Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2019

Perth (2013, New South City Series #8), by David Whish-Wilson

One of the interesting aspects of the New South City Series is that the authors vary in their approach to the task.  David Whish-Wilson has surveyed Perth by using the landscape as a catalyst for his observations and memories from the landscape, covered in four long chapters:

  • The River
  • The Limestone Coast
  • The Plain, and
  • The City of Light.

The book is also influenced by the author’s current preoccupation with his family:

Because my three children are relatively young, and because I spend so much time with them, it’s natural that my experience of the city often revisits my experiences as a child.  Down on the beach after sunset, I watch them settle as the colours on the horizon fade and they begin to sense the night’s quiet ghosting, inhabiting the darkness in a way that’s really only possible in a city like Perth,  It’s a city with presence, but balanced with an expansiveness that is perfectly suited to dreamers… (p.121)

That expansiveness is in part due to Perth being ‘one of the most sprawled (120km long) cities on earth.’  It’s a city very dependent on cars, and it’s a bit startling to read that

… to sustain an individual in Perth’s current housing stock ‘tales 14.5 hectares of land, seven times the world average.  Western Australians, Saudi Arabians and Singaporeans share the increasingly dishonourable status of being the most unsustainable people on  the planet. (p. 213)

It’s disconcerting to read about their rates of homelessness too, not that Melbourne has anything to be proud of on that issue either…

Another issue that would be interesting to contrast with Melbourne has to do with the obsession with sport:

Perth’s obsession with sport has literally shaped the character of the city.  Some eighty percent of all open spaces within the city limits are sporting grounds, which are in turn used by only five percent of the population on very rare occasions. (p.250)

I wonder if that’s true of Melbourne too?  The area where I live has countless sporting grounds, and our local council (like most others, probably) spends a vast amount of ratepayers’ money maintaining them and building infrastructure like stadiums, changing rooms, watering-systems and carparks, and as far as I can tell, there are never any complaints about this expenditure.  Indeed, when it comes to voting for community grants, sporting projects win every time over anything else.  As in Perth (with the exception of the golf courses because the wealthy play golf whenever they like) the majority of these sportsgrounds are play places for dogs during the week.  But they are certainly used at weekends.  Woe betide any pooch that strays onto a match in progress!

Perth Skyline by Dot Silbereisen

Perth made me realise that it’s been too long since I visited the most westerly of our cities. The book was published in 2013, and some places seem completely different to how I remember them.  Some lovely buildings have been lost from the CBD, and it’s changed the ambience.  You only need to look at a 1980s painting I have of the Perth skyline and the one on the cover of the book to see it; I suppose you’d see the same sort of changes in any modern city but Whish-Wilson suggests that Perth has been more rigorous in protecting its suburban sprawl from medium and higher-density housing than in conserving the lovely old sandstone buildings that I remember. This video shows some of historic buildings that have been lost, and their replacements.  Not all of them are awful, but I can see why some Perth residents rue the demolitions.

Perhaps it’s true, as one senior architect I spoke to about the Elizabeth Quay project remarked, that a consistent development narrative such as ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, a response to and vision of the city in currency since the 1880s, with its implicit undertones of excellence and playfulness, might have made all the difference in Perth, too.  Large parts of other cities were sacked in the name of building capacity, of course, but the scars in Perth seem to be deeper, the memories perhaps longer. (p.273)

Hunting around online for more images, I came across a more optimistic perspective on Perth’s historic heart.  There’s an App that you can download to guide you through the historic precincts to do a Stadium Walk, an Architecture Walk and an Art Walk.  I have downloaded it for future use…

My memories of the light in Perth accord with the author’s:  it’s what I remember of Fremantle when our ship docked there en route to Melbourne, and it’s what I remember from winter-time visits to The Offspring when he was networking UWA’s library computers in the 1990s.  It’s what’s celebrated in Dot Silbereisen’s painting.

Whish-Wilson’s book is not a travel guide.  It’s a blend of memoir, history and literary reminiscence, and parts of it reminded me of T A G Hungerford’s Stories from Suburban Road (which I reviewed here).  There is the same nostalgia for a childhood that allowed freedom to roam: swimming, fishing, exploring derelict buildings, and all of it apparently without parental anxiety.  There is the same celebration of mothers who make do and yet enable a marvellous childhood; and there is the same evocation of a landscape qualitatively different from the concrete jungles of today.

The reader learns about a variety of Perth identities: Indigenous elders; early settlers; bushrangers and entrepreneurs.  Many writers get a mention, including Elizabeth Jolley, Stephen Kinnane, Robert Drewe, Amanda Curtin, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Josephine Wilson, and of course Tim Winton.  There are also musicians and artists, but these allusions passed me by, because I didn’t know them.  (I did find myself wishing that there were images of the artworks and statues, but none of the books in this series seem to have illustrations.) Some readers may feel the same way about the allusions to unfamiliar books and authors.  The point is well made that until comparatively recently, Perth’s isolation meant that they relied on their own creatives for entertainment.  Because I’m not interested in popular culture, I don’t know if their artworks and musicians are known beyond WA, but their writers certainly are!

Author: David Whish-Wilson
Title: Perth
Publisher: New South City Series #9, New South Publishing, 2013, 292 pages
ISBN: 9781742233673
Source: Bayside Library

The City Series is available from Fishpond:


  1. I bought this book on my last trip to Perth but never had time to read it before I moved here. Alas it’s still in London so god knows when I’ll get to read it… but yes, the things that have struck me in my 6 weeks of being here is the homelessness (and the “care in the community” people who wander the streets roaring and shouting or drugged out of their minds—I think this is very much under the radar in London, or there’s simply more places for people to hide) and the reliance on the car. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain to shop assistants that I don’t have a car and that’s why I need to organise delivery 🙄 Everyone looks at me with mild horror.


    • LOL That’s the response we got in NZ when we told people we’d travelled everywhere without a car.
      But Perth, yes, I know the area around UWA quite well because The Offspring had his flat within walking distance and there were lots of nice places I could get to on foot. (And it was winter, so walking was a pleasure). But when we went there the first time, when he was 16 and trying out for a place in the U/16 Australian rugby team, we could not visit his friend in the suburbs unless we hired a car.
      It’s madness of course. Maybe now that we’re having a potential oil supply crisis (via the Iran/US standoff) our politicians and the people who vote for them will realise that dependence on the car makes the entire economy vulnerable.


  2. I’m not sure that their artworks and musicians are known IN Perth. And as for development, Melbourne is the Holy Grail. Melbourne had Southbank so we had to have Betty’s Jetty (a Liberal Premier stuck in the 1950s claimed naming rights). If only they understood the importance of Melbourne’s parks – the Domain, Royal Botanical Gardens, Treasury Gardens, Royal Park, Studley Park, on and on. Apart from Kings Park, open spaces in Perth are just opportunities for the next freeway.


    • Here’s some of the bands he mentions: the Triffids, Dave Warner’s From the Suburbs; and punk bands The Scientists, The Victims, The Manikins and The Cheap Nasties. And then there’s a whole bunch of people who are ‘luminaries’, too many to mention the bands they played in: Dom Mariani, Martyn Casey, Dave Faulkner, the Farriss Brothers, the Snarski Brothers, David McComb and Robert McComb, Alys MacDonald and Jill Birt, Kim Salmon, and ‘the legendary drummer James Baker.’
      Yes, we are blessed with lovely parks and gardens here, and throughout the suburbs too. Perhaps it’s because our climate made it easier to grow European plants, so the civic fathers wanted to emulate what there was in Britain.


      • I’ve written about Dave Warner and been to see him, bit he’s very nearly my age, and ditto The Triffids (and why not the Dugites?). The rest I don’t know, but anyway live bands are not a part of the culture here unless it’s Fleetwood Mac at a stadium.


        • He may well have mentioned the Dugites, I was just quoting the ones on the first page that I came to when I was flicking through to find examples for you.
          Live bands are not what they were anywhere. Pokies in suburban pubs have killed a lot of the live music scene here too. Compared to the noise, drunkenness and violence that goes with a certain type of live music, pokies are a the revenue-raiser of choice for many owners of pubs.


  3. It is an odd place and I have never adapted completely to the culture though not as discconnected these days. Living in Fremantle has helped to shift that as it is different in some ways. Even so has a serious homeless problem that has been ignored for decades, The neglect of its historical culture too is shameful. The problem is once again those who should pay their share of maintaining the place fail to do so. We have a university that has been subsided for decades and does not bring the benefits that occurs in similar positions.There is an abundance of live music which is great for music lovers. On the other hand no decent theatre for those of that bent.But the narrative that its cool and different from its big brother Perth is partly true. My complaint about WA in general is the lack of interest in the rest of the country and its reluctance to any kind of resistance to the status quo unless it directly affects their personal concern. The Roe Highway for example has been a can of worms for decades and it still has plenty of currency. My slant is that the urban sprawl cannot facilitate connectivity and community of any substance. However to make any kind of criticism brings a barrage of aggression that can be intimidating. But I will check the book as he is a local writer I have not as yet read and always interested to hear the views of a keen observer.You keep is well informed Lisa and this forum has helped me feel less isolated.


    • I hear you Fay.
      It shocked me that WA was so vociferous about the GST issue: Victoria and NSW have always supported the smaller states, and to me, it’s part of being ‘Australia’ that we do that.


  4. […] Perth (New South City Series #8), by David Whish-Wilson […]


  5. […] Perth (New South City Series #8), by David Whish-Wilson […]


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