Non-fiction; paperback; New South Publishing; 352 pages; 2020.
Perth is part of a series of books about Australia’s capital cities, each one written by a local author who can give us an intimate account of the city’s history and character.
This volume, by Fremantle-based writer David Whish-Wilson, is an insider’s look at what it is like to grow up and reside in Perth, the most isolated city in Australia (if not the world), sandwiched as it is between the Indian Ocean and the outback.
As most of you will know, I moved here in mid-2019. I am not from Perth (I grew up on the other side of the country, in Victoria) and had only ever been here on holiday (when I was living in the UK — Perth is a convenient city to break up the journey from Heathrow to Melbourne). But I knew from my handful of visits to Fremantle, a port city at the mouth of the Swan River, about 20 minutes drive from the CBD, that I would love to live here. It was something about the heritage buildings, the coastline, the vibrant arts culture, the pubs (and breweries) and the bright clear light that attracted me.
But more than two years after repatriation, admittedly 80% of that time during a global pandemic, I have come to know the city reasonably well and noticed, but not always understood, its distinctive quirks — the fact, for instance, that most residents are early birds, up and about at 5am, but drive through the suburbs after 7pm and it feels like the whole world has gone to bed (or died), it’s so dark and quiet, with nary a vehicle on the road.
And everyone is obsessed with the water, whether beach or river, and most own a boat (and are snobby about the model, the size and how much it cost) or is into fishing or surfing or kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding (you get the idea).
And most people live in the suburbs — indeed, the suburbs stretch along the coastline for more than 100km so that when you drive anywhere it sometimes feels like you’re out in the countryside when, in actual fact, you are still in metropolitan Perth.
And perhaps because of this quiet, suburban life, people seem to congregate in large packs every weekend to have picnics (by the river or in local parks). I’ve seen people bring their own marquees, fold-up furniture and carry all their food and drink in wheel-a-long carts. It’s fascinating. (I’ve long joked that I’ll know I’ve become fully assimilated when I buy a fold-up picnic chair or one of these.)
The inside track
The book itself isn’t so much a travel guide — it won’t reveal the best places to eat or stay or visit — but is more a journey into the heart and spirit of the city, highlighting its history (good and bad), its politics, it’s natural wonders and its achievements.
It’s divided into four main chapters — The River, The Limestone Coast, The Plain, and The City of Light — between a relatively lengthy Introduction and Postscript. Sadly, there’s no index, which makes it hard to pinpoint facts you might want to reread (for the purposes of writing this review, for instance) and even though it has been updated since the original 2013 edition was published, it still feels slightly dated.
But thanks to the healthy dollop of memoir that Whish-Wilson adds, you get a real feel for what it is like to grow up here under blue skies and constant sunshine, and with little intrusion from the outside world, a sense of perfect isolation.
I love all the literary references he dots throughout — there’s a helpful bibliography at the back of the book — to show how the city has been depicted in both fiction and non-fiction over time.
Unsurprisingly, given his background as a crime writer, the author balances the happy optimism of Perth life with darker elements, including the crime and corruption that has left its mark.
He highlights the eerie Ying and Yang feeling that I had instinctively felt when I first arrived but had not been able to articulate because I didn’t know what it was. Whish-Wilson frames it as people becoming untethered by the “silence and space of the suburbs” so that while all looks quiet and peaceful during the day, it is brimming with menace at night. He describes this as “Perth Gothic”. (It’s true there have been some hideous murders in Perth, not least the Claremont serial killings in 1996-97, the Moorhouse murders in 1986 and the Nedlands monster, who was active between 1958 and 1963, and became the last man hanged in Fremantle Prison.)
All that aside, this is a brilliant little gem of a book. It’s jam-packed full of insights, intriguing facts and personal observation and delivered in an intimate but authoritative voice. It’s like getting the inside track on what this city is like behind the shiny glass skyscrapers and quiet, tree-lined suburban streets, and Whish-Wilson is the perfect guide.
I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters.You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.