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Sunday, 14 February 2021

Re-reading: Nevil Shute - A Town Like Alice

Nevil Shute: 
A Town Like Alice (4*)

Another paperback I remember getting through the nineteen-sixties Pan books offer, as mentioned previously. It was not a top choice but I was running out of options. I was surprised at the time how much I enjoyed it. And I enjoyed it again now, the first half, anyway. Compared to The Saint and James Bond this was far more satisfying.

I downloaded it to my new Kindle from the Faded Page site I also mentioned a while ago, which was naughty because the book is still under copyright in the U.K., but it makes no difference to Nevil now. How ridiculous these days that a book can be out of copyright in Canada but still within in the U.K. The Kindle, incidentally, is a front-light model which on just 4% brightness can comfortably be read in the dead of night without eyestrain or earstrain.

A Town Like Alice is indeed a book of two halves, the first set in London and Malaya and the second in Northern Queensland. I don’t want to spoil it other than to say is a powerful and engrossing story about the survival of a group of English women led by a strong, modern heroine, who are forced to walk from place to place across Malaya during the Second World War because none of the occupying Japanese officers will take responsibility for them. It was based on a real incident that took place in Sumatra rather than Malaya.

It is worth reading for this first part alone. The Australian second half of the novel is meanderingly “happy ever after”. 

Written in 1950, it has a lot of words and attitudes that would get you instantly kicked out of the Labour Party on multiple counts. Not that Shute would ever have been a member. He left England to live in Australia because he objected to the rise of the welfare state. His belief in the dignity of self-sufficiency and hard work is perhaps the major theme. 

However, I must mention the passing references to Driffield, Goole and Kirkby Moorside, my part of Yorkshire, which Shute would have known from his time as chief engineer on the R100 airship at Howden in the nineteen-thirties. Nice, Nevil, but it can never compensate for what you said in your autobiography about the hard-working local people: …the girls were ... brutish and uncouth, filthy in appearance and in habits ... these girls straight off the farms were the lowest types that I have ever seen in England, and incredibly foul-mouthed .... Did my grandma and her cousins tell you what they thought about you, you stuck-up wuss? 

It seems that books I most sought as a teenager (The Saint, James Bond) are less rewarding than the one I got just to make up the offer numbers. I am not sure, though, whether I will read any of these authors again. I’ve got Salman Rushdie next. That will keep me occupied for a while.


Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

50 comments:

  1. I've never read this, but I did read his "On the Beach" many years ago. Another classic!

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    1. My dad took me to see the film of On The Beach, although I was too young to understand it.

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  2. I remember enjoying the film version (mainly because of Peter Finch) but have not read the book. Perhaps I should remedy that.
    Mr Shute does seem to have been quite rude about the ladies of your grandma's generation.

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    1. My grandma and her cousins worked as riveters high in the air frame. It was good when there wasn't much of it around. Nevil Shute took over from Barnes Wallace as Chief Engineer. Obviously a snob.

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  3. I remember it in my mother's bookcase. It must have been a bestseller in the 50s. I read it a few years later but can't say I remember much about it.

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    1. It made quite an impression on me - that and Peyton Place were the two book I got free from the book offer after I'd got all my first choices.

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  4. I thought that this novel, based as it was in part at any rate on true events, was quite a powerful one and (as you have already mentioned fortunately) as it had a happy ending I also enjoyed it. Generally speaking I enjoyed his books although I'm finding it hard to recall any of them now.

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    1. They're all freely downloadable from the Faded Page site linked above - ATL Alice, No Highway, On The Beach and his autobiography Slide Rule.

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  5. I read it as a child - probably pre-teen as I was a voracious reader and went through everything on the family bookcase. There were a few Neville Shute books - my father must have favoured them. I cannot recall the story so perhaps I should read them all again. One of the other titles I recall was Requiem for a Wren.

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    1. He was incredibly popular, probably because he was a good story teller and not difficult to read.

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  6. Like Debra I read On the Beach first, and then A Town Like Alice.
    Flying by the seat of his pants was Shute's speciality as a pilot. He wrote about it in his memoirs, Slide Rule.
    Beyond the Black Stump, The Rainbow and the Rose, Lonely Road, In the Wet, The Far Country, Most Secret, An Old Captivity ... I checked with Wiki to see how many I read.
    Requiem for a Wren was one of the saddest, because it dealt with suicide.

    Shute said the success of On the Beach cast a shadow over his life.
    Gregory Peck felt his character in the movie was violated because of the love affair with Ava Gardner, unlike the novel.

    Peter Finch and Virginia McKenna were great together in the movie of A Town like Alice.
    Bryan Brown and Helen Morse (Picnic at Hanging Rock) were terrific in the TV mini series.
    They filmed the last scene of On Beach in Sydney on Sunday morning.
    Donna Anderson has that haunting line, *May God forgive us.*

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    1. Sorry, On the Beach was filmed in Melbourne.
      Ava Gardner told the Australian press, *I've come to make a film about the end of the world, and this city feels like it.*

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    2. Virginia McKenna specialised in strong wholesome women, probably because that's what she is. Lovely. I remember the submarine in the film of On The Beach when it found the signal transmitter in New York.

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    3. Virginia was a class act, which is why she never went to Hollywood Babylon. When Marcello Mastroianna was asked why he wouldn't stay in LA and sign a contract, he said *I didn't like the food !*

      Francis Schaeffer was haunted by the empty street scenes at the end of On the Beach. He said, *This is the way things are in the West, whether the bombs fall or not, because there is no ultimate meaning.*

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  7. I never read that particular book but it sounds like a worthwhile read. I think it is interesting to reread a book that you read many years ago because it often takes you back to those times and encourages memories that you may have forgotten.

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    1. It's not a difficult read and keeps you turning the pages wanting to know what comes next, but as I say, I found the Australian section overly drawn out.

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    2. Trying to recapture lost memories is one way of revisiting a book as Bonnie says.
      So much of our lives falls into oblivion. James Hilton wrote the wistful novel about it, Random Harvest, filmed in 1942 with Ronald Colman and Greer Garson.
      Borges wrote the story of the man who forgets nothing, Funes the Memorious.

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  8. Virginia McKenna ....her best movie

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    1. It was her best movie, John. I was at school when they gave Born Free a Royal premiere. Matt Monro's hit song defined the decade.

      Helen Morse, the Australian actress, played the Virginia McKenna role in the mini-series A Town like Alice.
      She was the French teacher in Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is also a good DVD mini-series, though the wonderful Romanian panpipes of the movie were not in the TV version.

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    2. Saw her give readings on stage with other leading actresses during a Nottingham culture festival. Wonderful.

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    3. Was it Virginia McKenna you saw? Can you recall what she read?

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    4. And what colour knickers was she wearing?

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    5. Like Mother Julian of Norwich, Miss McKenna was probably wearing ski pants, or salopettes as Jane Birkin said: Salopettes the colour of a cloud of unknowing. I have a bow-tie yon colour.

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  9. I remember reading Alice when it first came out and being so impressed by it. I suspect if I read it again now it would seem a little dated.

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    1. Probably, but it really is a good read in the first half of the book, and if you like the characters the second half is enjoyable too.

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  10. I read A Town like Alice for the first time this year. It is two stories, as you point out, and I found both engrossing. The march of the women engrossed me; I am acquainted with a woman who was a German POW in WW2. She was a Lithuanian, and her family was marched by foot to work on farms in Germany. Her grandmother was shot for inability to keep up.
    And the other half, an equally engrossing story of the making of a frontier town. Someone has to do it, why not a strong woman.

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    1. It could perhaps be said to be four stories - the London solicitor, Malaya in the war, the return to Malaya and the Australian town. I still feel the Australian part of the story isn't as good as the Malayan or London parts, but I suppose we all have lives of several phases, some more intense than others.

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  11. I read it and loved it. Someday, when I can once again, read for the pure pleasure of it, I just might pick that book up and read it again.

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  12. I must say that I found "A Town Like Alice" one of the most mind-numbingly tedious novels I have ever had the misfortune to read. However, I would say upon reflection that how one receives a book is often connected with the time and the circumstances of the reading.

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    1. Once the lockdown is over, I'll be the strange big guy with the stare, haunting your every move, Yorky.
      You don't get to diss one of my favourite stories.
      I'll be the guy at the next table in Braggazzis, or wherever ye go for lunch.
      Visit Withernsea Lighthouse Museum and I'll be there tae.
      Alice will not be dishonoured.
      Alice will fcuk wi your mind.
      I am Alice.

      (Good idea for a thriller, Tasker. THE MAN WHO WAS ALICE. Mind, ye need a new twist at least a third o'the way thru, and a believable nut like me.)

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    2. YP's the big guy with the stare. Not got a zack of sensitivity.

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    4. Aye, right, Yorky.
      Wait till you're reading your poems in the Rude Shipyard.
      Or gawn intae the Twin Cafe for a Nicaraguan espresso.
      Or droppin intae the Depot Bakery for a blueberry muffin.
      Or chatting up the wee lassie in Thelma's.
      Or having the full English breakfast in Amici and Bici.
      The Man Who Was Alice Springs will be right behind ye.

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    5. A thump in yer solar plexus and ye'll be down on the floor like a sack o' spuds Johnny-boy. I'm no afraid o' fellas like thee ken. The bigger the intellectual giant the harder they fall. Tasker will be drying yer eyes wi' his snotty old handkerchief afore taking you to Sheffield Midland Station for the Flying Scotsman back home. See you Jimmy!

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    6. The Man Who Was Alice Springs is impressed with your grasp of the glottal. Can ye sing Lowlands Away like yon red-heided lassie in the Lesmahagow Folkies? Some body oan her never mind the voice.

      There was a journalist, Kenneth Roy (1945-2018) who founded the Scottish Review, back copies of which you can read online. Kenneth's work has the same bright texture as yours and Tasker's.

      *Kenneth Roy Memorial Service* (YouTube) 21 March 2019. Well worth watching. Sally Magnuson reads from one of his best pieces.

      Kenneth wrote his own obituary in The Scottish Review.
      And you can read a farewell to this quiet master of prose, written by Ian Jack: *My Friend's diagnosis has sent me back to a 1960s estate Guardian online 10 October 2018.

      *Seneca was just playing with words* : An excerpt from Kenneth Roy's final book. Scottish Review online 6 November 2018.
      I must order his two other books, The Invisible Spirit and The Broken Journey.

      I saw him six or seven years ago, coming out of the Mitchell Library, and wish I had told him how much I treasured his Review.
      The things we did not do haunt us as we tread the last miles of our journey.

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    7. I really wouldn't rate your chances YP
      https://caledoniantkd.com/john-haggerty-coach-profile/
      You could attend the Wednesday Taekwondo session, 6pm with John Haggerty.

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  13. It is a line from Willie McIlvanney: Glasgow, the city of the Stare.
    He was a great guy. To think we never met.

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  14. I like Nevil Shute's books very much, but always have to brace myself before starting to read. They have so much impact, and a not-so-happy-yet-hopeful ending. It leaves me thoughtful for a couple of days, so I have to make sure I have that time to reflect.

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    1. Thanks for visiting. A book that makes one think for a few days is almost the definition of a good book for me. A Town Like Alice may be one of his gentler books in the sense that it does have a happy ending, even though some the content is a little disturbing.

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  15. I seem to remember a TV series based on the novel. Well - "remember" is perhaps an overstatement, as I can't really recall any details. I think I may have read the book as well, after the TV series, but still a very long time ago...

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    1. You're right. It was made in the early 1980s.

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  16. I wonder if Shute's publishers liked the title, not every reader would see that the name refers to Alice Springs.

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    1. Shute loved Australia and some of the sheep stations made him think of Wiltshire in England but on a massive scale.

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    2. I'm not sure it matters whether readers associate the title with Alice Springs.
      Shute was very critical of the social changes in England and dead against developments like the NHS, which is why he moved to Australia where people were rewarded for their hard work.

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  17. The postwar Labour Government needed a healthy workforce, now that full employment was back. Aneurin Bevan got dog's abuse in setting up the NHS.

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  18. I remember reading this book years ago and liking it a lot, but I remember nothing about the plot now. I also read "On the Beach" and some of Shute's other books.

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