What ‘On the Beach’ tells us about COVID-19 in Australia

Mar 25, 2021
By world standards, Australia has achieved an enviable insularity from COVID-19, an effective and almost total community elimination protected by our island status, our placid and astonishingly well-behaved populace, and our location in an almost forgotten corner of the world. Yet there is a history of Australian survival in the face of universal annihilation, one that gives us insight into our present claustrophobic moment. 
Few Australians under age 60 recognise On the Beach, the 1956 classic end-of-the-world novel by British soldier-turned-Australian writer Nevil Shute (I know, I recently asked about 30 of them). The book tells of how a nuclear holocaust in the northern hemisphere produced radiation that slowly seeps southward, leaving Australia as one of the remaining locations of human life. Shute, who also wrote the well-known A Town Like Alice, was a social conservative, but in an odd way also a political radical, as he adamantly opposed nuclear proliferation. The novel is set in Melbourne – and the original 1959 film adaptation primarily shot – where despite the impending doom in the story – Australians appear to live a normal life, albeit without petrol and a few other necessities. Although overshadowed by the inevitability of their coming death by radiation sickness within months, the book and the film both capture unique Australian claustrophobia – not dissimilar to what we feel in Australia in March 2021, a year into the pandemic, where we cannot travel overseas, and many of us have not been able to travel to other states.
On the Beach captures a sense of Australia’s exceptionalism in the face of worldwide disaster. In the novel, an Australian naval officer comments on the problems of inviting the American submarine commander into his home: “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 wife agrees, pointing out that the British RAF squadron leader they had hosted had cried. How many times have we Australians tried, without success, to communicate our experience during COVID-19 to friends or relatives abroad in the USA, the UK or elsewhere that the pandemic rages?
The characters in On the Beach do not panic: “These talks that the Prime Minister’s been giving have been kind of steadying. The ABC’s been doing a good job in telling people just the way things are,” one character observes; what an odd resonance to the present pandemic.
The book is still in print; you can watch the original movie version (directed by Stanley Kramer), streaming on Stan, which stars Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins and Ava Gardner, who reputedly remarked that,On the Beach is a story about the end of the world, and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it.”
The end of the film contains two Melbourne scenes eerily reminiscent of the COVID-19 pandemic: a long queue of people on a footpath, not waiting for COVID-19 testing, but to pick up suicide pills as the radiation inexorably closes in; and shots of Melbourne CBD streetscapes devoid of people, not because of lock-down, but because, well … everyone dies at the end. The film “frightened the hell out of me. I’m still frightened,” reflected anti-nuclear campaigner Helen Caldicott many years later. “I hope it is fiction,” said US Air Force Secretary and later NATO ambassador, Thomas Finletter. “Are you sure it is?” Shute’s novel remains relevant for new generations.
A well-received 2013 feature documentary, Fallout, examines Shute, Kramer and the making of the film. Shute’s writing continues to resonate for a small but devoted group of international fans: the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation has hosted ten major gatherings of “Shutists”, including three in Australia. Gideon Haigh explains that “Shute languishes in something very like obscurity – for reasons not far to seek. His 23 novels are plain, staid, even chaste: 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.”
The plain ordinary-ness of Shute’s characters gives On the Beach so much of its power, says Paul Brians: “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.”
Is the nuclear war analogy with the Coronavirus pandemic too far-fetched? Possibly not. But by mid-March 2021, almost 540,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, easily exceeding the 405,000 American lives lost during WWII; President Biden says the number could rise to 660,000. That’s about 1 in 500 Americans and would close in on the 675,000 Spanish flu deaths in the USA and surpass the 620,000 Civil War deaths – the worst in US history.
While UK COVID deaths (more than 126,000) have exceeded the civilian World War II death toll (70,000), they are unlikely to reach the 384,000 soldiers killed in combat.
Israel – while leading the world in COVID-19 vaccination rates – has passed 6,000 COVID deaths, a toll that could exceed the total civilian and military deaths (6,373) in its 1947-49 War of Independence, by far its most deadly.
By contrast, only 909 Australians have died (and nobody for months), compared to the 39,655 who died in World War II. And yet these comparisons also understate the current pandemic’s death count, because most of these wars extended over many years, not just twelve months. We live in an age when “the Coronavirus is rewriting our imaginations,” writes Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the science fiction novel The Ministry for the Future. “What felt impossible has become thinkable. We’re getting a different sense of our place in history. We know we’re entering a new world, a new era…. We’re acting fast as a civilization. We’re trying, despite many obstacles, to flatten the curve—to avoid mass death. Doing this, we know that we’re living in a moment of historic importance. We realize that what we do now, well or badly, will be remembered later on. This sense of enacting history matters. For some of us, it partly compensates for the disruption of our lives.”
When the next calamities arrive, “we’ll be familiar with how they feel.” While much of the rest of the world wait out the virus and pins hopes on the success of large-scale vaccination, we in Australia exist in an uncomfortable utopia – or perhaps it’s simply a comfortable dystopia. We will only know which when we get to the “other side”, a luxury of survival our compatriots in On the Beach did not have.

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