Australian politics, society & culture

Shute the Messenger

How the end of the world came to Melbourne

Gideon Haigh

Long read6800 words
 

Nevil Shute Norway was an engineer. His business was aeroplanes. Writing? A "pansy occupation". His brother, Fred: now there was a writer. Then Fred was killed in France, aged 19. "If Fred had lived we might have had some real books one day, not the sort of stuff that I turn out," said Nevil. "For he had more literature in his little finger than I have in my whole body." Nevil Shute Norway dispensed with his surname for his writing, fearful that "hard-bitten professional engineers might consider such a man not a serious person".

Yet 50 years ago this month, Shute published arguably Australia's most important novel - important in the sense of confronting a mass international audience with the defining issue of the age. On the Beach, the story of humankind's thermonuclear extinction, sold more than 4 million copies. Shute was the first genuinely popular mainstream novelist to envision apocalypse, and one of only a handful to see the horrific mission through by leaving no survivors - just a silent irradiated planet, adrift in space.

Shute was a Briton. But no novel could be more explicitly Australian than On the Beach, set in his new home town of Melbourne. Nor could any novel make such provocative creative use of our distance from the rest of the world: as the last habitable continent, Australia is suddenly the most important place on Earth, at the very moment of its greatest impotence and ignorance, awaiting dooming winds from an incomprehensible war in the northern hemisphere.

Australians were shocked to see themselves so cast. Helen Caldicott, then a 19-year-old medical student, was radicalised into a lifetime of anti-nuclear activism: "Shute's story haunted me ... Nowhere was safe. I felt so alone, so unprotected by the adults, who seemed to be unaware of the danger." But it was in the US that the book had its greatest impact, rousing readers from an uneasy stupor and becoming one of the Cold War's most powerful cultural artefacts.

June 2007

Early on 22 July 1957, a false alarm of nuclear attack sounded in Schenectady, New York. Only one man, reported Harper's, roused and evacuated his family. Everyone else, including civil-defence officials, emulated the mayor, who "rolled over and went back to sleep".

Into this eerily somnolent world was On the Beach released. Debate was underway in the US about fallout from nuclear testing in Nevada, and Shute's publishers had brought forward the book's release, sensing its topicality. Shute was pessimistic. A decade had passed since the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set its famous Doomsday Clock ticking, and the incident at Schenectady epitomised the apathy and complaisance of the times: thus Einstein's observation that nuclear weapons had changed "everything except the nature of man". The atomic bomb was still identified with resolving World War II; the five-year-old hydrogen bomb was seen as a lesser scourge than communism. The public seemed unshockable.

Advance copies of On the Beach had been sent to a host of politicians, including the next US president, John F Kennedy, and to senior military officials. Some had offered startlingly candid endorsements, including consecutive secretaries of the US Air Force, Stuart Symington and Thomas Finletter. "Every American should read On the Beach," stated Symington, at the time Joseph McCarthy's Senate nemesis. "I hope it is fiction," responded Finletter, later Kennedy's ambassador to NATO. "Are you sure it is?" Readers wanted to find out. Selling 100,000 copies in its first six weeks, On the Beach even displaced Peyton Place from the top of bestseller lists.

Some critics complained that the book's resolutely low-key depiction of human extinction was unconvincing: people just wouldn't die that way. Yet readers identified readily with the characters' quiet dignity. This conventional novel about unconventional weapons became "the most influential work of its kind for the next quarter of a century and the only one most people ever read" - as the critic Paul Brians puts it - precisely by being simple:

Shute directly addresses the most primal fears of the human race which has spent most of its history denying or compensating for the fact of personal death, and does so with a relentlessness which the complex technique of a more sophisticated writer might have muted. For once there are no distractions: no invading aliens, no super fallout shelters to protect the protagonists, no struggle back from a dreadful but exciting postwar barbarism. There are simply a man and a woman reaching the agonizing decision to kill their only child in its crib as the rest of the human race expires round them.

The passages Brians describes, where the Australian naval officer Peter Holmes seeks to persuade his wife that this act may be necessary, are the more harrowing for the constancy and devotion the couple exhibit elsewhere.

"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."

She flared suddenly into anger. "I think you're crazy," she exclaimed. "I'd never do a thing like that, however ill she was. I'd nurse her to the end. You must be absolutely mad. The trouble is that you don't love her. You never have loved her. She's always been a nuisance to you. Well, she's not a nuisance to me. It's you that's the nuisance. And now it's reached the stage that you're trying to tell me how to murder her." She got to her feet, white with rage. "If you say one more word, I'll murder you!"

By September 1957, On the Beach had been serialised by no fewer than 40 American newspapers, and acquired for screen adaptation by the director of the moment, Stanley Kramer. Shot on location in Melbourne, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, it would become the first American film screened in the USSR.

Shute loathed the film. Nonetheless, on 12 January 1960, a few weeks after its release, he wrote to an admirer: "A popular novelist can often play the part of the enfant terrible in raising for the first time subjects which ought to be discussed in public and which no statesman cares to approach. In this way, an entertainer may serve a useful purpose." The next day, seated behind his favourite old roll-top desk, he finished a sentence in his next novel, Incident at Eucla, gazed out on the towering cypress pine that dominated his immaculate English-style garden, and suffered a lethal stroke.

*

Devotees of Nevil Shute call themselves ‘Shutists'. Their most recent world conference was held in Alice Springs in April, organised by a retired US Army Ranger from New Mexico and a teacher from New Jersey. Their network is satisfyingly fanatical and impressively dispersed. Nonetheless, Shute languishes in something very like obscurity - for reasons not far to seek. His 23 novels are plain, staid, even chaste: they proceed sedately towards broadly positive conclusions; they contain no bad language, no villains of note and almost no sex. His characters are usually ordinary middle-class people who face extraordinary situations; their customs and conventions are evoked with a clear but kindly eye. Who can forget the telegram in A Town Like Alice (1950) that the heroine sends the hero, whom she had feared dead at the hands of their Japanese captors in Malaya?

HEARD OF YOUR RECOVERY FROM KUANTAN ATROCITY QUITE RECENTLY PERFECTLY DELIGHTED STOP

The decline of Shute's reputation is unremarkable: it simply attests the perishability of popular art. Shute sold 15 million books in his lifetime, but he aspired to neither literary immortality nor critical approval: "The book which thrills the reviewer with its artistic perfection will probably not be accepted by the public, while a book which the public value for its contents will probably seem trivial and worthless artistically to the reviewer." His obscurity also reflects the contours of the book market: the middle-class, middlebrow novelist of ideas is a discontinued line.

Shute's views, moreover, would today exclude him from any self-respecting liberal intelligentsia. He was a rock-ribbed conservative, a monarchist, a meritocrat, an ex-serviceman, a self-made millionaire. He was indulgent of colonialism, disapproved of democracy, loathed the welfare state and vehemently opposed state support for creative writers, informing Sir Robert Menzies that it turned them into pretentious snobs: "It encourages him to take an inflated view of his own genius, an attitude which places him out of sympathy with his potential readers ... I see no point in subsidising young writers to produce what the public does not want to read." He loathed "modern art" and read little fiction, starting Voss (1957) but losing interest; he much preferred the young Geoffrey Blainey's Tasmanian mining history, The Peaks of Lyell (1954).

Not that Shute was a controversialist; suffering from a stammer, he was a diffident public speaker and a reluctant interviewee. But he was shy rather than timid. He travelled constantly, and to some of Australia's remotest reaches; his diaries and notebooks teem with factual detail and anthropological observations. He flew planes, sailed boats, raced cars and rejoiced in machines of all kinds, even owning Australia's first dishwasher. Such values as he held, he felt, were simply the fruit of experience - and they were the values that led him to On the Beach.

*

Nevil Shute Norway was born in West Ealing on 17 January 1899. His fascination with aircraft was fostered by living between two aerodromes; his love of machinery originated in a visit, as a schoolboy truant, to London's Science Museum. Otherwise, his life was unexceptional until he enrolled at Shropshire's famous public school, Shrewsbury, then run by the charismatic young Cyril Argentine Alington. Like many public schools during World War I, Shrewsbury nurtured a patriotic cult of death. Shute's older brother, Fred, a brilliant classicist, was an early disciple: he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Duke of Cornwall's Regiment and died on the Western Front within weeks. The effect on Nevil, which he later described without rancour or self-pity, was profound:

For the remainder of my time at Shrewsbury, I don't think I had the slightest interest in a career or any adult life; I was born to one end, which was to go into the army and do the best I could before getting killed. The time at school was a time for contemplation of the realities that were coming and for spiritual preparation for death, and in this atmosphere the masculine, restrained services in the school chapel under Alington played an enormous part.

That Shute should have felt a kinship with characters facing death, then, should not surprise. On the Beach's original epigraph was from one of Alington's famous evening-service addresses, published as a story in Shrewsbury Fables (1917): "I will deprive men of the foreknowledge of death which they possess at present. This power Prometheus has received my order to take from them." In the story, ‘A Dream', the speaker is a stranger with a machine able to recreate the past or foretell the future. Alington says he would like to see how his boys turn out, until the stranger explains that some will be "absent": dead. "Perhaps it would be safer to stick to the past after all," Alington decides. The stranger nods: "Yes, you are all like that when it comes to the point."

That Shute did not join the absent was due to his stammer, which frustrated his quest for a commission; by the time he enlisted as an infantryman, the war had only months to run. This arbitrary prolongation of his life became almost a source of perplexity:

For four years of my adolescence I had lived in a world that was growing steadily bleaker and grimmer, and in that four years I had grown to accept the fact that in a very short time I should probably be dead. I cannot remember any particular resentment at this prospect; indeed, in some ways it was even stimulating. It has puzzled many people to imagine how the Japanese produced their kamikazes or suicide pilots in the last war. It has never been much of a puzzle to me, however; in 1918, anybody could have made a kamikaze out of me.

After gaining a third in engineering, Shute gravitated to the aviation infantry, which he joined as a junior dogsbody. Its mixture of boffins, adventurers, spivs and speculators would provide a rich stock of characters for the Buchanesque adventure novels for which he would originally be known. These, however, he considered purely recreational: "To write a book is a very easy matter for the man or woman who really wants to do so. No training is necessary." It was aviation that for the next 15 years provided Shute with a satisfaction "almost amounting to a religious experience". It stretched his imagination, leading him to design the first British plane with a retractable undercarriage; it defined his personal life, introducing him to his wife at the Yorkshire Aeroplane Club, which he founded and ran; it instilled his politics, in a formative experience of state ownership.

Anxious to put its stamp on the burgeoning lighter-than-air market, Britain's first Labour government commissioned two airship designs: the private sector R100, built by Vickers Ltd, and the R101, directed by the Air Ministry. As Shute put it: "I joined the capitalist team." The R100 crossed the Atlantic both ways in a pioneering journey, with Shute among the crew; the R101, lavished with money but dogged by an exorbitantly incompetent bureaucracy, crashed on its maiden voyage. Shute thereafter regarded dirigisme as the worst of ideological sins, and politicians and civil servants as "arrogant fools" unless otherwise demonstrated.

Having joined one capitalist team, Shute then decided to run his own. Airspeed Ltd was not just the source of his wealth; it made him believe in its pursuit. "From beginning to end," notes the American academic Julian Smith in his monograph Nevil Shute (1976), "Shute and his characters were never shy about making money, for money is the surest sign that a man is doing what the world wants done." By 1938, Shute himself was rich enough not to work and too young to retire. What to do? His fifth book, he decided, should be useful: "No man can see into the future, but unless somebody makes a guess from time to time and publishes it to stimulate discussion it seems to me that we are drifting in the dark, not knowing where we want to go or how to get there." In spirit and intensity, What Happened to the Corbetts (1938), a vision of a Britain ravaged by strategic bombing, strongly anticipates On the Beach.

The Corbetts, Peter and Joan and their three children, are Shute archetypes, trying to do right in the face of egregious wrong. "We're not famous people and we've not done much," says Joan. "Nobody knows anything about us. But we've lived quietly and decently and we've done our job." They aren't alone. In this novel, even the dying, like the wife of their builder neighbour Littlejohn, do their best:

The bomb had fallen on or near their greenhouse. A flying fragment of the glass had sheared through all her clothes and wounded her behind the knee. She had bled to death, quietly and unostentatiously, as in everything that she had done ... Presently the builder picked her up in his arms and, staggering a little, carried her into the house and upstairs to the bedroom where the candle was still burning, he laid her on the ornate, gilded iron bed beneath a picture of ‘The Stag at Bay' and a text in a wood Oxford frame that told them ‘God is Love', and covered her with a counterpane.

What Happened, like On the Beach, is a conventional novel on an unconventional, very nearly taboo, subject: the civilian experience of war, with its trials of disaster and displacement. It is not, however, an anti-war novel. To write against war when its coming was inevitable would have struck Shute as pointless posturing. He was arguing not for peace but for preparedness, to ready Britons "for the terrible things that you, and I, and all the citizens of the cities in this country may one day have to face together". On the novel's release in April 1939, a thousand copies were distributed to workers in Air Raid Precautions. It was "the entertainer serving a useful purpose".

When bombs began falling on Britain six months later, he returned to uniform in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. "I have no respect at all for the writer of any age or sex," he explained, "who thinks he can serve his country best in war time by sitting still and writing." In fact, Shute continued writing, his war novels being among his most successful: Pied Piper (1942), an adventure; Landfall (1940) and Pastoral (1944), romances; and Most Secret (1945), a palpably propagandistic thriller. But he did his sitting mainly in the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development, among Admiralty boffins developing experimental weapons, some of which worked, some of which didn't.

Shute is primarily associated with one of the latter, the Great Panjandrum: a 4000-pound barrel of high explosive to be propelled up the beaches of France by two giant Catherine wheels. Its ignominious failure, scattering a bridge of admirals sent to supervise its testing, became proverbial, even inspiring an episode of Dad's Army. For Shute, however, weapons were a serious business. On D-Day eve, he philosophised: "We engineers are apt to lie awake these days wondering whether in our old age, if we survive to see it, we shall regret these years of work upon the weapons that have made a desperate adventure possible." And a successful weapon, Shute discovered, could prove even more problematic than a failed one.

*

To Shute, a graver plague even than war was visited on Britain by the July 1945 election of a Labour government. He regarded the welfare state with growing horror. No Highway (1948), whose theme of aviation safety showed off all Shute's technical acumen, was a runaway bestseller and then an improbable star vehicle for Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, but much of the income was soaked up by Labour's punitive taxes on the wealthy. Feeling increasingly a stranger in his own country, Shute invited the novelist James Riddell to join him on a continent-hopping journey to and from Australia in his single-engine Percival Proctor monoplane.

In this last efflorescence of the Pax Britannica, the pair took a route that now seems unimaginable: Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan, Burma. Shute was rejuvenated. In Sumatra, he met a perky Dutch woman, Geysel Vonck; in Normanton, he encountered the laconic ringer Jimmie Edwards. He would entwine their stories of incarceration by the Japanese in A Town Like Alice (1950). In Rangoon, he visited a former Royal Engineer turned Buddhist priest: U Prajnananda's predictions of a coming prophet inspired Shute's most intellectually satisfying novel, Round the Bend (1951). Both would sell and sell: initial print runs of 150,000 became his norm. Above all, Shute was captivated by the splendour of the Australian landscape and the sunny good nature of its people, noting their uninhibited esteem for things British.

This immediate kinship was probably as much about Shute as Australia. Riddell loathed the country on sight, thinking it conformist, casually racist, disquietingly martial: Bondi's marching lifesavers reminded him of "the Hitler Youth". But Shute liked the obvious prosperity of Melbourne, where he stayed at the Melbourne Club. Taking the election of Robert Menzies in December 1949 as a harbinger of political common sense, Shute made his choice. The Sydney Morning Herald's front page of 7 June 1950 bore the headline: "Nevil Shute To Live in Australia." "Britain is not a very good country for a successful man," he explained. "I believe Australia is going to be the most prosperous part of the Commonwealth."

Shute marked the move with two of his slighter novels: The Far Country (1952) and In the Wet (1953). The latter is genuinely odd: a prophecy of the Commonwealth in 1984, in which England's decline has been so abject, and Australia's emergence so irresistible, that the Queen decides to base the throne in Canberra. It argues vigorously against the equalising forces of democracy, Australia's rise being linked to its adoption of "multiple voting": additional votes for the successful and wealthy. Sweeping away the "tub-thumping nonentities and union bosses", multiple voting left Australian politics to "real men".

Both novels nonetheless reflect Shute's excitement at Australian possibility. And by now, after 15 years in engineering and 15 not, Shute was probably this country's wealthiest creative artist. At his new 200-acre property in Langwarrin, he was a novelist before lunch and a gentleman farmer after. The area was then so isolated that his house needed its own generator and a lofty tank to provide water at gravity pressure. For a man who delighted in the mechanical, these were pleasures as much as necessities. And with Alice set to become the fifth of his novels adapted for the screen, he could afford to take a few chances. Thus did the end of the world come to Melbourne.

*

Shute's first inspiration for On the Beach was an article in Time just before Christmas in 1954 reporting on a paper delivered at the French Academy of Sciences. In ‘The Cumulative Effects of Thermonuclear Explosions on the Surface of the Globe', the physicist Charles-Noel Martin identified a number of ways in which neutrons and atmospheric debris from bomb tests "may upset the natural conditions to which [human] life has become adapted". Time soberly noted: "Physicist Martin, who is pro-American, is not making Communist propaganda." Shute the conservative dutifully copied this down; Shute the engineer brooded on the inference.

He was actually about to start another novel, Beyond the Black Stump (1956) - an unusually ambivalent story in which the romance goes unconsummated and the promise of wealth remains unfulfilled - and might well have been distracted: his taste for prophecy had been pricked. Notes for what was then called ‘The Last Day' suggest that he continued researching it throughout this period. They include the text of a speech to the British Medical Association by his friend Major General Kingsley Norris, Australia's senior military medico. ‘It Could Happen to Us' candidly discussed the casualties of a nuclear war and the near impossibility of their treatment. Norris, another Melbourne Club member, would act as Shute's adviser on radiation-related illness.

Shute may have felt a particular urgency about ‘The Last Day'. In London in November 1955, he suffered a heart attack. It was not his first, but this one felt different: a personal memento mori for the man composing a global one. Soon after, he "suddenly went crazy" and placed an order for a Jaguar XK140, a classic marque of which only a dozen were built each year. He would have his scientist Osborne respond the same way to impending mortality in On the Beach, buying a "venomously fast" red Ferrari.

On the Beach obtained an additional personal dimension from being the only novel Shute set principally where he was living. The terrain is his neighbourhood: the beaches, farms, railway stations and pubs of Melbourne's Mornington Peninsula, most of them identifiable. ‘Falmouth' is seaside Frankston; rural Berwick and Harkaway appear under their own names; directions to the Holmes' house are so exact that a visitor can study the bay from what would have been their view. Among Shute's manuscripts in the National Library, jotted in pencil on an envelope, are his observations of the route to Barwon Heads: the headlong flight of expiring Moira Davidson that concludes On the Beach. It is as though the book's theme was so pressing that it consumed all of Shute's imagination.

The epigraph was sifted from a page of possibilities, Alington finally giving way to lines from Eliot's ‘The Hollow Men' - which also offered a title, nodding to the naval expression for awaiting reassignment:

In this last of meeting places

We grope together?

And avoid speech

Gathered on this beach of the tumid river ...

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Chief among Shute's technical sources was Facing the Atomic Future (1956), by Sir Ernest Titterton, the ANU's British-born guru of nuclear physics - an irony, as Titterton was an outspoken apologist for weapons testing in Australia. Shute specially noted Titterton's chapter on "radiological warfare", specifically the so-called cobalt bomb: a thermonuclear device whose destructive capacity was based chiefly on radioactivity rather than explosive force.

The cobalt bomb had been mooted by the Manhattan Project's disillusioned Leo Szilard in February 1950 to evoke nuclear warfare's alarming potentialities; it would be championed by his hawkish contemporary Edward Teller, perversely, as a means of scaring mankind straight: "The cobalt bomb is ... the product of the imagination of high-minded people who want to use this spectre to frighten us into a heaven of peace." Even Titterton could see that the "heaven" promised by radiological warfare was not on earth:

If some madman decided that he wished to poison the whole of the human race with radioactivity ... it would be possible to arrange for a shell of cobalt around a fission or fusion bomb to absorb the excess neutrons and make radiocobalt ... The slow decay of radiocobalt (half-life 5.3 years) would make this contamination much more serious than in the fission product case.

For various technical reasons, the cobalt bomb flourished only in fiction, being unleashed in the '60s in Dr Strangelove and Planet of the Apes. And, truth be told, the science of On the Beach is flawed at best: thermonuclear fallout would not distribute itself evenly around the world; shelter would be possible. But Shute had chosen his weapon wisely.

The physics and the fiction of Armageddon have a longstanding relationship: Szilard was famously inspired by HG Wells, who coined the phrase "atomic bombs" in The World Set Free (1913). But the subdued public reaction to Hiroshima had been echoed in a kind of creative moratorium, nuclear weapons reverting to the stuff of science fiction, where most tales were frivolous or upbeat. In this environment, strategic speculations flourished. The Eisenhower doctrine of massive retaliation committed the US to revenging any nuclear attack by disproportionate force. Yet hawks argued that the only way not to lose a nuclear exchange was to win it, waging a pre-emptive war with superior weaponry. While Shute was writing his manuscript, between "13.3.56 and 23.9.56", Australia's government was abetting British efforts to refine such weaponry by hosting nuclear tests in the Monte Bello Islands and at Maralinga.

With the cobalt bomb, Shute reminded readers of the destructive capacities of weapons whose use was in danger of being normalised, maximising the helplessness of victims, minimising the doubt that future war would involve an unprecedented calculus of death. As that most erudite of physicists Freeman Dyson has argued:

On the Beach ... is technically flawed in many ways. Almost all the details are wrong ... Nevertheless, the myth did what Shute intended it to do. On the fundamental human level, in spite of the technical inaccuracies, it spoke truth. It told the world, in language that everyone could understand, that nuclear war means death. And the world listened.

*

On the Beach is neither stylistically ambitious nor philosophically sophisticated. The dialogue almost seems there to kill time - as, indeed, it is. Shute's coup is to begin the novel when it is already too late: the events of On the Beach span the period from Christmas 1962, 14 months after the "short, bewildering war" of 37 days, to the end of August 1963. That war is introduced almost by the way, so much the defining fact of life has it become. Australian knowledge of it is fragmentary, either anecdotal or seismographic. All that is clear is that a tit-for-tat regional skirmish spread from the Middle East. Political leaders were among the first casualties: most of the orders were given by underlings without superiors to countermand them. Australia, we learn, experienced panics after the war; there remain riotous incidents. But On the Beach's characters have reached differing degrees of acceptance of their common fate; the novel's poignancy springs from the tenderness with which they collude in each other's means of coping.

Perhaps because Shute wrote it in roughly the same amount of time that it covers, without flashbacks or digressions and in continuous chapters of equal length, On the Beach forces the reader to live in the instant with the characters. These characters, moreover, have a familiar quality. Lieutenant-Commander Peter Holmes, of the Royal Australian Navy, and his wife, Mary, are the Corbetts redux: good people in dark times. But where war uprooted the Corbetts, war confines the Holmeses to a shrinking world, in which they comfort themselves with rituals like planning their garden for the following year. And where conventional war blurred the line between combatants and non-combatants, unconventional war has dissolved it altogether: Holmes and his American counterpart, Commander Dwight Towers, are servicemen returned from a war they never saw, distinguished only by their uniforms from the millions of uncomprehending spectators. Given their plight, it is as though the characters are in the wrong novel; that is, of course, what makes them so right.

What the characters fear almost as much as death are "scenes" disturbing their sedulously constructed illusions; echoing ‘The Hollow Men', they "grope together / And avoid speech". When Holmes invites Towers to his home, he has misgivings: "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." His assurances that Towers will be "all right" don't impress Mary: "That's what you thought about that RAF squadron leader. You know - I forget his name. The one who cried."

In fact, a relationship blossoms between the strait-laced Towers and Mary's hard-drinking, plain-speaking friend Moira Davidson. But it remains unconsummated: Towers still feels the tug of the family he left in Connecticut. "I suppose you think I'm nuts," he explains. "But that's the way I see it." Moira joins in the charade: she looks forward to meeting his dead wife, offers gifts for his dead children, then sees him off to scuttle his submarine so it cannot be seized by a dead enemy.

The scientist Osborne is perhaps the most intriguing character, being Shute's characterisation of himself. He provides the most rational views - "You've always known that you were going to die sometime. Well, now you know when" - and the least rational reaction. Shute raced his Jaguar at the newly constructed Phillip Island grand-prix circuit in order to research the scenes in which Osborne enters his Ferrari in a wild 300-car race. This lawless, heedless chase after no prize worth having, in which death has an eerie allure, is Shute's most sophisticated and extended allegory: humanity, harnessed to powerful machines that are also instruments of death, circling in crazed futility.

*

"Nevil Shute Wipes Out Human Race in Notable Novel." With headlines like this in the Chicago Tribune, On the Beach was received, dissected and disputed. By no means was its reception entirely cordial. It was decried on the Republican Right as communist sedition: with its "tiresome descriptions of vast atomic destruction", sighed a critic in the National Review, the book was clearly "designed to destroy whatever is left of American faith in the military". It also irked religious conservatives. "If ever Mr Shute intended to show his utter poverty of spiritual values," wrote Ronald Conway in the Advocate, the Catholic newspaper, "he could not have displayed it better than in On the Beach."

Others found On the Beach stirring. In the New Republic, Robert Estabrook described it as an "evangelical" book in the tradition of Uncle Tom's Cabin. And Shute found an improbable admirer in Billy Graham, who on his crusades began brandishing a Bible in one hand and a copy of On the Beach in the other. "If a minister got into the pulpit and said some of the things in the book, he would be considered a sensationalist," he claimed. "He would be accused of trying to frighten people. Yet this book has been a success and the film will be a success." On the Beach, Graham proselytised, foretold the fate of humanity without God: "the imagination of Mr Shute in On the Beach could become a reality in your generation."

Shute kept his own counsel on this. Although one of the biggest beneficiaries in his will was St Thomas' Anglican Church at Langwarrin, he was not a regular churchgoer, and preaching wasn't his way: 50 years ago, the publication of a book was a cue for people to read it, not to interview the author. That has led to some divergent views. Shute's biographer, Julian Smith, deemed On the Beach "a novel about suicide": every character chooses self-administered death over slow radiation poisoning. Profiling Shute in Meanjin, David Martin considered On the Beach "a novel about immortality": every character continues planning for the future in spite of knowing their fate. Helen Caldicott interpreted the novel as about her: "It described places I knew, devastated by nuclear catastrophe."

Letters suggest that Shute nursed two serious grievances about the film adaptation of On the Beach. When Stanley Kramer had Dwight and Moira consummate their relationship, believing that the public would not accept Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner experiencing love without sex, Shute protested: he had made Dwight dutiful and Moira virtuous, he explained, precisely because nuclear war would not discriminate, killing the best as well as the worst. He also thought that Kramer had effectively substituted eros for thanatos. The novel's characters weary, sicken and die. Finally, Moira watches the submarine Scorpion fade from view: "Then she put the tablets in her mouth and swallowed them down with a mouthful of brandy, sitting behind the wheel of her big car." The film sterilises the end of the world: Moira merely sees the Scorpion sail for the US, like a war bride farewelling a sailor husband. Shute the conservative was more willing to confront his audience than Kramer the noted campaigner.

Since then, it sometimes seems, the world has turned topsy-turvy. It is conservatives who worship at the altar of progress, resistant to anything that would stand in its way, while liberals cheerfully make common cause with the forces of reaction, economic, technological and theocratic. Such is the tribalism of our politics that were On the Beach published today, Shute would probably be regarded as an apostate: a conservative and a believer in free enterprise dealing with concepts on which the Left exert a monopoly. Not, mind you, that the Left would want him. In the UK, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) has marched a long way past Aldermaston, on which it famously advanced at Easter 1958: it is now led by a Communist Party member who airily dismisses "the supposed threats" of North Korea and Iran achieving their nuclear ambitions.

Yet it is not anomalous that On the Beach is a conservative novel; that, on the contrary, is the secret of its success. Where modern literature, film and theatre seeking political response is often shrill, prepared for the faithful rather than the ambivalent or the uncommitted, On the Beach works with the grain of a mass audience's hopes and fears. It inters humanity in a mausoleum of its follies and vanities, but it is not misanthropic. It warns against the heedless pursuit of technology and material pleasures, but it is not a jeremiad. It wears its politics lightly, free of boilerplate anti-Americanism. And it explicitly espouses non-proliferation rather than pacifism or disarmament. "The trouble is, the damn things got too cheap," explains Osborne. "Every little pipsqueak country could have a stockpile of them ..." Which, it turns out, is the nuclear dilemma besetting our own age. In his new analysis of the ‘nuclear poor', The Atomic Bazaar, William Langewiesche explains:

Simply put, large parts of the world are exposed once again to the universal appeal of atomic bombs - the fast-track, nation-equalising, don't-tread-on-me, flat-out awesome destructive power that independent arsenals can provide ... Practically speaking ... the poor, for a host of reasons, are more likely to use their nuclear weapons than the great powers have been since the summer of 1945.

On the Beach remains devastating, and that Shute could write a bestseller concerning what Paul Brians calls "the most carefully avoided topic of general significance in the contemporary world" is an astounding achievement. In retrospect, 1957 was a hinge point in the Cold War, when passive resignation about nuclear arms began yielding to alarm and horror. It was the year that the CND was founded in Britain and the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy was established in the US; it was the year that the National Council of Churches warned that the arms race might "lead directly to a war that will destroy civilization". In 1955, fewer than one-fifth of Americans knew what fallout was; by 1958, seven in ten were saying they would favour a worldwide organisation to prohibit nuclear weapons.

How many people during that transition read JB Priestley's ‘Russia, the Atom and the West' in the New Statesman? Or heard the Nobel-winning chemist Linus Pauling rail against nuclear arms? And how many read On the Beach? Nevil Shute's novel was the great popular work on the gravest matter besetting civilisation. If it doesn't meet current taste in agitprop, or if Shute seems an awkward fit in the liberal pantheon, then perhaps the relevant criteria require review.

In his autobiography, No Memory for Pain (1970), Shute's friend Kingsley Norris recalled a premise for an unwritten book that for many years preoccupied the novelist:

A paper plague was about to descend upon the world ... all paper, all books, all records and archives would disintegrate and disappear. There still remained a short interval to decide what was worth preserving and to devise some means of doing so. Whenever I asked him how the idea was working out, Nevil with his slight stammer would say, "I am still not sure how I would go about it."

If anyone does find a way, On the Beach should be among the first Australian books preserved.