“Newspapers,” he said. “You could have done something with newspapers. We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about indecent assault, and no Government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we’d been wise enough.”
“I’m glad we haven’t got newspapers now,” she said. “It’s been much nicer without them.”
These words are from Nevil Shute’s mid-apocalyptic disaster novel, On the Beach. I say mid-apocalyptic, rather than post- or even pre-, because the majority of the book centres on people waiting for the the end to arrive. Like technology, new-release films and high fashion, the apocalypse comes late to Australia, in the form of radiation that seeps towards the Southern Hemisphere from a north already wiped out by atomic bombs.
On the Beach is a novel in which Melbourne simply waits to die.
And just as Shute is wrapping up his parochial, at times jaunty, but ultimately crushing experiment with the end of the earth, just as a husband, wife and infant stare euthanasia in the face to escape the death throes of radiation sickness, just as I weep into my glass of wine and bowl of curry at the senseless loss of it all, just as it’s all winding down … comes is this odd aside.
“You could have done something with newspapers,” says Lieutenant-Commander Peter Holmes.
A strange thing to say on your deathbed. Particularly to your naïve wife, who babbles about what to put in the garden next summer – a summer in which Melbourne will be inhabited only by mice, according to the CSIRO – and refuses to countenance her, or indeed anyone’s, impending doom.
But there it is. A simple regret, from a simple Navyman, in a simple Antipodean town on the edge of the Earth as humanity takes its final stagger and shuffles off its collective mortal coil. “You could have done something with newspapers.”
Since On the Beach was published in 1957, when the Doomsday Clock sat at two minutes to midnight, the threat of the planet being engulfed by a life-destroying nuclear winter is mercifully much diminished. In fact, an all-consuming dose of radioactivity is so low on priority for the timepiece of catastrophe, it’s begun to concern itself with climate change.
But it’s hard to escape the feeling that, particularly in Melbourne, the newspapers, just like the Shute’s ill-fated families, are waiting to die.
If Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood were here (which would admittedly be weird), he would tell me I’m mistaken in my concern. He recently gave a lecture with the snappy title, “If you ask me about the future of newspapers you have asked the wrong question.”
But as sales and circulation figures plummet like a Geiger counter moving south in On the Beach, it’s hard not to ask how long humanity will have to worry about ink-stained fingers as well as climate change and other harbingers of our imminent destruction. How long will the houses and units of Berwick, Falmouth and Williamstown wait for the thud of The Age, The Herald Sun or The Australian hitting their doorstep in the morning?