favourite comment these past few years has been a variation of: ‘Listen, bear me out, honestly, I KNOW it’s garbage but I just CAN’T STOP!…’ I did always offer to help, but no takers.

  11. Annabel said,

    Gosh – I read all Shute’s books as a teenager in the 70s. A Town Like Alice was the one that I remember most, and I loved it then – but I’ve not read it since …

  12. kimbofo said,

    Well, I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who got sucked into buying these latest reissues of Shute’s work. I bought A Town Like Alice last week on the basis of the lovely cover.

    I read On the Beach when I was at school, although I can’t recall if it was on the curriculum (sp?) or whether I read it off my own bat. I know that I enjoyed it, but then I was only 15.

    Also, do mind out for the “shutists” – they’ll be crawling all over this post before you know it. ;)

  13. John Self said,

    Yes, I bought On the Beach because it was the only one my local Waterstone’s had, kim – then when I went back next, the space where the one I bought had been, was filled with a copy of A Town Like Alice. So I bought that too. Then, last weekend, they had the other two as well, Pied Piper and Requiem for a Wren (I almost wrote Requiem for a Dream then). What game is this??

    Thanks for the advance notice of the Shutists. If I’d hated On the Beach, I was going to title this review Nevil Shite. I’m glad I didn’t now.

  14. Steerforth said,

    During a normal working day, I sift through several hundred secondhand books and I can guarantee that there will be some Nevil Shutes among them. Sadly his books go straight in the bin, as the print runs were so huge that the supply far exceeds today’s meagre demand.

    With some writers, you can see the potential for a revivial, but Shute’s novels feel as if they’re way past their read-by date.

  15. JRSM said,

    I’ve read a few Shutes before, ‘On the Beach’ among them (as part of my attempt to read every ‘literary’ apocalypse novel before I die (probably from depression-induced suicide)), and though I enjoyed it rather more than you did, it’s hard to fault your criticisms.

    I’m reading another Shute now–‘Requiem for a Wren’–and it displays similar virtues and problems. However, his WW2-set work does show the origins of the stiff-upper-lip nature of his writing: people seeing loved ones shot down or blown up, and having to just get on with life because it was nothing more than those around them were suffering. ‘On the Beach’ is that attitude taken to the most extreme point.

    ‘What Happened to the Corbetts’ is another of his books of science-fiction interest, by the way: it’s an attempt to predict how WW2 would happen, through the eyes of an English family, published in 1938.

    I have a couple of the POD Shutes on the way from the Book Depository–I will report on the covers.

  16. Biblibio said,

    And to point something completely unrelated out, all I could think of while reading this review was of “The End of the World” (“Australia’s still like, WTF mate?”). Ahh, connecting literature to silly internet phenomena… the best way to distract from my absolute lack of anything useful to add…

  17. karenb said,

    In my late teens I read a number of Shute’s novels including ‘On the Beach’ at the time I enjoyed the books but looking back I can recall very little about them or what really attracted me to them at the time. (late 70’s early 80’s)

    Reading your review has made me wander if I should revisit Shute on the other hand there are lots of authors I have yet to discover so maybe not.

  18. I’ve always been reluctant to read On the Beach, although, like Lisa, I ate up A Town Like Alice and swooned over the movie version.

    I’ve been in a mood to try Shute again though as I am developing a fascination for mid-century pop lit.

    Glad I found your blog. I’m working my way through Wuthering Expectations’ blogroll, looking for book blogers with similar tastes to mine. Looks like I found one.

  19. nicknick said,

    I grew up overseas, in a Muslim country, and we didn’t have much entertainment aside from a roving tape library (betamax, ha) with, oh, about 300 films. We watched a lot of those films over and over and over, and A Town Like Alice is one of the ones that made an impression on eight-year-old me. It’s a shame Shute is impossible to find here in San Francisco. I’d snap up those Vintage books in an instant if I saw them in my local.

  20. Interesting writeup as ever. I was another who read this at about 15, back in the ’80s (I think it was seen as a bit of a classic then, but of course it was still relevant). I recall quite liking it but not being blown away. Is this the one with scenes in a dead city visited in order to investigate what may be a survivor’s radio signal? I recall the city descriptions as being quite effective, but it’s been a while so that could simply be the idea rather than the writing.

    I absolutely agree that it’s a high concept novel, I don’t recall a single character, just mood and concept (and a deserted city, as mentioned above).

    Posted from a Blackberry as I’m not back from hols yet, so sorry for any errors.

  21. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone (and welcome, Rose City Reader!) – it does look as though Shute is someone best remembered if you read him at a young age. I will still try A Town Like Alice, if only because I’ve already bought it.

    Max, yes, On the Beach is the one with the visit to the dead city (Seattle).

  22. I wonder if it’s an age thing John, or an issue of relevance. When I read it, at risk of aging myself, there were documentaries and dramas on the tv about the effects of nuclear war on Britain, books in the shop about it, it was a present and very real fear.

    Now, it isn’t so much. People don’t now consider nuclear apocalypse that big a risk, back then we did, that as much as age may have granted it greater impact than it now possesses.

    There’s an oddity in apocalyptic sf that the nature of the apocalypse changes over time. The Edwardians had several novels where total war led to collapse, in the 60s we had environmental collapse from overpopulation, in the 70s fuel running out, in the 80s the bomb, now we’re back to the environmental but due to climate change rather than overpopulation.

    Obviously there are always exceptions, the masterful Earth Abides for example, but there’s a tendency for apocalyptic fiction to mirror our own fears, and On the Beach simply no longer does.

    I wonder how John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar would read now? Come to think of it, Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room has the same theme and you’ve reviewed that, I must refresh myself on what you made of it and it’s continued relevance (if any).

  23. John Self said,

    Well certainly Max I remember the second wave of nuclear dread, in the 80s, with the likes of Threads (which terrified me at the age of around 10, even though I don’t think I watched more than a few minutes of it), and I received Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows for Christmas around the same time, which was probably not aimed at my age group (and not a very festive gift), though I remember reading it over and over with revulsion and fascination.

    But it’s true that now, even as Iran seems to dip its toe in nuclear waters, the issue seems far removed from our lives. I remember reading Martin Amis’s nuclear-themed collection Einstein’s Monsters in the mid or late 90s and thinking how almost quaint it seemed. But I have no doubt that On the Beach would have seemed much more relevant, and therefore its literary shortcomings would have mattered less, to readers in the 80s, as well as back when it was first published.

    I’m afraid, Max, I don’t know much about Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar – anything in fact, other than the title, which I’ve heard of. And Earth Abides… – which one was that again?

  24. I watched Threads on DVD for the first time about a year or so ago. Grimmest thing I’ve ever seen, I wouldn’t let a 10 year old near it.

    Stand on Zanzibar is an overpopulation novel, Make Room, Make Room makes the same points in about a fifth the space. It’s by John Brunner, and is better regarded than it ought to be. Brunner wrote some absolutely top notch science fiction, but is oddly enough more famous for works I don’t consider to be among his best. His better work, for me, is that which is purer SF and his more accessible work is I think actually weaker.

    Earth Abides by contrast is worth reading, it’s a 1949 novel by George R Stewart (the man, according to wikipedia, responsible for storms having names). It’s an elegaicly toned novel about a plague that wipes out most of humanity, those tiny few who remain aren’t the brightest or the best, just random people who happened to be immune. It traces the fate of our buildings, our livestock, our pets, without us and the struggles of those who remain to rebuild a civilisation that they never understood the workings of anyway (I couldn’t build a car, repair a highway, how many of us could?).

    Stewart wasn’t a science fiction writer, I think this was his only entry into the form, but it deservedly won a World Fantasy award (no idea how good an award that is though) and is still I think widely regarded as one of the best post-apocalypse novels ever written.

    That said, it’s ages since I read it, so who knows, perhaps I would be disappointed today. After all, my fading memory of On the Beach was that it was quietly effective, but your review reminded me of it more strongly and actually I think you’re spot on with regard to its problems. It’s tricky stuff returning to old novels one loved, sometimes they remind you why you loved them, sometimes not.

  25. Thomas said,

    First off, what a fantastic cover on this edition.

    On the Beach was the first Shute I ever read. I was sixteen, it was the 1980s and nuclear armaggedon was all but a surety according to Ronald Reagan. I loved the book and sobbed like a baby towards the end.

    Since then I have read a few other books by Shute and have loved them all. But you are right on the money about them being old-fashioned. They often seem very, very corny. But for me, they are still so enjoyable to read. And the ones that I have read all seem to have a kind of survival theme to them (A Town Like Alice, Pastoral, In the Wet). Almost like adventure tales written by an overgrown boy scout who was always prepared but never quite got the chance to put all of his survival knowledge to use.

  26. Thomas said,

    Oh, and as for grinning…We had to sit through 8 years of George W Bush with his ridiculous and ever present adolescent grin.

  27. nicknick said,

    Earth Abides is good fun. Also, John: NYRB’s republished Stewart’s weirdly engrossing Names of the Land book.

    http://www.nybooks.com/shop/product?usca_p=t&product_id=7935

  28. John Self said,

    nicknick, as a shameless NYRB fanboy, I will definitely be looking into Names on the Land.

    Thomas, thanks for your comments. Despite my misgivings about On the Beach, I do want to try more Shute. Perhaps the powerful concept in that book diminished his storytelling skills – and I take your point about the lately departed grinner. The cover illustration, by the way, is by Mick Wiggins, about whose work you can read more in the link.

    Incidentally, for anyone who cares, I’ve now seen copies of the non-pictorial covers on the Shute titles that Vintage have released on POD, and they are indeed plain magenta background with the title and no illustration. Sadly the spines are the same colour, which puts them out of sync with other Vintage Classics (including the four Shutes which have been given illustrated covers).

  29. Paul M. Cray said,

    I read “Pied Piper” in the first year at secindary as a set book and liked it, “Trustee from a Toolroom”, which Tony Burgess claimed slipped down like an oyster, in 1994, not so much so. I understand that Shute went to live in Australia to escape from Socialist Britain and I suppose that the set of attitudes that lead to looking towards Australia as Britain with Sun and without the Working Class is one of the things that has dated Shute (and 1980 is closer to the 1950s than now).

    “Stand on Zanzibar” is a very good novel as is Brunner’s “The Shockwave Rider” . “Earth Abides” is superb and (to me) rather unexpected: the protagonist just carries on living in his parents’ house in the Northern Californian suburbs. It is no survivalist wish-fulfillment fantasy.

  30. Ami Parikh said,

    I started out reading Nevil Shute from my school library. I fell in love with the first book of his that I read- An old captivity. The second one, I liked almost as much…it was called The Checker Board. I always feel that his worst books are written about the most. Another one of his I loved was The Far Country. You could give these a try

  31. John Self said,

    I understand that Shute went to live in Australia to escape from Socialist Britain and I suppose that the set of attitudes that lead to looking towards Australia as Britain with Sun and without the Working Class is one of the things that has dated Shute

    Oh that’s interesting Paul, I didn’t know that. I can’t say that reading his other novels with that knowledge is likely to make me approach them in a more positive fashion though. Thanks also for the Brunner and Earth Abides recommendation.

    I always feel that his worst books are written about the most.

    Not an unusual position for an author, I think, Ami. Thanks for the recommendations too.

  32. The Shockwave Rider is certainly influential, inventing among other things the term “future shock” (which is a reference to this book) and the concept of the internet worm.

    It has some deep flaws too though, I’ve not read it in ages so I can’t recall too clearly but I remember some bits getting a bit preachy.

    With JB, I tend to think his pure sf is rather underappreciated, stuff like the extraordinarily bleak Total Eclipse for example, or the Roadside Picnic-esque Age of Miracles (published at about the same time as Roadside Picnic, but apparently a reworking of an earlier novel).

    For those unfamiliar with it, Roadside Picnic is the novel which formed the basis of the Tarkovsky film Stalker. It’s a strange and dark tale, as you might expect, written by Soviet science fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Like much of Stanislaw Lem, it can be worth checking out even for those who don’t normally read much sf.

  33. John Self said,

    That’s interesting Max – the only Lem I’ve read is Solaris, which I liked enough to want to read more (then didn’t). Any Lem recommendations?

    (The mention of The Shockwave Rider also brought to mind the old ZX Spectrum computer game Shockway Rider – I’m guessing the creators must have been Brunner fans. Look at that review, by the way – 9 out of 10 for graphics!)

  34. JRSM said,

    I’d second the ‘Roadside Picnic’ recommendation. It’s wonderful and strange. And for Lem, next try ‘The Chain of Chance’ (brief description: statistics as serial killer) or ‘His Master’s Voice’ (the utter unknowability of alien consciousness, even if we do manage to make contact via SETI).

  35. But look at those graphics John! For the ZX Spectrum, that’s pretty good.

    God, I’d forgotten that machine, we played The Hobbit a lot, it took us ages to realise it randomly generated where the other characters went if you weren’t doing anything. Gandalf goes West. West. You see Gandalf. Gandalf goes East. What? Why? Oh well, East. You see Gandalf. Gandalf goes West.

    With hindsight, perhaps we should have worked out the pattern earlier than the few hours it actually took us.

    Anyway, I digress. I have a great fondness for The Tales of Pirx the Pilot and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot, which are sort of low key Russian vaguely comic sf, the latter containing the funniest and saddest first contact story I’ve ever read. Those are very straightforwardly sf, Pirx is a spaceship pilot after all, given that’s more a side genre for you I’d probably recommend before Pirx The Chain of Chance. Chain of Chance a sort of crime novel in which a former US astronaut investigates a series of suicides in Italy that are suspected to actually be a chain of murders. Also good, though it’s twenty years since I read it, is His Master’s Voice which is about an attempt to decode a signal from space that may or may not be intended for us to hear and that may not even be artificial but could just be some new form of stellar noise.

    His stuff was often slightly subversive, alien contacts where we don’t recognise who the aliens are and the mission ends in disaster, messages that may be accidental, secret agents whose missions are so secret they can’t be told what they are, reviews of books nobody ever wrote, his stuff is full of sly humour and failure born of bureaucracy and human failings.

    A marvellous writer.

  36. Now there’s a coincidence, I hadn’t seen JRSM’s post when I made my recommendations, exactly the same books though.

    There you go John, Chain of Chance or His Master’s Voice.

    I do love the Pirx tales though.

  37. John Self said,

    Heh, yes that was pretty good going guys! Are you sure you didn’t collaborate? Or perhaps an alien consciousness inserted the suggestions into your brain. Recommendations noted; now I wonder if Lem is still in print in the UK? One for the modern classics presses perhaps?

    I promise not to make this into a ZX Spectrum discussion forum, but yes, those graphics actually were pretty good for the Speccy. I was just being mean. A few years ago I bought a CD off eBay which contained a ZX Spectrum emulator and 5,000 games. Five thousand! On one CD! It made me gape in wonder when I realised how much gameplay and inventiveness – and scope – writers of games like Jet Set Willy, Knight Lore or Heavy on the Magick managed to fit into 48K – about the size these days of a small jpg or Word document.

    (I was tempted to make those links to Java playable versions of the games, but then I’d never get any work done.)

  38. Tom Slattery said,

    way back when I was in high school I read Nevil Shute’s 1947 novel The Chequer Board. It left it’s mark.

    Two years after Nevil Shute died I was a soldier and saw On the Beach at one of the Army post theaters.

    You can find the English slang expression “on the beach” used in Nevil Shute’s novel The Mysterious Aviator (also titled So Disdained).

    My interest in Nevil Shute was reawakened by a nice coincidence when I moved to this condo last month. This Condo building is built on the estate of the late Erla Schlather Parker. Between 1928 and 1936 Erla took no less than 6 trans-oceanic 2-day zeppelin flights on both the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg Zeppelin (a year before it crashed and burned). If you Google “Erla Parker” along with “zeppelin” you can get a couple quick blurbs.

    This relates to Nevil Shute (real name Nevil Shute Norway) because Shute was the Oxford alumnus aeronautical engineer who did the stress analysis for the de Havilland British “zeppelin” R-100. To show his confidence in his calculations, in August 1930 he flew round trip on the R-100 from England to Montreal and back. However in October 1930 the sister ship R-101 crashed and burned in France, not unlike the Hindenburg in 1937. That was the end of the British airship program.

    In 1948 Shute, who apparently still had loose ties to de Havilland, wrote a novel titled No Highway (made into a British movie in 1951) about a new British plane that crashes due to some strange forces. In 1954, two different de Havilland Comets, the world’s first jet passenger planes, exploded midair. The cause was later determined to be stress fractures from repeated expanding and contracting of the pressurized cabins. It is as if Shute’s unconscious was churning and trying to break out into his conscious mind about the danger.

    In 1970 I worked my way across the Pacific from Japan to California on a C-3 freighter and came under the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco Bay early on a Sunday morning. No cars or people were moving in the streets. It was exactly like the movie scene in On the Beach that I had seen eight years earlier. Chilling!

    There may be one more interesting connection. Until Hugh Luke of the University of Nebraska got the U of Nebraska Press to republish Mary Shelley’s The Last Man in the mid-1960s, there was only one copy of this novel left in the world — in the Bodleian Library of Shute’s alma mater Oxford. One can wonder whether he may have heard of it or seen it before beginning On the Beach.

    If anyone might be interested, I modernized The Last Man. I also modernized the title to The Last Human. You can read it free at:

    Tom Slattery

  39. bookwitch said,

    I used to love Nevil Shute’s books. Read most of them in my teens and early twenties. Good to see they are back.

    I find there are several quotes/thoughts/ideas that have stuck with me very firmly over all these years from his books, which means I regularly revisit them in my mind.

  40. Tom Slattery said,

    I have copy of the American edition of Nevil Shute’s 1928 novel The Mysterious Aviator (apparently published in Britain as “So Disdained”). It was published by Grosset & Dunlap, New York.

    On page 202 you can fine “on the beach” almost 30 years before Nevil Shute wrote the novel that would make him world famous.

    It is in a letter written by one of the characters in the novel, M.T. Lenden. The letter is about intercepting the products of some espionage. People have been killed along the way. And Lenden apparently wants to soften the blow to loved ones and leave widows something to live on.

    As I understand it, the British slang term “on the beach” might mean “wiped out” in American slang.

    Anyway, on page 202 we see this: “… and we’d hunt up old Keumer’s wife and make her a present of the thousand, because I know she’ll be on the beach and I’d like to do that for the old lad.”

    It may or may not shed light on what Shute meant with his title On the Beach almost 30 years later.

  41. John Self said,

    Thanks Tom – I had been meaning to ask if anyone knew the meaning of the title (there is a scene early in the book, on a beach, but that didn’t seem sufficient). Perhaps the fact that the very idiom which Shute used to title his book, is now meaningless to most people, is indicative of the way his books has suffered generally from the passage of time (as people above seem largely to agree).

    I must confess that I can’t read the title without getting that awful Chris Rea song of the same name running through my head.

  42. Tom Slattery said,

    John Self,
    Thanks to your excellent site I was able to make that little trivia observation more widely known. If Nevil Shute did begin to write his novel On the Beach from that working title, it may throw some light on intent of the yarn and nuances in the text.

    And ever since I spent some time and effort modernizing Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man so readers in our time might get a better feel for the early 19th century story, I have wondered if Nevil Shute may have seen or may have heard of the (then) only remaining copy of The Last Man in the Bodleian Library at Shute’s alma mater Oxford U.

    I put a link to my (free) modernization of Mary Shelley’s novel in an earlier comment, and you may note that I modernized the title to The Last Human. If some might be furious with me for reworking her work, I did not hack it up so bad as Bride of Frankenstein or any of those. In fact, The Last Human seems like a pretty good yarn for our time in itself.

  43. Tom Slattery said,

    I should add more to my previous post. In 1989-90 when I was writing my first draft modernizing Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, the one and only copy of Mary Shelley’s novel for hundreds of miles in any direction was in the Cleveland Public Library, an hour bus ride from where I lived.

    It was the Hugh Luke edition that had been republished by the University of Nebraska Press in the mid-1960s to make it available to scholars.

    And this may have been the reason that I focused on Nevil Shute possibly having known about the (then) only copy in the world of The Last Man at his alma mater, Oxford U. I think that Shute may have at least heard about it. And if he had heard about it, it would have been tempting to take a look at it.

    In order to have Mary Shelley’s novel for a long enough time to modernize the whole long several volumes of it, I borrowed the Nebraska-published book from the library and probably violated library rules by xeroxing every page. Copies in 1989 could be made for as little as two cents per page. There were no Xerox machines for Shute to do the same in the 1950s or earlier.

    After I had copied it, it took me months and months to figure out a modern story to overlay onto the original one. And I kept wondering if Shute might not have tried the same thing and then realized that he could write his own story with the same general idea. Who knows now? But that’s how all of this comment came up.

  44. Amy said,

    I’m a 17 year old student in Britain, and I read my Dad’s battered old copy of On The Beach last year, because it related to my history course. I instantly fell in love – as I have with all the works of his that I’ve read. They’re not high literature, but they’re very good stories.

    It’s a shame they’re not reprinting the whole lot, though; my family recommend “A Town Like Alice”, but we don’t have a copy anywhere (we even checked the loft) and that’s not one of the ones they’re reprinting, which is a shame.

    xxx Amy

    • Tom Slattery said,

      Amy,
      I was just a little older when I read On the Beach. Then I was a bit older when I was a drafted soldier in the US Army and saw the movie version at an Army base movie theater. It was timely then, in the midst of the Cold War. I took a chance and drove in my rusty and coughing-chugging old 1952 Plymouth with expired license plates to the opposite end of the huge Army base. That was only the second car that I owned. The first was a 1951 Hillman Minx. It had turn signals that were illuminated plastic flaps, and when one wanted to turn, these sprang out from slots beside the car doors. Hardly anyone in the USA had a car like that then. And to put the times in context, I believe that was the car that I owned when I read On the Beach.

  45. John Self said,

    Hi Amy. The good news is that they are reprinting the whole lot, at least in the UK. I bought A Town Like Alice in the new edition. Only four of the books got the nice new covers, but all his books have been reissued by Vintage Classics, and the remainder of them are in plain-covered print-on-demand editions (and readily available in bookshops, or at least in my local one, which isn’t a particularly well-stocked one).

  46. nicknick said,

    Vintage has now rereleased A Town Like Alice and On The Beach in the US. Pied Piper and Wren are scheduled for August. Cover designs by the always-impressive Keenan.

  47. Tom Slattery said,

    John Self,
    They’re good and readers will buy them. Interesting how the minds of writers influence us from the grave. Not yet in the grave myself, I have a few print-on-demand books listed on book sites. Every now and then I get a “royalty” check (cheque) from the publisher that is slightly less than a good meal at a restaurant. But it feels good to be wanted.

  48. [...] or not the people of the Earth will survive (perhaps that’s why I found Shute’s On the Beach, with its foregone conclusion, dull). It is a primer in various astronomical and other scientific [...]

  49. [...] also fits into the subgenre of science fiction which evades the usual pigeonholing; it shares with On the Beach a desperate inevitability (though is entirely devoid of Shute’s consoling patina of [...]


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