I first read Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice as a teenager. At the time I found it a gripping story, combining adventure, romance, war and an unparalleled portrayal of life in the Australian outback. I have since re-read this slim masterpiece many times, most recently this week. The Rider and I have been holidaying in Malaysia after a hot busy fortnight in Hà Nội, Vietnam [long story featuring two weddings and many family visits – see my other blog].
It may not be fashionable to hold Shute’s novels in high regard these days, even though for my money he’s as good a storyteller as, say, Somerset Maugham. It’s certainly true that some of Shute’s writing reflects his colonial era: his references to an illiterate “lubra” (female Aboriginal) being an example we would find objectionable today. He wrote this story in 1950, and such terms correctly reflect that era of race relations in Australian, unsavoury as it might now be to us.
For me, though, Shute wrote some of the most engaging stories of his time. None more so than Alice. It has action, adventure, and a compelling love story.
So I was intrigued to match the places featured in his story with the modern Malaysia we’ve been encountering. And there are indeed some interesting contrasts, along with some elements of continuity. For example, the Malaysians still drive on the left, and use English road signs, many of them familiar to our eyes. There are still big tea plantations in the Highlands being run by the same English families, like the Russells, whose ancestor JA Russell founded the plantations here nearly a century ago. We visited two of the Boh tea plantations in the cool moist Cameron Highlands. They are the largest producer and exporter of Malaysian tea, which is truly excellent. (And as a lifelong tea drinker, this is no light praise.) Trapped in a bit of a time-warp, with buildings and settings largely unchanged for eighty years, they nevertheless send superb tea round the world.
These storehouses for example: you’d be forgiven for thinking these were British wartime military buildings. Which indeed they were. Waste not, want not, I guess.
Later we took tea on the terrace at the splendid Planters Country Hotel, and felt we had been upgraded into the colonial upper classes. Not much “White Mischief” here, though – we were too busy dodging the incoming rainstorm.
As Shute’s heroine Jean Paget discovers, Malaysia is largely a Muslim country. Her command of Malay, together with her appreciation of local culture and traditions, are major themes in the book. What she would not have witnessed, though, are the many Waabite Saudi visitors of today.
I personally found it difficult to understand the contrast between the brightly-scarfed vibrant modern Malay girls, working, driving, riding their mopeds in towns and city, and happily diving through waves in modest but athletic Muslim swimming costumes, and the silent Saudi brides we encountered at our Langkawi resort, covered in black from head to foot, unable to sunbathe, dance, swim, ride scooters, even eat easily in public. I wonder what Jean would have made of these visitors, with her flexible and informed atttiude to the Malay religion which became so important to the survival of her band of survivors.
Shute’s novel begins with some backstory. Jean works for a time in Kuala Lumpur, as a shorthand typist in the head office of a rubber plantation. We passed rubber plantations on our way from KL to the Highlands, and marvelled at the spindly appearance of these trees, seemingly a tropical cousin of the silver birch. We discovered later in the National Museum that rubber had very quickly become the major economic driver of the British colonial regime, until oil production outstripped it and the demand for rubber slackened.
Shute describes the easy and sociable life of a young unmarried British girl in pre-war Malaya, and how the landings of the Japanese to the north of the Malay peninsula were initially disregarded. In those days, three hundred miles of mountain and jungle were regarded as impassable. We however travelled that sort of distance in one morning on the modern well-built Malaysian motorway network. It wasn’t until we turned off onto the mountain road leading to Fraser’s Hill that we discovered quite how difficult and dangerous travel must have been back then.
As for walking the hundreds of miles covered by Jean’s dwindling band of women prisoners, abandoned by the Japanese and dying of every kind of disease and hardship – well, one attempt to walk a few miles of a jungle trail in Tanah Rata defeated us, seasoned hill walkers though we are.
Kuala Lumpur itself is, as everyone knows, a large, modern and very vibrant city. We found its mixed population – Muslim Malay, Hindu Indian, and Chinese – charming and fascinating. We loved the wonderful food and range of cultural differences. And Jean would have found this mix recognisable, the British having shipped in Chinese and Indian labour once they asserted control over the Malay Sultanates. But I don’t think she could ever have imagined what a beautiful sophisticated international city Kuala Lumpur was to become, and I hope she could not anticipate the problems of pollution that successful development would bring in its wake.
As we explored the Pergana Botanical Gardens and marvelled at the sensational bird aviary, we were grateful to the British settlers who established this wonderful green lung for the city. And even though Jean’s story ultimately has a happy ending in another new country to the south, I like to think she, and her creator Neil Shute, would have been both astonished and pleased by the country that was to come after her days there.