June 2020

Lockdown Book Reviews Fancy a good read while in lockdown? On the Beach “On the Beach” is a compelling read. Based in 1963, the 1957 book examines the end of the world, thanks to an overwhelming and unstoppable release of radioactivity following World War III. It follows several residents in the world’s last inhabited major city, Melbourne, as the toxic fallout moves mercilessly south. First there are months to wait; then weeks; then days... no one can survive. Nevil Shute observes how different characters react. Some are stoic; some in denial; some are angry; some use the time to drink their cellars dry; others look to fulfil their lifetime’s ambition. Till near the end, there remains a semblance, a veneer, a cloak of business as usual. There’s only a hint of self-pity. All before everyone falls seriously and fatally ill. Goodnight Vienna (Vienna, New South Wales, that is). No swearwords, no blasphemy, no sex here, just a measured writing of small pleasures in difficult circumstances while expressing just enough pain and suffering. And, just like in March 2020, alongside the banal, the mundane, the sports reports, Shute’s 1963 radio dispassionately broadcasts updates, as the winds spread radioactivity progressively southward, as town after town goes “out”. Could there be huge parallels with today? In March, as I write this review, people still wander around town. It’s almost as if there’s nothing to do but to carry on regardless, Shute-style, in spite of the weight around everyone’s necks. The Satan Bug In the 60s and 70s, we were buying mass-market Alistair MacLean page-turners by the paper mill load. These days, he’s less in the limelight. MacLean’s “The Satan Bug” is typical of his works. A little light on character development, perhaps, but a clever plot, good story, brisk pace & attention to detail keep you guessing as to whodunit. There’s a relevancy to its time. Someone has stolen three phials of a germ warfare “bug” from the secret Mordon research centre (a thinly disguised Porton Down, even located in the same Wiltshire). The bug itself is a re-engineered  poliovirus. There are parallels with today: this highly virulent strain has the propensity to end the world. It’s contagious and indestructible. Moreover, there’s no vaccine. Only Pierre Cavell and his “lovely wife” can save the world. His asperity, arrogance and contempt heroically outwit exclusively male & usually moustachioed soldiers, superintendents & scientists, whether heroes or villains. When this gets out, Cavell says, “I’ll bet the headlines are the biggest since VE day”. It was originally published in 1962 and is littered with references to the height of the cold war tension of the time. These only date the book if you let it. There’s talk, for example, of a Communist plot to destroy Britain. For 45p, I bought my copy in 1974, at a period of détente. Much younger then, I agreed with Punch’s endorsement that the book was “utterly compelling”. Actually, to a youngster’s imagination in the precariousness of the mid-70s, it was utterly terrifying. Re-reading it now and it’s suddenly convincing that we should face a strain of something so destructive, so pernicious, that its consequences are staggeringly life-changing. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorists to appreciate the reasons why. But this old school thriller has a happy ending, something in 2020 for which we continue to search & wait…
Archive from 2013 Historic Interest