Nevil Shute Norway was a fascinating man whose writing reflected his deep involvement in engineering and aviation. His vivid depictions of the early days of aviation were vivid in part because he was there.
In writing, Schute chose to drop the Norway to avoid conflict with his engineering career. He was Norway as an engineer, Schute as a writer.
I loved nearly all of Schute’s books as a child, I still do, but of them all A Town Like Alice was my favourite. It is also a book that has had a significant influence on my life.
A Town like Alice breaks into two parts. The first part is set in Malaya and tells the story of a group of women and children captured by the Japanese. The second part centres on Willstown, a small town in the Queensland outback. Linking the two is the love story of Jean Paget, a young English women who is part of the group of captured women, and Sergeant Joe Harman, an Australian POW.
The book was immensely popular. In 1956, it provided the source for a very popular feature film, A Town like Alice, with Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch in the leading roles. Now, through the miracles of YouTube, you can watch it at your leisure.
I first watched the film in the school assembly hall during the Saturday screenings put on for the boarders. I was a dayboy, but it was a good night out, so I would walk across from home to join the other boys.
The film focuses on the first part of the story, the Malayan experience. It ends with Joe and Jean meeting at the Alice Springs Airport. However, it was the second part of the story that really influenced me.
In 1981, Bryan Brown and Helen Morse starred in an Australian mini-series based on the book. This time, it included the second part of the story. Here is the first part of the miniseries. You can see the next two parts by following the YouTube links shown with the first part.
What can a girl to do? You follow a man halfway round the world to find that he lives in a fly-struck hole. Well, you change the town, As Jean says to the local bank manager, get of your bum and stop scratching.
To turn Willstown into a Town like Alice, she starts with a basic fact. There are 50 young blokes in the district, but only two eligible women. The women leave because there are no jobs. No women, and the young blokes leave. So Jean uses some of her inheritance to start a shoe factory based on crocodile skin. Then she starts adding other businesses especially addressing women’s needs. The girls in the factory pick up men, babies are born, and so it goes on. By the end of the book, the shoe factory is no longer economic, but it doesn’t matter. It has done its job.
Yes, I know that there are al sorts of ideologically unsound things in the books and films. In Malaya, Jean is Mrs Boong. In the mini-series, there are references to Abos, although it shows working Aborigines in a positive light, with Aborigines invited to the wedding. And the idea of effectively creating a baby factory? Heaven forbid!
Still, in the middle of all these ideologically unsound things, it was the idea of community development that grabbed me. How might one grow a Town like Alice? That is what has stayed with me all these years. And yes, I still cry at aspects of the book, film and TV series. Sooky, aren’t I?