I HAVE A friend who says she weeps every time the plane descends over her hometown of Johannesburg. She has been away from South Africa for forty years but she is brought to tears whenever she catches sight of the city she left at the age of twenty. She never wants to return to live there permanently, but every time she flies in she is blindsided by emotion she cannot explain.
What is it about the place where you grew up? Can you draw more than sentimental memories from a home city you left behind a lifetime ago? In a world where mobility is coveted, where fluid connections with place are common, where someone in Milan or Prague or Perth can share precisely the same aspirations, does it matter where you are from?
Australians have always loved stories about ex-pats. We understand these cycles of departure, discovery and return; we give ex-pats a grudging respect. The lure of somewhere else is as much a part of the national temperament as our aggressive pride in the great southern land. Especially for my generation, it was taken for granted that you had to leave Australia – even temporarily – to find yourself. But the notion of moving from one Australian city to another seemed far less profound. Crossing the continent was often about a search for work rather than a search for meaning. Self-discovery in Sydney? Revelation in Melbourne? Pull the other one.
In my case, the exit was accidental. A colleague knocked back a job in head office in Sydney and the post was offered to me. I had never thought much about a permanent departure from Perth, never thought I’d learn much by leaving, but once I arrived in Sydney I was bitten and never really entertained the idea of going back west.
So it is that thirty-five years later, Perth is very much the city that I used to know. I’ve visited regularly and kept up with friends and family, but my time there takes place in something of a vacuum. For decades, I have engaged with my own, shared their big events and witnessed the arc of their lives. But I have scarcely engaged with the city.
Unlike my South African ex-pat friend, I don’t choke up as the jet comes into the airport in Perth. And yet it feels special. Indeed, there’s a strange sense of ownership as the crew readies for landing. Hah! I want to say to those obvious tourists across the aisle, hah! I’m from here, this is my land.
MY LAND BACK then was a scraggy suburb where we lived on five acres of sandy terrain. It was ugly compared to the beautiful district where we went to school and where our mother’s family held rich orchard land, but I scarcely noticed. It was home. We weren’t beach people but we swam in the Canning River among the rotting piles of the old Riverton Bridge or among the jellyfish of the Swan at Como jetty. We drove to Araluen to see the flowers, to Mundaring Weir to marvel at the engineering wonders of the twentieth century. They were my sacred sites. Yet if I think back now to the space that I truly associated with growing up in Perth it is ‘the Terrace’, the main street that runs parallel to the Swan River.
In his lovely little book Perth (NewSouth, 2014), David Whish-Wilson talks about St Georges Terrace as the street in the early twentieth century where you could ‘spend your whole life’. He could well have included Adelaide Terrace because the two terraces operate as a single thoroughfare running more than three kilometres from the Causeway to King’s Park. These days, the city’s suburbs have spread so far up and down the coast, bursting with alternative retail and commercial spots, that the city centre is reduced. Hay and Barrack and William and Murray streets have not kept pace with change and the CBD needs a makeover. But the Terrace has held its own through the decades, even as Perth has neglected its public space. There remains a grace about the street in this city of glare and freeways.
Once upon a time, the Terrace was a boulevard containing everything from grand family homes to big private schools, churches and business headquarters. Government House was there, the Barracks and, just beyond, up near King’s Park, stood Parliament House, opened in 1904. The Terrace fed off the money from pastoral stations in the north and the first mining boom, the 1890s gold rushes.
The rich and the powerful lived on this street till well into the twentieth century. The Duracks, one of Western Australia’s most admired dynasties, had a house on Adelaide Terrace. Daughters Mary and Elizabeth, who would succeed as writer and artist respectively, walked a few doors to school at the nearby Loreto convent. Their brothers, as Brenda Niall recorded in her book True North (Text, 2012), ‘had only to cross the road to the Christian Brothers’ school’.
The St Georges Terrace end oozed power, with the statue of explorer, politician and Mayor of Perth, Alexander Forrest (the great-great-uncle of contemporary Perth’s richest man, mining magnate Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest) dominating its intersection with Barrack Street. The statue, by the Italian-born Pietro Porcelli, was erected in 1903 by ‘a few private friends of the (Forrest) family’ according to a report in the Western Mail (11 October 1902) just around the corner from the exclusive men’s club, the Weld Club, built a decade earlier. Mary Durack, Brenda Niall notes, remembered how as a child she would accompany her father as he walked from home to his office in Howard Street ‘taking off his hat to practically every second person’ and bowing courteously to the Porcelli statue on the way. Just off the Terrace, more power again at the Town Hall, constructed by convicts and free men in 1870.
BY THE TIME I first saw the Terrace in the 1950s, few of the grand houses were used as residences but its cachet remained. It was the most serious public space in the city, a site for pomp and splendour, unlike Forrest Place near the GPO, which was all about commercial bustle and protest and rude democracy and street photographers.
An early memory is standing in the crowded Terrace with my mother as the Queen went by in her Daimler during the royal tour of 1954. Or at least I think it was 1954. It may well have been four years later when the Queen Mother repeated that royal journey down the Terrace. No matter, in the 1950s the Terrace looked hugely imposing to a kid from the outer suburbs.
Later, as schoolgirls, we caught the bus into town with Mum in the holidays, alighting at the Terrace to seek out the city’s excitements – a round of cheese sandwiches and a pot of tea in one of the little cafés in London Court and an afternoon session at the pictures.
Later still, the Terrace was where I swapped buses to head off around the Swan River to the University of Western Australia and a world that suddenly seemed less secure to a seventeen-year-old from a tiny convent school in the hills. My arts courses were absorbing, but outside the lecture rooms and library were crowds of unknown people, all of whom seemed infinitely more sophisticated and sure of where they were going.
For many years in my twenties, the street defined my days as a young reporter on the West Australian, a paper edited and printed slap-bang in the middle of the Terrace in Newspaper House. I never got used to walking into that building through the small arcade of shops, past the grand entrance hall where ‘the public’ came to lodge classified death notices and pay their paper bills, then upstairs through the swing doors to the newsroom. Forty years later I can still recall that mix of anxiety and anticipation at what the day would bring in the unpredictable world of journalism. Female reporters were barred from the real excitement of police rounds, but courts carried plenty of human drama – from rapes and murders and drug runs to Vietnam War conscientious objectors who, a year or two before, had been with us on campus.
I was figuring it out, but the Terrace, Newspaper House and those who beavered within radiated an easy confidence and sense of ownership of the city that seemed improbable to me. I wanted what they had and wondered what it was. Class? Schooling? I was not the only awkward youngster in town but I felt my lack of ‘finish’ keenly.
From this distance, it would be easy to craft a narrative suggesting Perth was too small for me, but the truth is that back then Perth was too big for me. I was an uncertain adult, not yet aware of my own ambition or capacity. The mere act of leaving town for an unknown city gave me a sense of self that eluded me at home.
YOU CAN PROBABLY get away with choosing London over Perth but leaving Perth for Sydney mystifies many Western Australians. They have no trouble understanding why the rest of the country wants to settle in the west, but the reverse exercise holds little attraction.
It’s scarcely surprising.
The state has long exploited the distance between the capitals and has enjoyed placing itself in opposition to Melbourne and Sydney and Canberra. Even leaving aside the formal secessionist movements of the nineteenth century and the early 1930s, political careers in the west are often built on an implied assumption of the shortfalls of the eastern states. Cocking a snoot at the east has always worked beautifully in the west, and the city can still exude an aggressive independence towards the rest of the country. The most recent mining boom has simply proved what Western Australians have always known: there is not much to be learned from the east. If anything, Perth seems a more self-congratulatory and inward-looking society than it did in my childhood. Back then, there were about 400,000 residents compared with almost two million now, yet it punched above its weight culturally.
Brenda Niall writes in True North of the surprising heights of Perth’s cultural attainments during the 1950s:
Perth’s art scene had a degree of sophistication unexpected in such a small city. No other Australian university had a set of Sidney Nolans, one of which hung in the University of Western Australia students’ coffee shop. The P&O and Orient Line ships from London docked at Perth, long enough for visiting celebrities to be seen or at least heard on Catherine King’s radio program. Sybil Thorndike came to Perth, so did HG Wells. The ABC sponsored concert performances by Malcolm Sargent, Lotte Lehmann and others. The university’s student drama combined high quality with easy access. Westerly magazine, published from the department of English from 1956, was never parochial. An arts monthly broadsheet The Critic, founded by John O’Brien of the University of Western Australia Press, maintained a high standard.
It was the University, too, which spawned the first arts festival in Australia in January 1953. International theatre and music dominated the Festival of Perth and in the decades after the Second World War there was a good deal of very good theatre in the city. Much of it was on campus, including at the Sunken Garden, the outdoor amphitheatre. One night, during a performance of the play Cyrano de Bergerac, an actor lost his grip on his fake sword. My sisters and I, decked out in identical pink dresses and out for a special night with our parents, gasped as it flew over the heads of the audience. That story, plus Cyrano’s extraordinary nose, took on legendary status in our family. Even now the image of the seventeenth-century duelist’s sword flying through a sultry summer night reminds me of a Perth I used to know. All that high-culture aspiration momentarily undone by a plastic reality.
THOSE OF US who are ex-pats in our own land are strangely bifurcated individuals. Back in our hometown at Christmas or Easter or for family celebrations, we happily claim ownership when its suits us but avoid the engagement required of residents. We are like tourists with benefits.
In Perth, we devour the spectacular summers, the distinctive dry heat, the shorts and thongs, the dedication to knocking off at 5 pm to go sailing. But our old relationships exist in a quarantined space away from the big economic and cultural shifts that have taken place since we left. On some trips home, I don’t even make it to the Terrace, bypassing the CBD as I trek between family in Como and Crawley and the hills.
It’s so easy in a city like Perth to fall into semi-torpor, seduced by the landscape. In his book Perth, David Whish-Wilson writes a hymn to this city on the river. His is a deeply appealing view of Perth, and reading his book I can see myself in that life again, walking in the early morning through the magnificence of King’s Park; eating fish and chips on a park bench near the river at Mount Pleasant; fighting the mosquitos in the deckchairs at a movie at the Somerville Auditorium. Even walking down the Terrace to catch a bus after work in the six-o’clock summer glare.
In this, I am reminded that there’s not much logic or reason to the way we connect to place. We can be ambivalent about our hometowns, recognising what we have lost by leaving while appreciating what we have gained in our adopted spaces. We can be sure we’re never going back and then be undermined by a sea breeze on a January afternoon. We can decide that Perth is too small, too big for its boots, too smug, too moneyed and still feel momentarily desolate about no longer being part of that casual cockiness. Most of all, we can find it impossible to decide whether it would have been better to have stayed.