Terri-Ann White (ed.), Perth: A Guide for the Curious. Perth, Western Australia: UWA Publishing 2016. RRP: $26.99, 330 pp. ISBN:9781742587554
Perth: A Guide for the Curious, edited by Terri-Ann White, is a fascinating trip through the history, underbelly, and personal anecdotes of the city of Perth. A plethora of authors with expert knowledge and deep experience spin tales of our state capital, and it’s a delight to go along for the ride. This isn’t your average dry history lesson.
White notes in her Introduction, ‘A City And How It Writes Itself’, the lack of tales hitherto from our urban heart, despite an abundance of talented writers. Katherine Susannah Pritchard, Randolph Stow, and Dorothy Hewett are just a few of the local wordsmiths White praises. But our novels veer towards a focus on the bush, the sea, the plains of Western Australia, not the “stretch of Swan River from Heirisson Island up to Kings Park and all that sits behind it.” (11) White sets out to bolster these offerings with her anthology.
History buffs and casual observers alike will pore over the tales, with themes we’ve all come to know so well in our isolated capital. The battle of old versus new has been an ongoing struggle in Perth, particularly in regards to our architecture. Various authors speak disparagingly of the Perth Arena while others extol its virtues from one chapter to the next. But it’s not a new fight, or one confined to feuds over the Bell Tower and the BHP Building; it’s been raging on for decades.
In A Guide for the Curious, Geoffrey London reflects on the life and times of Council House. After the building was erected in the 1960s, some locals were so taken by the latest demonstration of international modernism that they argued for the demolition of Government House and even the Supreme Court. Fortunately for future generations, those who were “intoxicated by the modern and the new” (26) were countered by dissenters.
Len Collard, with Clint Bracknell and Angela Rooney, weaves spellbinding Nyungar tales of Perth in ‘Oorl Ngulluck Koorliny (Come We Walk Together)’. Lean in close, and pay attention: “This place is indeed fit for kings, but there’s a bigger story here. It’s been here for the longest of times and is imbued in the language of the place, Nyungar language… so listen carefully…” (34) Collard shares yarns from generations, and they’re striking and visceral. You can see the centuries of footsteps you follow in, the soft mud that preceded Heirisson Island. Even the winds buffeting down the streets are a thing of beauty: “…the wardan (sea) is a place where the yorga mar, the feminine easterly wind or land breeze, meets the maaman mar, the masculine south westerly or sea breeze… listen to those two lovers whispering to each other as the mar blows between the leaves of the kwela.” (37)
Did you know local engineer Frank Vincent proposed a 120-hectare island in the middle of Perth Water in 1931? What about White City—did you know about the hugely popular, moral-panic-inducing amusement park run by the benevolent ‘Ugly Men’ down near Elizabeth Quay? The carnival drew young people and working class locals of all races, with the Ugly Men donating much of the proceeds to underprivileged children.
Perth: A Guide for the Curious is packed full of quirky stories and tidbits. I found myself enthusiastically jotting down places, figures, authors, the titles of pieces of art to come back to later, while an excitement and love for my city rushed through my veins. I’m now determined to see Harald Vike’s 1934 painting Perth Nocturne in the flesh.
A piece I found particularly spot-on was Nick Albrook’s discussion of Perth’s music scene and the necessity of spatial and cultural isolation for creativity—‘Creative Darwinism: Pretty Flowers Grow In Shit’. This isolation “arms one with an Atlas-strong sense of identity,” (221) and forces artists to push on with their ideas. In bigger cities, there’s a well-trodden path to success, but with “gigs to be got, managers to be found, reviews to be had and the ultimate dream of ‘making it’ tangibly in reach—Perth would find itself producing far less original art” (222). The chapter rings true with any writer, musician, artist or creative choosing to make the west coast their home.
Conrad Liveris’ musing on homelessness in the city is essential reading. ‘Desperately Failing The Homeless’ takes a look at the pervasive apathy towards the homeless in Perth, stressing the importance of coming together with creative, inclusive strategies rather than perpetuating NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) when it comes to inner-city homelessness services. The anthology makes no attempt to skirt around the raw elements of Perth’s history, presenting stories in all their beauty, reality, quirkiness and shame. Beth George writes in ‘A Walk Down Four Streets That Don’t Exist’ of the ‘Prohibited Area’—a territory that Aboriginal residents were denied entry into for twenty-seven years. The legislation wasn’t removed until 1954.
Perth: A Guide for the Curious is a stellar read for locals and tourists alike. The anthology spans so many key moments in history and personal stories from our state capital, lending context to our city streets while encouraging fresh discoveries. As the blurb suggests, the book “doesn’t posit a golden age or list a series of laments… [it is] a book about continuities and unfolding narratives”, as well as our place within them as we move forward into Perth’s future.
Jessica Warriner is a freelance writer and assistant producer/reporter at RTRFM in Perth. She has previously worked in New York City and Sydney, and tweets (@jesswarriner)