As I’ve written elsewhere, my early life was full of stories and memories of Australia. My parents’ stories and memories. It was also full of books and maps. When you put all that together, it’s not entirely surprising that I have been known to read Nevil Shute’s Australian set novels with a map in front of me. There’s a fair chance that there will be photos too as my parents did a tour of much of inland Australia – by bus and camping! – in the 1960s.
My Dad had most of Nevil Shute’s books. I think he’d started reading them as a young man, perhaps when he was in the RAF, and they’re something I was always aware of. But I didn’t read any of them until I was about thirteen. Around then the BBC dramatised A Town Like Alice and my Dad encouraged me to watch it. I had never been allowed to watch the film version starring Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch as Dad got irate whenever he thought about it. He said, quite correctly, that the way it had been truncated made a mockery of the title. So the BBC serial was my introduction to the book and the author and I loved it. I read it and then started reading Shute’s other books until I got sidetracked by something else.
But I continued to reread A Town Like Alice on a regular basis and even used a passage from it as an illustration of some stylistic technique in a university essay! At one point in my life I could have recited chunks from it! For the sake of those who don’t know the book, I am reluctant to give too much away. The first part of it is set mostly in Malaya (as it was then referred to) during the Second World War. Jean Paget becomes one of a group of women and children captured by the Japanese and made to march from town to town until finally, after their guard dies, they settle in a village and work alongside the local women. On their travels they meet a couple of captured Australian soldiers who endeavour to help them, with appaling consequences.
The second part of the book takes us and Jean to Australia. She arrives in Darwin, as I recently learned that everyone arriving by plane in the 1950s did. She then makes various short hops around the Northern Territory and north Queensland, including a stay in Cairns, before visiting Alice Springs. This visit of only a few weeks is the single part of the book that is set in the central Australian town but it is the inspiration for what Jean goes on to do back in Queensland. Those of you who know the book don’t need me to tell you the plot and those who don’t certainly don’t need me to spoil it for you. Anyway, the clue is in the title!
Although I always knew that A Town Like Alice is hardly set in Alice Springs at all I’ve wanted to go there for years. And this year I finally did. I went there by train from the north, not an option available to Jean Paget, and I was very excited. Because of delays, there was a limited amount of time to spend in the town. I went to see the Telegraph Station, the reason for the town’s existence, and I saw a little of the town on the bus journey to and from the train. In truth, it was a little anti-climactic, probably because everything was so rushed. But the experiences around that visit were not.
I arrived in Darwin by plane, from Perth. It had been unusually warm there but there was nothing unseasonal about Darwin. As I stepped out of the airport, I staggered straight into a wall of humidity like I’d never experienced before. My plan was to stay overnight and then board the Ghan which would take me to Adelaide. As is the way with plans, though, this one went astray. I arrived in the wet season and it was living up to its name. The rain fell and it fell and fell. Train tracks were submerged and the Ghan was delayed by a day, giving me a chance to see something of Darwin. I was glad of that opportunity because there was lots to see there (you can read a little more about my experiences in my other blog at https://janespicturejournal.com/2020/04/16/travelling-versus-arriving/#more-432) but I was physically unable to walk more than a few metres and I made good use of the local taxis.
But I understood how Jean must have felt on her arrival and the rain gave me an idea of what her journey on horseback into Willstown must have been like. And the flies in Alice were terrible. I can see why she’d have lost her temper with the bank manager over them. And then there was the distance. I knew that it would take more then twenty four hours to travel from Darwin to Alice but knowing and understanding are two different things. Yes, I was in Northern Territory and not Queensland but the climate and geography were similar. Naturally I was reading Nevil Shute’s book on the train and I enjoyed it so much more for my experiences.