On David Whish-Wilson’s Perth

The object of travel, wrote G. K. Chesterton, ‘is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land’. David Whish-Wilson returned to his own country, Australia, at the age of twenty-nine, having spent a decade ‘bumming around’ in Europe, Asia and Africa. I’ve no doubt he could have written travel books of the common-or-garden variety; but what he has actually written is a book on Perth that attains at times to the status of poetry. Indeed, so rich and lyrical is Perth, so acute in its insights and adept in its composition, that Chesterton’s paradox would appear well-founded.

The latest in NewSouth’s City series – a series that includes Delia Falconer’s Sydney, which was shortlisted for the National Biography Award – Perth is a deeply personal take on the physical and cultural landscape of Perth and the ‘emotional landscape’ that runs through and around it. It is divided into four long chapters, each named for a natural feature of Perth – the river, the coast, the plain and the light – a structural device that allows Whish-Wilson to range through the city with relative freedom, drilling down into its history as he does so. It’s a subtle performance, all the more affecting for the ambivalence Whish-Wilson brings to a city that has always been ambivalent about itself.

Part of this ambivalence, of course, has to do with the city’s past, and Whish-Wilson proves especially receptive to those whose voices have been forgotten or marginalised in the scramble for economic development. He tells the story of Fanny Balbuk, a Nyungar woman who refused to accept the floor-plan set down by the Swan River colonists and continued to take the exact tracks taken by her Aboriginal ancestors, even if they happened to pass through houses. Thus the physical palimpsest of the city is revealed as a cultural palimpsest too. As Whish-Wilson puts it, with typical languidness: ‘Balbuk’s story has always been a reminder to me that beneath the geometric frame of the modern city – the bar-graph rectangles of concrete, glass and steel across the skyline – there exist footpads worn smooth over millennia that snake up through the sheoak and marri woodland and into the city’s heart.’

Nor is the city’s heart as pure as many Perthlings would like to believe; Whish-Wilson, a crime writer by reputation, is alive to what he calls the ‘noirish contrast between light and dark, plain sight and shadow’ in Perth and its environs. From the awful history of Rottnest Island (now Perth’s favourite holiday destination but once an Aboriginal prison) to the 1990s Claremont murders to the business dealings of Alan Bond – the shadows cast by ‘the city of light’ are never far from the author’s mind. He is also aware that the mining boom has meant riches for some but high prices for most, and that the trickle-down wealth from Perth’s economic miracle dries up well short of many of the city’s inhabitants; despite high wages for some in the state, Western Australia has the highest rate of homelessness, and one of the largest prison populations, in the country.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Whish-Wilson loves his ‘hometown’ very deeply. Readers will thrill to his descriptions of its ecology and eclectic, and often controversial, architecture, as well as to the riverine quality of his prose and its gentle metaphorical undercurrents. At times, the book gives the distinct impression of having been written in a kind of reverie:

As a giant flathead spurted away into the darkness leaving a trail of smuts like a departing steam train, all of the sensual confusion of cold water and hot sun, and levitation and submersion, came together in a sudden recognition that I have never forgotten: the feeling of belonging to a place that did not belong to me, but only made an introverted kid feel more protective, even loving, of the river that carried him along on its soft skin.

Perth’s landscape, writes Whish-Wilson, is conducive to dreamers. Certainly such charged reminiscences lend a dollop of credence to that position.

It is these reminiscences, largely speaking, that give Perth its emotional weight, though it is less nostalgia than an almost Burkean sense of the interrelation of past and future, and of the responsibility of the present to both, that struck this reader as the key element here. Naturally enough, this theme finds expression in the passages dealing with the author’s three children, and at the end of the book Whish-Wilson expresses his hope that the city will ‘nourish’ them. Sharing that hope for my own young kids, I will only add that it is less in vain for the appearance of this beautiful book, which anyone invested, or indeed investing, in the city’s future should resolve to read.

David Whish-Wilson, Perth
NewSouth Books; $29.99; 292pp

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First published in The Australian.