David’s Whish-Wilson’s new book, Perth, combines memoir, history, geography, architecture and literature to create a rich biography of the city. It’s part of the ‘cities’ series from the publisher, New South.
Whish-Wilson begins with the story of Fanny Balbuk, an Aboriginal woman born in 1840 who reacted to white encroachment ‘by stubbornly continuing to follow the tracks of her ancestors’ (3), meaning she would walk through people’s yards and houses. It’s a fascinating story, but Whish-Wilson’s use of it shows some of his skill as a writer. He starts by recalling how he first heard the story in primary school, giving us a taste of how stories and mythologies are transmitted in Perth (an ongoing theme in the book). He quotes Daisy Bates to give a contemporaneous portrait of Fanny and then describes himself looking out over Perth, picturing her route and being reminded ‘that beneath the geometric frame of the modern city… there exists footpads worn smooth over millennia’ (4).
The book’s long chapters group a diverse range of material around the themes of ‘river’, ‘coast’, ‘plain’, and ‘light’. As an example, in “The Plain”, the focus is on suburbs, which leads to a fascinating overview of the history and architecture of different periods of suburbs, from the inner-suburbs out to Armadale and its place in Perth’s self-perception. The theme brings out the work of Tim Winton and Peter Cowan, the effect of suburban serial killers, and a couple of stories from his own life, finishing with a reflection on the future of Perth’s spread out suburbs in an age of climate change and water shortage. The structure is loose, and gives the work the quality of a wide-ranging conversation – which is both a strength and weakness.
I have learned so much about my own city reading this book. Whish-Wilson’s breadth of reading is remarkable, as is his eye for the fascinating story, image or anecdote. I discovered, for example, that Alan Bond’s offices in the top three floors of the Bond Tower lay vacant from for nearly a decade, and in 2009 they were found to still be in their original condition, ‘so that Bond’s desk, chair and boardroom table were invitingly advertised as part of the new lease’ (79).
This book captures the mythology of Perth, with a strong sense of its past, present and future.