‘Cultural depth-charges’

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26 Finally, and perhaps as significantly, the film-makers demystify Mrs Frith’s personal neurosis: on-screen she is not a religious crank but merely a hypochondriac. She provides a sympathetic ear for Jean’s memories of Joe, but says nothing herself about the meaning of his crucifixion.

The whole issue of the significance of Christianity to the Far Eastern prisoner-of-war experience itself is problematic because from one standpoint there seem to be – as there are in the novel and the film of A Town Like Alice – conflicting versions of it. On the one hand, the public ‘official’ commemoration of this experience has focused very heavily on its Christian aspect. On the other, the private ‘unofficial’ records of the experience itself do not always tell the same story.

The vast majority of British and Australian prisoners of war in the Far East were ‘Christians’, even if only nominally, and almost all would have had a religious denomination (‘C of E’, ‘RC’, etc.) recorded in their service pay-books. Most would also have attended religious services during their captivity and prisoners built makeshift bamboo and atap chapels for this purpose – even in the depths of the Burmese jungle. After the war several of these chapels, notably the Changi Prison Chapel, were to become focal points for the public commemoration of the prisoner-of-war experience under the Japanese. One Roman Catholic prisoner-of-war chapel in Singapore was preserved and shipped back to Australia where it was later to become a national memorial at the Australian Army’s Duntroon Royal Military College in Canberra.27 The former British commander in Singapore, General Percival, who found himself shunned as a ‘non-person’ in postwar Britain, devoted himself in his retirement to preserving relics of the island’s prisoner-of-war chapels (and to the welfare of former prisoners of war). In addition, some of the art produced by prisoners of the Japanese deals with Christian themes, notably the ‘Changi Murals’ (Illustration 2.1), and at least one memoir by a former prisoner of the Japanese, Ernest Gordon’s Miracle on the River Kwai, is written from an explicitly Christian viewpoint.28


Given, however, that the postwar official remembrance of the prisoner-of-war experience under the Japanese has assumed such a strongly Christian character, it is surprising how rarely one reads in prisoner-of-war memoirs of men actually attending religious services (while reports of jungle concert-parties are almost universal), or finds references to the fact that a prisoner’s religious faith helped sustain him during his captivity. Even the religious references in memoirs written by former prisoners who tell us they were practising Christians at the time are not always what might be expected. This point is demonstrated by Eric Lomax, who employs biblical allusion at such critical points in his narrative as his interrogation and torture by the Japanese Kempetai military police. Yet Lomax does not appear to assert any actual significance for the biblical texts themselves. Rather they are used as verbal counters in a stream-of-consciousness representation of a disordered state of mind:
In the nightly delirium I had weird exalted visions, lying there in my shorts and shirt with my long-handled spoon for company. My mind was turning into a machine that produced texts, words and images, cutting them up and feeding them to me in disconnected and confused snatches, slogans, scenes, fantasies. I became a screen with bits and pieces unfolding across me. Sometimes the messages had a sound, quite loud; sometimes they were intensely visual. Most of them were religious, or at least came full of immense and comforting majesty; they were based, mainly, on the most exalted literature I knew, which was that of the Protestant seventeenth century: phrases like ....

I am Alpha and Omega the beginning and the end the first and the last and did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green. O for that warning voice which he who saw / The Apocalypse, heard cry in Heaven aloud. Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.29

While the primarily auditory hallucinations Lomax describes here are biblical, the more visual and disturbing hallucinations he describes later in his book are quite different. After he was transferred to Singapore’s Outram Road Prison, Lomax writes:
The visions became more frightening and grotesque. One evening the long wall of the cell began to dissolve. The cracked cement and the brickwork melted away. Far away was an immense figure, standing erect with many waving arms, emerging from a heaving sea of flame and smoke, and growing larger until it seemed to fill the entire view. It seemed to be standing above a lake, and the surface changed into distinct waves, and then into human figures tiny against the mass of the giant. They seemed to be worshipping, chanting, praising, calling out ‘Kali, Kali, Kali’. I felt sheer terror as the figure’s eyes looked down directly at me, the terror mounting like a choking until I woke up to find myself looking at the bare light bulb and the cell walls.30
Kali is the Hindu goddess of war and destruction (and does, in fact, have a temple in Singapore, where animal sacrifices are performed in her honour). What is remarkable, I think, is that she should figure at all in the hallucinations of a Westerner who was, as Lomax tells us in his memoir, a practising Scottish Baptist.31
Jean Paget

Surprisingly, when Nevil Shute travelled to Australia and the Far East in 1948–49 to gather material for the novel that was to become A Town Like Alice he did not arrive, it seems, with the intention of writing about the experiences of former prisoners of the Japanese. This element of the novel appears to have grown from a series of chance encounters with individuals who were to provide the models for both his central characters and for some of the novel’s minor characters.32 As I have indicated, the fictional Joe Harman is based on the Australian former prisoner of war Jim Edwards, who was working as a cattle station manager in northern Queensland when Shute met him. Similarly, the character of Jean Paget is modelled on another former prisoner of the Japanese, a young expatriate Dutchwoman living with her husband and children in Sumatra, Mrs J. G. Geysel Vonck. Shute met the family in early 1949 when he stayed with them on the homeward leg of his journey back to England. The Dutchwoman’s story was as remarkable, in its way, as that of Jim Edwards:

Geysel is a man of about 40, his wife about 26–27 with two children. A slight, cheerful girl who looked as if she had led a very sheltered life. Both had been taken by the Japanese in 1942. The husband was put in a camp at once. The wife, aged 21, with her 6-months old baby, was herded about Sumatra with 80 other women and a large number of children. They were given no clothes and little food: the Indonesians supported them. The Japanese passed them from town to town; they stayed nowhere more than a few weeks. In 2–1/2 years this girl walked 2000 kilometres, 1200 miles, carrying her baby. Practically all the other women and children died. She came out fit and well, and retained her sense of humour.33

We can see from this passage from Shute’s flight log of his journey how the novelist preserves in A Town Like Alice most of the elements of the young Dutchwoman’s experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese while, at the same time, he introduces a few significant changes. Most obviously, Shute ‘anglicises’ both the heroine of his novel (Jean Paget is an Englishwoman) and its geographical location: the prisoner-of-war section of A Town Like Alice is set in Malaya, a country far more familiar to most English-speaking readers of the 1950s (if only through the short stories of Somerset Maugham) than the more exotic and alien Dutch colony of Sumatra. As Shute’s biographer Julian Smith points out, the novelist also makes dramatic use of the fact that Mrs Geysel Vonck was a mother: when Joe Harman first meets Jean Paget in the novel, he mistakes her for a married woman because she is carrying another woman’s baby on her hip.34 Shute himself was deeply moved by the Dutchwoman’s ordeal and he pays tribute to her in his ‘Author’s Note’ to A Town Like Alice:

On the publication of this book I expect to be accused of falsifying history, especially in regard to the march and death of the homeless women prisoners. I shall be told that nothing of the sort ever happened in Malaya, and this is true. It happened in Sumatra …

In 1949 I stayed with Mr and Mrs J. G. Geysel Vonck at Palembang in Sumatra. Mrs Geysel had been a member of that party. When she was taken prisoner she was a slight, pretty girl of twenty-one, recently married; she had a baby six months old, and a very robust sense of humour. In the years that followed Mrs Geysel marched over twelve hundred miles carrying her baby, in circumstances similar to those which I have described. She emerged from this fantastic ordeal undaunted, and with her son fit and well.

I do not think that I have ever before turned to real life for an incident in one of my novels. If I have done so now it is because I have been unable to resist the appeal of this true story, and because I want to pay what tribute is within my power to the most gallant lady I have ever met.35

Although the fictional Jean Paget clearly is based on a living woman, it is not difficult to see how her character also has an affinity with that of the biblical Mary Magdalene – they are, after all, the only two female figures in world literature described as meeting again with a man they believed dead after having seen him crucified. But it is the makers of the 1956 film who draw attention to this parallel rather than Nevil Shute. The film ‘mythifies’ visually what was, from one perspective, then a fairly recent actual event – the ‘crucifixion’ of Jim Edwards – in a way which Shute’s novel seems quite deliberately to avoid. I do not suggest that this necessarily indicates a desire on the part of the film-makers to promote a Christian ‘message’ in A Town Like Alice. Instead, it seems to demonstrate how film itself has not just different narrative conventions than the novel but, because it is an audio-visual medium, different narrative imperatives (thought must often be spoken as dialogue, for example). The nature of the medium itself, I think, perhaps makes it inevitable that any cinematic representation of a crucifixion will tend to repeat earlier visual paradigms of the same event. This is strikingly evident in the only previous attempt to represent the crucifixion of a prisoner of war on film. The First World War American propaganda film The Prussian Cur (1918) shows a group of German soldiers gathered around the Crucified Canadian. The postures of all the figures in this grotesque and shocking tableau (Illustration 2.2) mimic those of medieval and Renaissance paintings of the Crucifixion. There may even be an allusion to the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch (1450–1516) in which first-century Roman soldiers are represented as sixteenth-century German mercenaries: demonic landsknechts. In the scene from the film, several of the soldiers are leaning casually on their rifles (rather than their spears or their halberds) as they gaze up at the hammering-in of the nails. Two soldiers are kneeling at the Canadian’s feet as if in mock-adoration. This is not a naturalistic representation of an event that may or may not have happened in Flanders in 1915, although presumably it was intended to be interpreted as such by its original audience. It is a scene constructed from traditional motifs in European art.

The crucifixion of Joe Harman in the 1956 film version of A Town Like Alice, while it retains the power to fascinate and to shock, is less dependent on such traditional visual associations: not least because it takes place entirely off-camera. The audience sees the instruments of execution – a wooden trestle, a tree, some six-inch nails, a ball-pein hammer. Then we see a Japanese Kempetai sergeant and a Japanese soldier rehearse (or mime) the crucifixion itself. But that is all. The next scene shows Jean Paget and the other women prisoners keeping their night vigil by the tree. And it is here, I think, that the film-makers revert to the iconography of religious art since the scene’s dramatic composition of its figures and the women’s physical attitudes suggest those of Mary Magdalene and the other onlookers at the biblical Crucifixion as they appear in European art. Perhaps of more immediate personal significance for some cinema-goers and readers of the 1950s, Joe Harman’s ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’ must have carried a powerful emotional charge for women who themselves had lost a lover or a husband in the Second World War. From this viewpoint, Jean as Magdalene – surely the female exemplar of pathos in Western culture – not only re-enacts the grief many of these women would have felt, but her eventual reunion with Joe also may have represented fictionally a particular wish-fulfilment that had been unrealisable for them in actuality. (Nor should we forget that some men actually did ‘return from the dead’ after the Second World War, among them Ian Watt and Russell Braddon, who, when taken prisoner, had both been listed as ‘missing, presumed killed in action’.)

After the departure of the women prisoners from Kuantan, it is Jean’s ability to engage in a learned masculine discourse with a male authority figure that finally secures a permanent place for them to live. Jean makes an appeal to a Malay village headman, Mat Amin, in which she tells him that all the Englishwomen and children will eventually sicken and die if the Japanese force them to go on wandering about Malaya. In the film, which follows the novel closely at this point, their conversation continues:

MAT AMIN: It is written that ‘Every soul shall taste of death.’

JEAN: Is it not also written that ‘If you are kind to women God is aware of what you do’?

MAT AMIN: (surprised) Where is that written?

JEAN: The Fourth Surah.

MAT AMIN: (puzzled) Are you of the Faith?

JEAN: I am a Christian. I do not know the Koran.

MAT AMIN: You are a very clever woman. Tell me what you want.

While the words themselves are very different, the meaning of what Jean says here evokes Portia’s well-known speech ‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d …’ in The Merchant of Venice (IV.i.184–205). Equally striking is the parallel between the role Shute assigns to her in the novel and that of Portia in Shakespeare’s play: a woman successfully adopting the traditionally male voice of ‘legal’ advocate in order to argue a plea for compassion before a male adjudicator – except that in this case the ‘law’ is not Christian civil but Moslem religious law. The words from the Koran that Jean quotes – in the novel they are given, more traditionally, as ‘if ye be kind towards women and fear to wrong them, God is well acquainted with what ye do’36 – are central to the entire moral schema of A Town Like Alice. The first part of the novel revolves around them in tandem with the crucifixion of Joe Harman since it is the Australian’s ‘kindness to women’ (or, from another viewpoint, his ‘chivalry’) which results in his crucifixion. The quotation from the Koran is repeated three times in the narrative of Jean’s experiences as a prisoner.37 It serves as the novel’s moral and cultural benchmark: all the male characters are, in a sense, to be judged according to their ‘kindness to women’. Of the three cultures represented in the novel, the Anglo-Australian (Joe Harman) clearly ranks highest in this regard; the Malay (Mat Amin), while characterised by an ‘oriental’ fatalism, is amenable to rational argument; the Japanese, although not actively hostile, is shown as indifferent to the well-being of women themselves.

Although professional critics have tended to be dismissive of it, A Town Like Alice has proved a popular and durable piece of storytelling. The novel was reprinted nine times and serialised on radio and in women’s magazines before the film adaptation appeared in 1956. By the 1980s, when it was filmed again as a six-part Australian television mini-series, it had sold more than half a million copies in its British paperback edition. Nevil Shute is obviously of some importance then, at least, as an early ‘populariser’ of the prisoner-of-war experience under the Japanese. Yet his narrative has never apparently carried a single, fixed meaning for its audiences but has demonstrated the capacity to signify different meanings within different cultures at different times. For example, in the posters used to promote the 1956 film in Britain, the central, dominating image is the face of Virginia McKenna (looking worried and fetchingly elfin-like); Peter Finch’s Joe is a smaller, background figure (Illustration 2.3). In those produced for the 1981 Australian television mini-series the dominant image is the face of Bryan Brown (looking rugged and steely-eyed beneath his hat); Helen Morse’s smaller, bedraggled-looking Jean is almost dwarfed by comparison. What these images suggest is that for Britain in the 1950s A Town Like Alice was primarily the story of a young Englishwoman; for Australia in the 1980s it was essentially that of an Australian bushman (Bryan Brown’s Joe Harman is wearing his akubra and not his Digger’s slouch-hat). Perhaps more remarkably, when the 1956 film of A Town Like Alice was released in the United States it was retitled The Rape of Malaya, which was presumably 1950s Hollywood’s notion of a good title for a war movie. In France, on the other hand, the film was released as Ma Vie Commence en Malaisie [My Life Began in Malaya], which was evidently the contemporary French idea of a good title for a love story.


A Town Like Alice’s affinities with popular romantic fiction may account for at least some of the critical disdain that has surrounded the novel since its publication. Shute does use stock romance motifs as the main building-blocks of his narrative: a legacy, parallel star-crossed lovers’ quests, a miraculous reunion, a happy ending. That he himself did not witness the events he describes in the prisoner-of-war section of the novel and that its second part contains an idealised and implausible vision of a young Englishwoman revitalising the economy of a remote Queensland cattle-town have also attracted unfavourable comment. The Australian popular historian Humphrey McQueen writes:
A Town Like Alice was not a firsthand account but [was] created to meet the demands of a sedate market for third-rate fiction. As the reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement put it: ‘Mr Shute, with his high moral purpose and happy ending, is perhaps reminiscent of the nineteenth-century didactic novelist, or the contemporary Soviet Russian writer whose aim is to “improve” reality rather than merely to reflect it’ (16.6.50). In no sense can A Town Like Alice be taken as evidence of what happened to any real person, European or Japanese.38

There may be justification in McQueen’s ‘third-rate fiction’ jibe: I doubt that anyone would claim A Town Like Alice is a literary masterpiece. But in light of what is known about Jim Edwards and Mrs Geysel Vonck (both of whom are mentioned by McQueen), his comment that ‘in no sense’ can it be ‘taken as evidence of what happened to any real person’ is misleading and peverse. What no previous commentator has remarked on is that A Town Like Alice remains the only novel drawn from the experiences of prisoners of the Japanese in the Second World War that is presented primarily from the viewpoint of a woman.39 And this, I think, may be central to a better understanding of its wider cultural, as against its purely literary, significance. Through a chance meeting with a young Dutchwoman in Palembang, Sumatra, in 1949, Nevil Shute may have stumbled upon a fundamental truth about the nature of the prisoner-of-war experience itself. Writing of this characteristically male literature in general, the American critic Samuel Hynes observes:
Prisoner-of-war narratives are like the women’s narratives [of the Second World War], in that they tell the story of the other side of the war, where human beings suffer but do not fight.40
‘The Padre with the Modern Approach’
Nevil Shute and Leslie Greener had much in common. They were almost exact contemporaries – Shute was born in 1899 and Greener in 1900. Both men came from upper-middle-class families, received their military training at the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy (although Shute failed to gain a commission because of a stammer), and served briefly in the British Army in the final months of the First World War. They were also the first two writers to publish full-length works of fiction based on the experiences of prisoners of the Japanese during the Second World War, the American edition of Greener’s No Time to Look Back appearing in the same year (1950) as Shute’s A Town Like Alice. Greener’s novel, however, is radically different from Shute’s – although Greener, perhaps even more so than Shute, is certainly not ‘a great artist’. No Time to Look Back is a curiosity since it conforms hardly at all to contemporary expectations of the literature of the prisoner-of-war experience under the Japanese.

Greener’s central character, Padre Choyce, is a British Army chaplain in Panchor (Changi) prisoner-of-war camp. This in itself sets his novel apart from most other fiction of the Second World War. The representation of clergymen in Western narratives of war has come full circle during the past nine hundred years: from the armed and dangerous Turpin of Rheims, the fighting archbishop of the twelfth-century Song of Roland, to the timid, bespectacled Father Mulcahy of the 1970s American television comedy series M*A*S*H*. Although heroic qualities are sometimes attributed to actual historical individuals – at Pearl Harbor an American chaplain became famous for reportedly roaring ‘Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!’ above the din of battle – fictional chaplains have been portrayed as among the most marginalised of all male military personnel. Probably the best-known of such characters in the fiction of the Second World War is R. O. Shipman, the US Army Air Force chaplain who visits Yossarian while he malingers in hospital in the opening chapter of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1962). Shipman is a well-meaning but bewildered and totally ineffectual comic figure. However, Heller’s novel is distinctly ‘modern’ in ways in which Greener’s is not. What makes Greener’s odd choice of central character even more remarkable is that he himself does not seem to have been a practising Christian (in the biographical data he provided after the war for his entry in Contemporary Authors he described his religion as ‘pagan’).41 Greener held the rank of captain in the Australian Imperial Force and was a prisoner of the Japanese for three-and-a-half years, all of which he appears to have spent in Changi. What sets the novel he wrote based on that experience even more decisively apart from other fiction of the Second World War is that Padre Choyce is a character who experiences homo-erotic feelings towards a fellow prisoner.

‘Homo-eroticism’ is used as a literary term by the critic Paul Fussell ‘to imply a sublimated (i.e. “chaste”) form of temporary homosexuality’.42 Such emotions, Fussell argues, functioned for First World War British soldier-poets such as Wilfred Owen and for many others as an antidote against the loneliness and terror of the trenches. But they are not, he adds, normally expressed by the more sexually self-aware generation of the Second World War. Fussell’s statement is borne out by the literature of the war. For example, although ‘mateship’ is a well-known and common theme in Australian prisoner-of-war literature, it rarely carries homo-erotic associations (even for a writer like Russell Braddon, who was homosexual). Several prisoner-authors, including Ian Watt, go so far as to point out that active homosexuality (and indeed sexual desire of any kind) was non-existent among starving, exhausted, disease-ridden prisoners of war. When other writers of the Second World War make reference to a sexual attraction felt by one military man towards another, the meaning signified is most likely to be ironic, as at the start of Heller’s Catch-22:




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