A Town Like Alice by Neville Shute ( or Finch Vs Brown)

When I was younger, thinner and still winning the war against gravity, I had this mad crush on a young Australian actor by the name of Bryan Brown. Six foot plus, cheeky smile, and always in roles which required that laconic Aussie humour. He lived on the wrong side of the tracks – literally – only 10 minutes from my home in southern Sydney, and when he wasn’t wearing a singlet (as in The Thorn Birds) he had his shirt unbuttoned. Give me a break: I was young and stupid-er once.

My youngest gifted me a DVD for Christmas that I had been chasing for over 30 years called A Town Like Alice, made in the early 80’s as a mini series for television. This was the performance that made me fall ( you can read lust should you so choose) for Brown, and fall hard. He played Ringer, Joe Harman, who was crucified by the Japanese in Malaya for stealing some chickens for a group of starving English women and children during World War 2.


A Town Like Alice was originally a novel written by Neville Shute in the 50’s about a group of women and children taken captive by the Japanese, and marched from one end of the country to another, as there were no dedicated female POW camps. Young Jean Pagent, is responsible for a young babe in arms whose mother is one of many whom have died on this journey. She crosses paths with POW, Joe Harman, and there is some flirting as expected when an Australian bloke hasn’t seen a white woman for six months. Hearing the fate of this group, Joe aids the women by providing black market soaps and medicines. His good luck leaves him with the chicken episode. Jean thinks Joe is dead and Joe thinks Jean is married. The women settle into life in a Malaysian village for the remainder of the war where they plant rice alongside the Malayan women.

End of story, right?

Dead wrong- it’s only just the beginning.

Several years after wars end Jean inherits from a wealthy uncle and returns to Malaya to thank the villagers for their protection by building them a well. Here she learns that Joe has survived his ghastly ordeal which sends her on a convoluted trip to the north of Australia, barren cattle country, looking for Joe. At the same time, Joe has headed to England to look for Jean having discovered she was never married.

This is where the Peter Finch and Virginia McKenna film from the 50’s ends. Big smooch at the reunion in an airport in Far North Queensland. A good flick which holds up well despite being 60 years old, and there is nothing like a bit of old fashioned romance to make the heart flutter, is there?

The miniseries follows the novel more closely. Jean and Joe don’t reconnect until she gets back into her sarong, and then Jean battles to settle into a new country, learning different ways and utilising her personal strengths and entrepreneurial nous to make a good life for herself and Joe.

The film on the DVD is of poor quality, more gritty, and I suspect that they transferred old video footage direct to DVD. At times it seems more dated than the original version.

Peter Finch is probably classically better looking, but I’m still a Bryan Brown girl through and through, and he doesn’t seem to have experienced the same gravity issues.

If you get a chance, read the book. It is an easy read, and it seems a simple read, though it is multi layered and covers so many different themes : healing, discrimination, sexism. I tend to read  A Town Like Alice every two or three years and each time I feel something a little different towards it. Considering it is such a big story it is not a thick book. It is one that is sad, tragic, full of hope and love. Shute can certainly spin a good yarn.

And remember : “Alice is a bonzer town”.





Where Things Can Take You….

A few years back the High School I attended celebrated its 50th year with an array of celebrations, including a series of Class Reunions. Although I was unable to attend any of the events the festivities provided the opportunity to reminisce with many neighbours, friends and acquaintances from all those years ago via social media. The beauty of the internet is that I have since enjoyed catching up over a meal with people with whom I shared my ratty teenage years, as well as a play mate from the sand pit in kindy.

With all the nostalgia someone recommended a book called “Goodnight, Crackernight” by young Australian Author, Justin Sheedy. This book was always going to resonate with me as Cracker Night, in Sydney, was originally celebrated on Empire Day, May 24th, the day after my birth date. I grew up believing, with assistance from my parents, that the fireworks were in honour of my birthday.

Yes, I also believed in fairies at the bottom of the garden, leprechauns, and Unicorns. Didn’t you?


The blurb on the back of the book sums it up :

“Crackernight! One night a year, the infinite normality of the suburbs is shot with utter magic. Goodbye, Crackernight is the story of one boy’s childhood in 1970s Australia. It is a story of fireworks, of fun that cost nothing, of second-hand bikes, UFO-crowded skies, streakers, lime green Valiants, half-sucked Sunny Boys and electric pink hotpants. It is a story of growing up and innocence left behind – at a three-day swimming pool party. It is the tale of an era, of far simpler times, of an annual neighbourhood festival and an Australia long since gone”.

“Goodbye Crackernight”: A portrait of growing up when a child’s proudest possession was not a Playstation but a second-hand bike.”

So, I became a fan of young Justin Sheedy, who just happened to be a military aviation tragic, and who had written two books of a Second World War trilogy, and was busy working on the final instalment.

My old Da had served in Bomber Command during WW2, but did not talk about his exploits. A house full of women, and the stiff upper lip attitude as was expected, you see.

So I naturally gravitated towards Sheedy’s fictional military history books. Firstly, because I had a need to learn more about how and why young Australians were excited to head to the other side of the world to fight the Nazis in the sky, and also because Sheedy spins a darn good yarn.

Sheedy’s books have taken me on a journey that was never anticipated. After using his fictional characters in historically correct situations I have learnt so much about the Empire Air Training Scheme, London’s Kangaroo Club, the amazing Guinea Pig Club, the female pilots who ferried aircraft, and most recently, Malta’s role during the hostilities. WOW – all great stuff. This interest has led to the hunting down of further reading material on these subjects which is another task which gives me a total buzz. I guess, in a small way, it gave me insight into my Da as a young man, before he had the quarter acre block, the mortgage and me.

So now that I have settled on my new Christmas lunch recipes – Smashed Brussel Sprouts and a Cous Cous and Roast Pumpkin and Feta Salad – I am looking forward to the coming recluse time, when the blinds are pulled down, the music plays quietly, and recovery from another frantic year can commence.

Number one priority is to complete this Airfix Kit. It’s a Halifax from WW2. Bizarrely, the nose art on this Kit plane is exactly the same as the nose art on my Da’s plane.
A sponsored ad for Airfix Kits just popped up on social media just over twelve months ago when I was sitting up reading late one night. Let’s just say apoplexy set in.


Where things can take you, hey….