During the course of the weekend I have been rereading Nevil Shute’s nightmare vision of the end of the world, On the Beach. Given the circumstances, I’m not sure it has been a good idea. The book opens one sunny summer morning down in Port Phillip Bay, near Melbourne Victoria, where, following a brief but devastating nuclear exchange in the northern hemisphere, people are quietly awaiting the inexorable approach of the radiation that will finish them off. Antarctica will be the last continent to suffer the extinction of all life.
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
I read a lot of Shute as a teenager. I used to come across dog-eared copies of No Highway, Requiem for a Wren, A Town like Alice, Trustee from the Toolroom and so on, during summer holidays in Argyll boarding houses, and I recall with nostalgia the fusty aroma of the aged paper within the hardback covers. The literati rather turn up their noses at the prosaic, pedestrian trudge of Shute’s slow moving plots, but to me they conjure the spirit of an age long gone, and they seem to have a realism precisely because they are not self-consciously literary; they are yarns expounded in plain language by an aeronautical engineer. With respect to On the Beach, it is precisely the understatement that gives the book an atmosphere that is terrifying, because so realistic.
As a youngster I was more intrigued than terrified, but of course as you get older, terrible events, whether real or imagined, disturb you more profoundly. I was certainly aware that the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 was causing my parents grave concern, but I had no inkling of any danger to me at a personal level. When the Russian tanks moved into Prague in 1968 I was by then more aware of the great fault line which stretched from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic and divided the world. But the Iron Curtain had been a fixture all my life. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera quotes the lines above the last movement of Beethoven’s last work, the string quartet Opus 135:
Muss es sein?
Es muss sein! Es muss sein!
9/11 was, at least until now, the great “kaleidoscope” moment of our century. Then the west embarked on a whole series of foreign adventures, most notably, from the point of view of the UK, the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Regime change is not an ambition peculiar to the Russians.
And now, five days ago, “2/24”. Russia invaded Ukraine. My dismay – and no doubt yours, gentle reader – was not merely cerebral, it was visceral. I woke to the news, and a world enveloped in deep snow, in the first truly wintry day we have had this year. I couldn’t settle to anything. I happed myself up, took a flask of coffee, and went out on a long walk across the Carse of Stirling, pausing briefly for my morning coffee during a blizzard on Flanders Moss.
It’s not just that this war in Europe is close to home; it’s that this confrontation between east and west, so far a proxy war of the Great Powers but only just, is between blocs that have enormous nuclear arsenals. The stakes are incredibly high. On the Beach, a work of the imagination, could quite easily become a reality, and with extraordinary rapidity.
So what do you do? Keep calm, and carry on. As usual, I went to hear the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Saturday evening. The orchestra dressed in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, strings in yellow, and winds in blue. After the interval, they reverted to formal evening dress, for a performance of Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica. As a friend of mine waggishly said, “Now they are showing solidarity with the penguins.”
Serendipitously, RVW’s depiction of man’s intrepid struggle against the implacably indifferent forces of nature seemed to carry an extra layer of meaning for the occasion. A series of quotations head each movement (like Beethoven’s Muss es sein), and the first is from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound.
To suffer woes, which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs, darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This is to be Good, great and joyous, beautiful, and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.
You might argue that Scott of the Antarctic, the film for which RVW wrote the music, and the Scott myth generally, puts a positive spin on an expedition that was an incompetent, bungled, logistic disaster. Scott was about as well prepared as Mallory, when he went up Mount Everest as if he were going up Ben Nevis, in a tweed jacket. (Actually, that would have been reckless even on the Ben.) RVW 7 is an homage to amateurism. The Scott expedition was doomed to failure; they all perished in the frozen wastes, so evocatively depicted in the Sinfonia by a wordless soprano, the beautiful apparition of Katie Coventry high up in the gods, the nineteen RCS voices and, ultimately, the relentless moan of the wind.
I went to Antarctica in 1997. I was a ship’s doctor on a voyage from Ushuaia in Argentina, across the Drake Passage. I wonder now that I had the nerve. What if somebody fell seriously ill? Rapid stabilisation and transport to the nearest hospital was not an option. I was it. Fortunately, most of my patients suffered from sea sickness; they weren’t going to die, even if they felt as if they wanted to. The ship’s captain and crew were Russian, most of the passengers Belgian, and I carried out most consultations in broken French. Mal de mer.
We visited various stations on the Antarctic Peninsula, Argentinian, Chilean, the British at Port Lockroy, and the Russians, I remember, at one of the most dismal locations I have ever encountered, Bellingshausen. Even the name has the ring of a remote gulag. I don’t recall these outposts enhanced the magnificent desolation of the continent. The penguins and seals looked right at home, but we were there under sufferance. My visit to Antarctica changed my view of the world. I had thought of the globe as our natural habitat, all of it; but at the polar extremes you can really only live as you might live on the moon, or Mars. I was never so glad as to come round Cape Horn on the return journey, and see green foliage. It’s all so fragile.
And then, on Sunday evening, Mr Putin announced that he had put his nuclear forces on high alert. It raises the question, has he lost the plot? Has he gone mad? We tend to accuse people of madness quite casually. That guy is nutty as a fruitcake, one sandwich short of a picnic, etc. Certainly it would appear the President of the Russian Federation is paranoid, but is he a paranoid schizophrenic? I make it a golden rule never to attempt diagnoses remotely; and besides, I have seen nothing to indicate that the president is psychotic. The first truly mad patient I ever encountered was when I was a medical student doing a locum at a Glasgow psychiatric hospital. The police apprehended a man on the runway of Glasgow Airport trying to climb up the nosecone of a Trident 3 en route to London. He wanted to hitch a ride because he had urgent news to convey to the Prime Minister, and he was being pursued by a band of Russian homosexual spies. The psychiatrist interviewed him and passed a remark perhaps lacking in clinical objectivity and nuance. “That guy’s off his head.”
I read Mr Putin’s lengthy address from the Kremlin of February 21st, a review of Russian history, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the gradual eastward expansion of NATO, and the requirement to bolster the defences of the Russian Federation, culminating in the announcement that Mr Putin was recognising the independence and sovereignty of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. Of course things have moved on, very rapidly, since then. Mr Putin sounds aggrieved, at the shame and ignominy of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but he does not sound mad. He outlines his aims quite clearly and explicitly:
First, to prevent further NATO expansion. Second, to have the Alliance refrain from deploying assault weapon systems on Russian borders. And finally, rolling back the bloc’s military capability and infrastructure in Europe to where they were in 1997.
But, as Mr Putin already pointed out in his speech, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary were admitted to NATO in 1999; Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004; Albania and Croatia in 2009; Montenegro in 2017; and North Macedonia in 2020. “The bloc” didn’t move east. Peaceful democracies compared freedom with oppression, and decided to move west.
I saw some footage of Mr Putin being interviewed, in the presence of two uniformed senior officers of the Russian military. I thought the military men both looked scared stiff. I don’t think Mr Putin truly represents the Russian people. He needs to be stopped.
But the situation is piled high with risk. We need cool heads. One false move, an Archduke Ferdinand moment, and Antarctica might turn out to be the last habitable place on earth.
I’m going to step out of the tent now. But I hope not to be gone for some considerable time.