By Julian Hewitt
Illustrations by Simon Greiner
Issue 4, Spring 2011
Perth Local Time: Sunday 9.47 am, 27 March 2011
Weather: 36° – Sunny
Yes, Perth is boring. I’m bored out of my mind. There is absolutely nothing to do here. The shops are closed on Sundays so I can’t shop. There are no decent pubs so I can’t go out drinking. Bananas cost $38.50 per kilo. Lettuce is $18.00 per head. My foreign TV set doesn’t work here. I have to get a licensed electrician to change the light bulb that blew out in my front hall. I suggest we all drink the cyanide laced kool-aid now.
– A post from Dorothy on www.britishexpats.com
PERTH IS THE CAPITAL OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA, where 1,650,000 people live on an infertile coastal plain wedged between the Indian Ocean and the Darling Range escarpment spreading 90 kilometres from north to south and 50 kilometres from west to east. In 2010 it tied with Adelaide for eighth place in The Economist’s list of the World’s Most Liveable Cities.
Perth is regularly cited as the most isolated capital city in the world, which, although not quite true (Honolulu has the official title), is an idea that fits in easily with the self-image of locals. It is cheaper to fly from Perth to Bali than it is to fly to any other Australian capital city.
Perth is the sunniest city in the country and the third windiest city in the world. The daily, gusty sea breeze is colloquially referred to as the ‘Fremantle Doctor’ in honour of the stench of burning human flesh blown inland from the Fremantle crematoria in the early days of the colony’s existence. The Doctor starts mid-to-late morning throughout the long Indian Summer, and howls until well after the sun has gone down, a phenomena driven by the temperature differences between the hot landmass and the cold Antarctic sea currents.
The hot, dry climate of Perth shapes the way of life there. You can schedule a barbeque in Perth three months in advance. The cloudless blue skies that dominate for nine months of the year are reminiscent of the ‘big sky country’ of the American Midwest, but the harsh white light also reminds one of the beach from Albert Camus’ The Outsider (1942) – disorientating and alienating. The city is dictated to by the rhythms of the sun, rhythms that are circadian and atavistic. Perth is never referred to in tourist brochures as a ‘24-Hour City’.
WELCOME TO BOOM TOWN
– Graffiti near the Perth domestic airport terminal.
In order to understand Perth’s place as the centre of ‘the West’ you have to first understand the mythology of mining and, more specifically, iron ore’s importance to the state and its capital. The state’s second (and still continuing) mining boom – which has definitively shaped modern Western Australia – had its genesis in the discovery of the Hope Downs iron ore deposit by Langley ‘Lang’ Hancock in 1952. Hope Downs is roughly 100 kilometres north-west of Newman in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, which is itself more than 1,100 sparsely populated kilometres away from Perth. (The Pilbara takes its name from the Aboriginal word bilybara meaning ‘dry’, but the region is also unbearably hot. In 1924 a nearby town named Marble Bar set a world record of 160 consecutive days with temperatures greater than 37.8 degrees celcius.) The reserves of iron ore at Hope Downs were so vast that at the time of survey they were considered sufficient to supply the entire world for 250 years. The discovery sparked a wave of exploration in the Pilbara, and Rio Tinto was the first to commence production in 1966. Production at the Hope Downs reserve itself did not begin until July 2007. Lang Hancock was dead by then, having spent his final years married to a Filipina maid named Rose and living in ‘Prix D’Amour’, a sixteen-block mansion he built for her fashioned on the ‘Tara’ plantation from Gone With the Wind. Lang’s daughter from his previous marriage, Gina Rinehart, is now Australia’s richest person, worth some $9 billion.
The mining boom has generated an asset price bubble that makes the city a difficult one for those not involved, at least peripherally, in the mining industry. In February 2010 one publication in the affluent western suburbs of the city trumpeted a small, run-down block of land near the ocean (but without beach frontage or view) as ‘One of the Last Bargains of Summer’. The asking price for the property was $3.2 million. Four of the seven most expensive suburbs in the country are in Perth, including Cottesloe at the top of the list with a median house price of $2 million. A 31-year-old mining industry financier recently told me that with US asset prices so low, he could afford to buy and transport a ninety-foot super-yacht from New York – the only problem was that no amount of money could get him a place to berth the boat in Perth. The two-speed economy in the West brings together people with quite different sets of ‘problems’.
In 2011 it is not the Pilbara but St Georges Terrace, Perth’s financial centre, which is the true heart of the mining boom. On ‘the Terrace’ the buildings are modern and clean, and there is a provincial feel that has more in common with Dallas, Texas than it does with Sydney or Melbourne. Very little of Perth’s CBD survived the wrecking balls of the 1960s and 1970s. In planning terms, ‘heritage’ is a word only ever used to describe a temporary impediment to development. There is a disconnect between WA’s economic success, confidence and dynamism, and its lack of cultural sophistication. Trading hours and licensing laws have remained largely unchanged over the last thirty years. It is difficult to find a drink in a licensed venue in Perth after midnight on a Saturday unless you visit a nightclub, a strip club, or the airport. Due to its extreme urban sprawl the city is married to freeways and motor cars, and the rail system services a very small percentage of the city’s inhabitants. A 2010 piece in the West Australian entitled ‘Perth can’t shake mining town tag’ compared the city’s vein of social conservatism ‘to a different era well passed in most developed economies around the world’.
Western Australia is one of only two Australian states that does not implement a daylight-saving program in the summer, so for almost half the year the city is three hours behind the east coast, instead of the usual two. The cultural and geographic distance between Western Australia and the rest of the world sometimes reveals itself in small acts of quiet desperation. Perth’s Wikipedia entry notes that: ‘Perth became known worldwide as the “City of Light” when city residents lit their house lights and streetlights as American astronaut John Glenn passed overhead while orbiting the earth on Friendship 7 in 1962.’ There is a sense that, like shipwreck survivors spelling out S.O.S. in gigantic letters on a deserted beach, these are people trying to connect.
Western Australians have always felt separate from the rest of the country. The state was not mentioned in the preamble to the Constitution at the time of Federation as its support of the movement was faltering and, finally, given too late for the Constitution to be redrafted. It reluctantly consented to join the Commonwealth in time for its establishment on January 1, 1901. However, there are regular calls in the West for it to secede from the Commonwealth, tapping into a sensibility within the state that it is self-sufficient and overlooked, that it generates a disproportionate amount of income in relation to its political influence and share of federal tax revenues, and that its industry unnecessarily subsidises the rest of the country. As recently as 2010, in response to the proposed mining ‘super tax’, WA Mining Minister Norman Moore enunciated a feeling shared on St Georges Terrace: ‘There’s a very, very strong view in Western Australia, not just in the government but right across the community, that this intrusion by the Commonwealth into what we do in Western Australia is not welcome’. The sentiment could not have been summed up more clearly: ‘We don’t need anyone else, we’ve got it good here’. For those living there, the West may be as Joan Didion once described California: ‘A place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things work better here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.’ To outsiders Perth is something else, a place where Protestant work ethic, hot sun and high land prices dissipates any energy not able to be directly applied to self interest – perhaps the last extant of stable financial modernism. ‘Old money’ and a deeply intertwining social elite are largely irrelevant in a town where the majority of wealth has been created in the last two generations. Nonetheless Perth has a disproportionate number of social columns printed in the West Australian, which focus largely on the mining-money-funded activities of Perth’s ‘A-list’, which also includes car salesmen, real estate developers, pornographers, local politicians and Australian Rules footballers.
The parochialism of the West cannot be dismissed as simply ‘small town’ because the region’s isolation is tinged with economic sophistication and a keen sense of history. Western Australians are descendants of people who crossed oceans and deserts for a chance of wealth and a better life, and one can see how locals might get the idea that those who have not taken the journey should not share the prize of boundless exuberance and hard-won prosperity. With their pervasive frontier mentality, it sometimes seems that Western Australians aspire to recreate ‘Galt’s Gulch’ from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957), a place of ‘industrious, ambitious, happy people continuing their chosen fields of endeavour without the yokes of any taxation or regulation’. In fact, Rand’s theory of ‘Objectivism’ for all its lack of romance could well be the moral code that governs life out in the West, where ambition and productivity are a virtue, with financial return its unambiguous measure: ‘Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them… Money is not the tool of the moochers.’
There are so many hotties in Perth … all the rich men get the hottie ladies and have a hot kid, then that hot kid marries another rich one and so on and so on! Plus Perth has cleaner air, better water supplys [sic], superior nutrition and a great climate.
– Vogue Australia forum post.
Notwithstanding its small population Perth has developed a reputation as a breeding ground for successful international Australian models. Justin Smith is a Perth-born artist and photographer who recently returned to the city to live after twenty years in the UK. He told me, ‘It’s fucking amazing here, this is the last city in the world where everyone is allowed to tear down an old house to build their new dream home … everyone here is so fucking rich and beautiful and talented, [West Australians] are going to take over the world.’ Smith is widely acknowledged for discovering a slue of fashion models in Perth who have become world-famous, including Gemma Ward and Nicole Trunfio. ‘These girls are fucking beautiful and smart, and everyone wants what we’ve got.’ He agrees that not everything they have is ideal – on another occasion I’m standing next to Smith at a supermarket when he pulls a box of $12 pasta off the shelf and remarks, ‘It’s like fucking Switzerland in this town’. New York documentary maker and former supermodel Jay Bulger visits Perth most summers with his West Australian fiancée. He also described Perth to me with a Swiss reference: ‘Perth is Switzerland on the beach, comprised almost entirely of alpha males roaming the sand, looking for their next punch up. Which I always found strange considering the six-foot, would-be supermodels around every corner – the city has the most beautiful gas station attendants in the world.’
The mix of affluence and social conservatism is not without its consequences. Perth has had several highly publicised heroin ‘epidemics’ in the last two decades of the boom, with heroin and methamphetamine use levels significantly above the national average, although they have improved. WA has a suicide rate at ten deaths per 100,000 people – markedly higher than New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. As one Perth associate noted, ‘this is a town where it’s easy to be rich and still have broken dreams.’
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a first-rate intelligence is ‘the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’ Perth is a town with an ‘ability to function’, but it is never more than a downturn in the still-booming Chinese economy away from becoming a ghost town, a disconnected and lonely millionaire existing out of time on the edge of the continent, with ‘Prix D’Amour’ an apt symbol: a ‘Tara’ plantation at the mercy of carpet baggers and economic ruin, capable of disappearing as quickly as it has been constructed.
In the meantime the Fremantle Doctor whips across the city every afternoon while the Indian Ocean sparkles, reflecting off the new buildings and plate glass windows, spreading far up the coast to infinity, and almost, it seems possible to imagine, continuing all the way up to the Pilbara and beyond, to places where the city’s golden lifestyle is dependent on ships being loaded with hundreds of millions of tonnes of ore bound for far-away ports.
Posted 24 October, 2014.
Julian Hewitt is Perth-born, Sydney-based entertainment and media lawyer. Julian also plays in bands, lectures in copyright law, runs a music publishing company, sits on a number of boards including the National Young Writers Festival and uses a breathtaking handcrafted font called ‘Slim Aarons’ in all of his legal documentation.
Simon Greiner is Ampersand‘s resident illustrator. His work recently appeared on the cover of The New Yorker and Time Out Sydney. He is an artist, illustrator, graphic designer and puppet-maker who regularly contributes to Grantland and Seizure. He is based in New York.