Seen from a few miles out in the Indian Ocean, the jagged cluster of tall buildings rising up together in Perth’s central business district suggests a watchtower. Figuratively, the view outward from there—Perth is Australia’s lone west-coast city—is into emptiness in every direction.
As it happened, the first time I traveled to Perth was during the last days of apartheid in South Africa. Out-migration from the area then had grown so large it supported, for a while, regular flights to Perth—from Harare, Zimbabwe. So I flew straight east from Harare that time, across the full breadth of the Indian Ocean. The second time I visited I took a train west from Sydney, the India-Pacific. Halfway to Perth it crossed into the Nullarbor Plain, a treeless, arid landscape. Eventually, the unpopulated plain gave way to wooded hills, before we arrived in a city that suggested a colonial outpost somewhere in the tropics.
I’ve entered Perth from the barren north, too, after making a tour of Western Australia’s iron-ore mining districts in 2010. Back then, while the rest of Australia was struggling financially during a worldwide recession, Western Australia was running in the black. It was shipping high-grade iron ore to China, Brobdingnagian quantities of it, from ports on its northwest coast.
I’ve long had an affection for Perth that I can’t explain. Its isolation, its genteel parks have always appealed to me. These days, I’m more drawn to its aura of innocence. Perth is no Cairo full of speculators’ empty apartment buildings, no Mumbai, no gang-infested São Paulo. In Australian folklore Perth is viewed as a naif, a kind of “urban lite,” partly because, as a latecomer, Perth was able to reap the rewards of a colonial identity without enduring the decades of gritty work the other cities had to face to establish a legitimate standing in the Commonwealth.
Perth does not lack in sophistication; what I think of as its palpable innocence reflects, rather, people’s attitude here toward the outer world. They say proudly, “We’re not the East,” referring principally to “cynical and jaded” Sydney and Melbourne. The sanguine attitude is complemented by the city’s salubrious climate. On many days, walking underneath gloriously blue skies, enveloped in balmy air redolent of eucalyptus, distracted by sunlight trembling on the surface of the Swan River, and hearing flocks of white corellas calling aloft, you feel you’re on the borders of paradise. Sitting on a bench on a quad at the University of Western Australia once—in good weather—watching students drift by between classes, I felt boundless hope for mankind. I sensed in these students a combination of intellect, untapped energy, and enthusiasm about the future. Also their distance from the reality of a place like the Horn of Africa.
I’ve always felt something missing in Perth: an alertness, the wariness that is so much a part of urban life elsewhere, an intuition that trouble is coalescing somewhere out there. Obvious among the many fresh faces here, for example, are the far fewer dark, hardened faces of Australia’s internally displaced Aborigines, refugees from the country’s pulverized cultural traditions. People marginalized by industrial progress. As one of them once articulated their plight to a colleague of mine, “natural-resource extraction happened to us.”
A friend, the Australian poet and author Mark Tredinnick, speaks of “the dangerous clarity of light” in Perth and the “fragile nobility” of its people. I recall coming in off the Great Sandy Desert in northwestern Australia once with him, drawing near to an iron-ore shipping town on the coast, Port Hedland, a city about 820 miles north of Perth. Mark summarized the experience of our traveling for days through Western Australia’s mining districts by saying that, with its heaps of ore, its canopy of red dust, its abject Aboriginals and queuing bulk-carrier ships, Port Hedland looked like Mordor.
From the start, Perth has struck me as a place where the hard news of the rest of the world—of drug warlords in Mexico, Muslim-Hindu violence, lethal corruption in government and business—has not made inroads. News of the dire consequences of all this trouble is assumed, apparently, to fit better elsewhere.
Taking in the city’s watchtower skyline from the deck of a sailboat, I’m pushed to wonder whether the seeming lack of familiarity with death here is willful. What is it that the occupants of the upper floors of the BHP Billiton building see when they look across the desert, past Port Hedland, to the carbon-spewing smelters of their Chinese clients? Does the distance from everything untoward encourage in people here a conviction that they are safe? Or is the innocence in Perth a dodge, a kind of prayer?