Montreal, Sunday 13th March
It’s a little under 24 hours since I finished reading On the Beach, and I followed it by reading a novel about child soldiers, visiting an exhibition of (good!) poetry about 9/11 and doing such a big poo in my hotel room that the toilet flooded the bathroom and I had to go out and buy materials to unblock it as the only tools I had available – an empty wine bottle and a plastic tub that had held unopenable sachettes of “3 in 1 Shampoo” – were not fit for the purpose.
One of the benefits of travelling alone (or holidaying alone, I’m not really “travelling”, I’m just loitering in a more picturesque city than the one I live in, doing the things I would presumably do with my free time there if I wasn’t too depressed to only leave the house for chores, exercise or work, none of which give me joy (and nor should they!)) is that there are zero consequences to this embarrassing poo-water adventure.
There is no shame, no awkwardness, there are no devastating romantic and/or sexual repercussions.
My lover – 500km away – was sending me mildly flirty texts as I was sanitising my hands (for the eighth post-poo-water time): would that have been happening had my lover been in the room? No, absolutely not.
In this scenario, everybody wins.
I have something to tweet about, my lover hasn’t had a temporary cessation of seeing me as a sexual object: this poo misadventure was a perfect holiday anecdote.
On the Beach is not a perfect holiday anecdote, and nor is it a great “holiday read”: it is not relaxing and it isn’t great as escapism (though it’s set far away from anywhere I’ve ever been, mostly in Australia, which I imagine isn’t much more exciting than Canada (with better weather but also with poisonous animals?)), because I accidentally chose to read a blunt novel about the realities of nuclear Armageddon during the period when the world is the closest it has been to atomic warfare for decades…
If you don’t know (or don’t remember – when are you, reader?) in the early Spring of 2022, Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine, attempting to do a blitzkrieg-style rapid invasion and takeover, but it did not go according to plan. Weeks later (and months later, too, I add in from the future) the situation persists, with many parts of the commentariat crying for escalation from (the now internationally ubiquitous) economic sanctions to the use of direct force, which Putin has bluntly stated would be met with the very real threat of nuclear bombs. So, yeah, nuclear war could happen and it could happen soon!
On the Beach is from the 1950s, so it predates not only the Cuban Missile Crisis (and thus what is broadly considered to be the closest we ever got to nuke-on-nuke conflict (isn’t it fucking insane that the US was never held accountable in the international criminal court for the TWO nuclear bombs they dropped on Japanese cities??? & surely the absence of meaningful consequence for the aggressor kinda greenlit Putin’s thought that the fallout will likely only be literal (I also recently discovered that it is an American law that if any foreign nation ever brings forth a trial aiming to convict a US citizen at the International Criminal Court the US army is obliged to invade the Netherlands)))-
sorry, those digressions got outta hand
On the Beach is from the 1950s, so it predates not only the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it also predates Threads (1984) and Raymond Briggs’ When The Wind Blows (1982) by a quarter of a century, and I can’t think of any other examples of serious art about the after effects of nuclear bombs from the interim (Does Dr Strangelove count?).
The novel mostly takes place in Australia in the mid-sixties, by which point it has become one of the last places free of radiation sickness. This is after a massive world war that involved all of the “nuclear powers” [as existed at the time of Shute’s writing] dropping bombs on each other, plus a pessimistic (or optimistic, if you love the dispersal of scientific knowledge!) list of smaller countries who had also developed “the bomb” doing the same thing.
North of the equator is a nuclear wasteland, and the southern hemisphere is slowly becoming one, too, as the trade winds (or Shute’s fictional equivalent) spread radiation onwards and onwards over the planet.
The characters we meet are petty Australian bureaucrats; the captain of one of the two American navy submarines far enough out of the blast range to survive; a scientist who has acquired the last Ferrari imported to the continent; a depressed youngish “lady alcoholic”; an offensively-written thick-as-shit housewife who “doesn’t understand what’s happening” (it is written as stupidity rather than denial); a middle-aged toff who has committed to drinking dry every good wine cellar in Melbourne; plus other, less memorable, characters.
The reason why this book is impressive – and it is – is that all of its characters are dull, socially conservative bores committed to a stiff upper lip response to their inevitable deaths, yet Shute manages to convey the bleak humanity of these boring people. One doesn’t get the impression that Shute necessarily thought these were interesting people as individuals, yet the way in which he dramatises how losers/squares/normies respond to the end of days – their sense of self being tied to a sense of propriety and performative good behaviour – is bleakly believable and sadly, shockingly, timeless.
It is not fiddling while Rome burns so much as filing your taxes while Rome burns…
it is turning up to your minimum wage retail job while the liveable portion of the planet shrinks daily…
it is gardening when you know you will never see another Spring…
it is hanging out with a hunky American submarine captain who you really want to bang but respecting his decision to flirt but not touch out of “respect” to his 100% dead wife…
It is trying to drink literally every fine wine in a city but still paying your bar tab
it is continuing to drive a tram even though you’re not getting paid any more and money has no meaning…
it is publishing newspapers that still report sports and culture, but nothing else because well, the world is over…
It is upholding the “no booze on the submarine” rule even though you’re about to drive the submarine out to sea to commit suicide on it and sink it forever.
It is trying to prepare dinners for your dog because you think it will maybe live on weeks – or even months – longer than you before succumbing to radiation poisoning…
Shute writes of small people living small lives, and trying to live these lives in the manner true to themselves up until – and beyond – their last hour.
I like to think that if the world was definitely ending within nine months, I’d be attending chem sex parties (i.e. druggy orgies) until the walls – or I – collapsed, but the world is fucking burning and the sluttiest I’ve ever been was once having three lovers in the same calendar year, and likely I would be burdened in the end of days as I have been burdened in my life: achingly prurient, achingly repressed.
For example, I’ve been alone in a city far from home for a couple of nights, and am I out cruising or downloading apps or figuring out where to find sex workers? No, I’m not, I’m sat in a middle-of-the-road Italian restaurant sipping Chianti and writing a blog about how people who greet the end of the world with dignity are losers. They are, I maintain that, but I’m guilty too of the same lame propriety.
There is no joy in good behaviour; longtermism may be mature, but it isn’t fun.
I laughed when I flooded the bathroom, but if I was a real fun person, I would have had someone I didn’t know in that room ready to fuck, and the terror of the poo-induced flood would have been a big feeling, as too would the fuck that I’d almost certainly blocked due to the flooding.
It is the end of the world, and I am behaving like a dull little goody-goody, reading books and enjoying legal drugs (Chianti), instead of just aggressively destroying my body and mind in every moment that I can.
What a fucking waste of life, are most of our lives.
On the Beach is a great novel. Yet, in a world where death is inevitable, is anything that doesn’t give immediate visceral physical pleasure worthy of our time? Not really, no.
On my deathbed, maybe I will whimper that I wish I’d read – or written – more books, but what I’ll really mean is I wish I’d made more people come.
In On the Beach, nobody fucks. I hope, in their situation, I would. But I honestly can’t be sure.
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