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Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Fallout: Nevil Shute's Vision of the End of the World

"For self-expression, some people turn to the ukulele. I turned to the typewriter."
 - Nevil Shute, quoted in The West Australian, June 26, 1954.
Above, Shute at his portable typewriter, London, April 1950. Below, a scene from Fallout.
The timing of the Special Broadcasting Service's screening on Sunday night of Lawrence Johnston's outstanding 2013 documentary Fallout, about Nevil Shute's 1957 post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach and the 1959 Stanley Kramer movie based on it, was, I thought, a bit pointed.
The more so because, toward the end of it, journalist Gideon Haigh ponders the on-going relevance of Shute's vision of the end of the world. Haigh, saying the threat of nuclear destruction is probably more likely now then ever before, added, "the world is an ammunition dump which one stray spark could set off." SBS seemed to be posing the now appropriate question: Is that "stray spark" - or loose cannon -  about to be put in charge of the nuclear codes?
How we were taught to avoid annihilation.
Not that suitably alarmed Australian viewers can do anything about it, but next week's US Presidential election is of some reasonable concern for those of us living Down Under. After all, in Shute's book, this is where the world ends. And I have a keen recollection of the very real fear On the Beach instilled in us when it was first published - a fear subsequently enhanced by the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
A family album snap of Shute with his portable typewriter and writing desk at his home at Pond Head, Hayling Island, Hampshire, England.
Nevil Shute Norway (1899-1960) was an English-born novelist and aeronautical engineer who spent his later years in Australia. His story of the nuclear holocaust, written at his home at Langwarrin, south-east of Melbourne, originally appeared as a four-part series, The Last Days on Earth, in the London weekly periodical Sunday Graphic in April 1957. It was expanded into the novel On the Beach.
Shute began writing fiction as a sort of "nancy" sideline in the early 1920s - using a second-hand Blickensderfer typewriterHis first two novellas, Stephen Morris in 1923, and the continuation, Pilotage in 1924, both typed on the Blick, remained unpublished until 1961, a year after his death.
Shute started work as an engineer for the De Havilland Aircraft Company in 1922 and his earnings enabled him to buy a more up-to-date, new portable typewriter in the mid-20s. His first published novel, Marazan (1926), was typed on that. Shute felt it may not have been "quite a coincidence".
This later typewriter, depicted in the mural above, was used in "Bedroom No 8 in the Oxford and Cambridge Club. In this room, in the bad years between July 1940 and September 1944, I wrote three novels: Pied Piper, Most Secret and Pastoral."
A large part of Kramer's movie version of On the Beach was filmed on location in Melbourne. Female lead Ava Gardner was none too impressed with the then ultra-conservative city, and was alleged to have said, "On the Beach is a story about the end of the world, and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it." These words, however, were actually put together on a portable typewriter by a young Sydney journalist, Neil Jillet, who was covering the filming. Jillet, unable to get an interview with Gardner, typed: "It has not been confirmed that Miss Gardner, as has been rumoured at third-hand from a usually unreliable source, if given the chance, would seriously consider whether, if she managed to think of it, would like to have put on the record that she said: 'On the Beach is a story about the end of the world, and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it.'" Unfortunately, a clumsy sub-editor put these words in Gardner's mouth, and she had to live with them for the next 30 years.
"Get me out of this bloody dump," pleads Ava.


Bill M said...

Frightening how the next US election brings back the nuclear scare of the cold war no matter who wins the election.

Joe V said...

I need to reread the book and see the film again, after all these years. I've been peripherally connected to the nuclear weapons world, as my father worked in that field, employed by a federal agency (DASA/DNA) and was present when Manzano Base was being built in the early '50s (an underground weapons storage facility, built into a granite mountain, just southeast of my hometown of Albuquerque). Growing up here in the '60s, many of us had parents who worked on base and knew a bit too much about what was buried in the mountain. We also grew up under the shadow of imminent death, since we were (and probably still are) a prime target. So there was a kind a fatalistic attitude we acquired that informed our adult mindset.

Robert, great article, thank you.

Richard P said...

The book certainly remains relevant.

I can't tell what kind of typewriter he used, can you? (After the Blick, that is.)