Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Notes on "A Town Like Alice"

I faced up to this problem.

Nevil Shute

I think that the contents of a book are far more important than the style. An author should write as well as he is able to, because one of his jobs is to make his book easy to read, but no book will be successful, however good the writing, if the contents are trivial and not worth reading. For this reason it has always seemed to me to be important to go to great lengths to find new material, to search for new facts and for new ideas to present to the reader in the fiction form. An author should know something of the world outside the bedroom if his book is to be useful.

Most authors can get one or two good books out of the background to their daily jobs, as Conan Doyle and Cronin did with medicine and Dorothy Sayers with advertising. A war provides an author with more new material. Most authors who take part in war can get two good books out of the new material presented to them, and if the author has a varied and an interesting Service life he may get three or four. But when the war is over and the new ideas have been expressed or have grown stale, an author may have to take some quite unusual steps to gain fresh experiences for himself if he wants to continue to put new ideas and new facts before his readers. He may choose to join an expedition to climb a mountain in the Andes, or he may work for a year upon a whaling ship in the Antarctic, but if he stays comfortably at home in his little house in Surrey and draws upon his past experience his work is likely to decline.

In 1947 I faced up to this problem and decided to go back to the East for my material, to the Persian Gulf, and India, and Burma. This was to be no easy journey, because it is unfortunately true that the more hardships that the author may experience the more he will have to write about. At first I thought I would buy a truck and drive it most of the way, camping in it and shipping it from country to country. And then, the journey grew beyond the limits of road transport, because it was only a short step on to the great cattle stations of North Australia. Studying the map of Northern Queensland, I found a large white space several square inches in area, with nothing printed on the paper at all except one little black dot labelled 'Hut'. Surely, if I went to that hut I would come back with something new, and possibly useful, to be said?

So long a journey could hardly be covered in a reasonable time except by air. I was at that time a very indifferent pilot, with less than two hundred flying hours to my credit spread over twenty five years. I decided to fly myself out to Australia in easy stages through the East in my own small aircraft, servicing it myself upon the way. I bought a new four-seater Percival Proctor for the job and prepared for the journey for a year before we started. Jimmy Riddell came with me as co-pilot; he was not a licensed pilot, but he could fly it in the air while I dozed. He wrote a very fine book about our flight together, Flight of Fancy.

We left England in September, 1948, and flew in slow, easy stages across Europe and the East, reaching Wyndham in Australia and saw all we wanted to see, and started back for England from Darwin at the end of January. When nearly home, at Brindisi in Italy, I crashed 'Item Willie' slightly in a cross-wind landing, but it had served its turn and served us well. We flew across the world in it and back, thirty-five thousand miles in about six months, perhaps the longest flight ever made by a private owner of a little aeroplane.

I did not know before I started how good a way to travel this would be for any author. An aircraft takes a lot of servicing, and we worked hard for those six months, spending long hours in exacting manual work, in hot hangars or on blazing airstrips, dirty and streaming sweat, fuelling and cleaning the machine and doing routine checks upon the engine and the airframe. People are kind to strangers travelling and working in that way; pilots and ground engineers came to look at the machine and talk to us and help us, Arabs and Indians and Pakistanis and Sikhs, and Siamese and Chinese; since English is the universal language of air radio there was no language difficulty. Within half an hour of landing at Ahmedabad or at Moulmein, or at Songkhla, we had made friends with men who shared our interests and wanted to help us, friends who would tell us anything we wished to know. There is no better way for a writer to travel in the modern world if he wants to get quickly into touch with the people of the countries that he visits. Frequently we were exhausted with working in tropical heat, we were frequently anxious and tired and frightened in the air, but we learned a lot about the East in a short time.

I found part of A Town Like Alice in Kuala Selangor, another part of it at Kota Bharu, and a great hunk of it at Palembang in Sumatra. Most of the rest of it was found at Normanton, in the Gulf country of North Queensland; the prototype of Willstown was a little place called Burketown.

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