Perth – David Whish-Wilson

I have called Perth home for the last 30 years and what a fabulous home it has been. I came to Perth as a young adult and raised a family, acquired friends and employment and learned to accept life, as the poet says, with the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child. Reading Perth reminded me why I love my adopted hometown. This biography of Perth by David Whish-Wilson is not merely a loving one; it is an intuitive and acute rendering of a city that so many (including one of my favourite West Australians, Tim Winton) have called Dullsville.

The book has four sections which flow as seamlessly as the title of the first section – The River. There is a poetic presence in this section especially and the novelist’s eye for detail, as this passage on page 30 reveals – ‘So the river was a haven for me. It was a place that reminded me of the one I’d left behind, where spiders and goannas and parrots and eagles had ruled the gullies, mud crabs and hermit crabs and mudskippers had populated the mangroves, and wild donkeys and kangaroos had filled the spaces now taken up by people. It was in the yellow sands and quarried limestone crags and bronzed shallows that I felt most at home as a child newly arrived from the desert.’ Whish-Wilson moves between the personal and the political effortlessly, allowing glimpses of the city through his viewpoint while adding historical and geographical details in a way that doesn’t read like a history lesson. Of particular delight to me were the frequent and generous references to portraits of Perth rendered by other West Australian writers. Whether it’s Gail Jones describing jellyfish or Robert Drewe’s characters walking through ‘this double city’, each literary reference links to a fascinating feature of the city and its inhabitants. ‘For a child of the suburbs, the city was never heard and it was never smelled –’ p.47.

All the colourful characters from Perth’s boom-bust 80s are mentioned – Alan Bond and his failed enterprises, along with a poignant description of Bond’s empty offices on the fiftieth floor of the building that had carried his name when he was at the height of his popularity. My sympathy dissipated with the knowledge that Bond’s ugly tower was built by demolishing the luxurious late 1800s Palace Hotel.

It isn’t easy to describe the light Perth people know too well – the light that makes you squint at 6 am on a summer morning and hold your hand in a half salute when looking towards the sun. David Whish-Wilson knows this and describes it beautifully – the ‘double effect of the scalpel-sharp light and the general impression of space and silence and stillness –’ p.120. Of course, space and silence and stillness – it must be Perth. I wish I’d written that sentence.

As a Perth-dweller, this book was just what I needed. The writer has captured my city’s ambiguity, careless sprawl, stunning landscape, weird characters and an essential Perth-ness. My experience of my city is richer for it and I recommend it highly.