I read Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice many years ago and in my faded memory, I thought the Australian scenes were set in Alice Springs. Of course it wasn’t, the clue is in the word “like” in the book’s title. I was reminded recently where it was actually set when I received a review copy of academic Richard J Martin’s book The Gulf Country: The Story of People and Place in Outback Queensland.
Martin’s book was commissioned by Burke Shire Council for the 150th anniversary of the town of Burketown in 2015. The anthropologist author was the right man for the job as he studied in the Gulf country for his PhD on Aboriginal culture. Martin found the shire had a black and a white history, the whites settling Burketown, the Gregory and the pastoral stations, while the black tale was of colonial violence, resistance and a landmark native title win.
Burketown was boom and bust country in the so-called “Plains of Promise”. Founded as a Gulf of Carpentaria port, it was a wild west place in the 19th century. Fouled by plague and a new rival port at Normanton, it never delivered its promise. Its struggles continued with the Second World War due to the nearness of wartorn New Guinea with many evacuated and never returning. The near derelict town survived only as a destination for crocodile hunters searching for valuable skins.
Here Martin mentions A Town Like Alice. He said Nevil Shute visited Burketown in 1948 and used his experiences to inform the book written two years later. It tells the story of the romance between Englishwoman Jean Paget and Australian soldier Joe Harman, both prisoners of the Japanese in Malaya during the war. Martin said Harman was possibly modelled on Glenore Station (Normanton) stockman Jimmy Edwards who led a similar life. After the war Paget rejoins Harman in “Willstown” which Martin calls a “thinly disguised Burketown”.
It’s a reasonable assumption given the Gulf location of the towns and the poetic substitution of Wills for Burke. But the book mentions Burketown as a separate town with Willstown situated further north-east at the mouth of the Gilbert River. There is no actual town at this spot and the closest settlement is the Aboriginal town of Kowanyama. Shute says Burketown was the “prototype” of Willstown though it also had qualities of Normanton and Camooweal.
Intrigued about this link to my part of the world, I found a copy of A Town Like Alice and reread it with interest. Shute is a fine storyteller and it didn’t take me long to get into the tale, narrated by Noel Strachan, a solicitor of Jean Paget’s family. In 1948 Paget inherits the family money to be held in trust until she is 35 and Strachan tracks her down to a London factory. She tells him how she survived the war in Malaya with a group of Englishwomen and children moved from place to place by the Japanese until they stopped in a remote settlement. There they grew rice until the war’s end (Shute modelled her on the experience of Dutchwoman Carry Geysel-Vonck in Sumatra).
The links to North West Queensland begin during her internment when Jean meets Joe Harman, a captured soldier who before the war was a stockman “from out behind Cloncurry”. Harman displays the casual racism of Outback Australians of the time calling Paget “Mrs Boong” because of her sunburn. When a puzzled Paget asks what’s a boong, he replies “black boys – black stockmen. Abos”. Harman tells her he works at a cattle station near the NT town of Alice Springs, which he called “a bonza place”. But he bemoans the lack of white stockhands, “These bloody boongs, they’re always going walkabout”.
Paget and Harman become close until the Japanese discover he has stolen chickens on the women’s behalf. They crucify him and Paget thought he died. The women are forced to move to another part of Malaya where they were finally allowed to stay unmolested by the Japanese. When Strachan tells her of her inheritance she decides to go back to Malaya to build a well for the women who helped her. In Malaya she finds out Harman did not die and sets off to find him in Australia. At the same time Harman finds out Paget is unmarried and seeks her in England.
Harman meets Strachan in London and tells him about Willstown and why it would be difficult for Paget. There’s no radio station, no fruit and veg shop, no fresh milk, no dress shop, no ice cream, no newsagent, no doctor, no swimming pool, no telephone and no young women. All outback towns are like that, Harman says, except Alice where “a girl’s got everything”.
In Alice Springs Paget finds out Harman has moved back to the Gulf and she sets off for Willstown. She flies to Cloncurry and takes a room at the Post Office Hotel arriving too late for “tea”. Cloncurry, she found, “had none of the clean glamour of Alice, it was a town redolent of cattle with wide streets through which to drive the herds down to the stockyard, many hotels and a few shops”. She then flies to Normanton and finally Willstown where she finds out Harman is in England. Willstown is even more unprepossessing than Cloncurry but love conquers all and she stays on. When Harman returns they plan to marry and Paget plans to turn Willstown into “a town like Alice”.
Paget uses her inheritance to start up a crocodile-skin shoe shop and handbag factory eventually expanding into a grocery shop, a beauty parlour, a dress shop, a swimming pool and a cinema. She wants to give young women jobs and attract the eligible stations bachelors into town. However as Martin says in his book, apart from the crocodile hunting nothing was further from the truth in Burketown in the 1940s and 50s.
Even by 1960 when Burketown celebrated its centenary its population was just 83, though that figure unlikely included Aboriginal people. In Shute’s book they were unreliable Abos who went walkabout and apartheid was the norm. Paget asks Harman “what do I if a boong comes into the ice-cream parlour and wants a soda? A boong stockrider? Do I serve him or has he got to have a different shop?” Harman replies, “I don’t think you could serve them in an ice-cream parlour, with a white girl behind the counter.” Paget creates a separate parlour for the blacks.
There’s no apartheid today in the Gulf, though there are few ice-cream parlours either. The Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation was established in 1982 and became recognised under the Native Title Act 1993 as the representative Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander body for the Gulf Region. This region includes land and waters from the Northern Territory border to east of Normanton, and the islands and seas of the lower Gulf of Carpentaria. The Waanyi People won their native title claim in 2013 as have the Gangalidda and Garawa Peoples and the four claimants on the Wellesley Islands. Given the Federal Court has recognised coexisting Arrernte native title rights and interests on most reserve, park and vacant Crown land and waters within Alice Springs, “Willstown” in this sense is indeed a town like Alice.