Voice of Real Australia: Alice through the looking glass

Voice of Real Australia is a regular newsletter from ACM, which has journalists in every state and territory. Sign up here to get it by email, or here to forward it to a friend. Today's newsletter is written by North West Star editor Derek Barry.

The flooded saltpans of the Gulf of Carpentaria coast near Burketown.

The flooded saltpans of the Gulf of Carpentaria coast near Burketown.

I read Nevil Shute's 1950 novel A Town Like Alice many years ago and in my dim memory I thought the Australian scenes were set in Alice Springs.

They weren't; the clue is the word "like" in the book's title.

I was reminded where it was actually set when I read Richard J Martin's book The Gulf Country: The Story of people and place in Outback Queensland.

Burke Shire Council commissioned Martin's book in 2015 for the 150th anniversary of Burketown, on Queensland's Gulf of Carpentaria coast. The author studied the Gulf country for his PhD on Aboriginal culture and found a black and a white history, the white one about settling Burketown and the pastoral stations, and the black one about colonial violence, resistance, and a landmark native title win.

Burketown was boom and bust country in the so-called "Plains of Promise" named by British sailor John Lort Stokes. Founded as a port in 1865, it was the wild west where everyone carried a pistol. But fouled by deadly plague and a rival port at Normanton, it never delivered its promise. Its struggles continued in the Second World War due to the nearness of New Guinea with many evacuated and never returning. The near derelict town survived as a destination for crocodile hunters searching for valuable skins.

It was then Martin mentions A Town Like Alice. He said Nevil Shute visited Burketown to hunt crocs in 1948 and used his experiences in the book written two years later. "Alice" tells the story of the romance between Englishwoman Jean Paget and Australian soldier Joe Harman as Japanese prisoners-of-war in Malaya. After the war Paget rejoins Harman in "Willstown" which Martin calls a "thinly disguised Burketown".

There is the obvious poetic substitution of Wills for Burke. But the book mentions Burketown as a separate town with Willstown further north-east at the Gilbert River Mouth. There is no actual town there and the closest settlement is the Aboriginal town of Kowanyama. Shute said 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 long to get into the tale, narrated by Noel Strachan, a solicitor of Jean Paget's family.

Everything from inheritance to internment to casual racism is covered; continents are travelled, love found and love lost.

Burketown in the 1950s. Photo: John Oxley Library.

Burketown in the 1950s. Photo: John Oxley Library.

Paget eventually ends up in Willstown; love conquers all and she 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 eligible stations bachelors into town. In short, she wants to turn Willstown into "a town like Alice".

As Martin says in his book, nothing was further from the truth of post-war Burketown apart from the crocodile hunting.

By the 1960s when Burketown celebrated its centenary its population was just 83, though it didn't include Aboriginal people not counted in the census until 1971. In Shute's book apartheid was the norm and Paget created separate ice-cream parlours for white folk and Aboriginals.

There's no apartheid today in the Gulf, though there are few ice-cream parlours either.

There's no apartheid today in the Gulf, though there are few ice-cream parlours either.

The Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation, established in 1982, was 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 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 also 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.

Derek Barry

Editor, North West Star

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