Thoughts on Perth, WA

I’m now back in France, having arrived yesterday from Perth. As such, I’m trying to shake off the jet lag. Despite having lived in Melbourne I forgot how damned far away Australia is from anywhere. The flight from Perth to Abu Dhabi was over 11 hours; if I’d been asked to guess before booking it I’d have said it was around 6 or 7.

I went to Perth for one reason, and that was to visit people. I’d spent my three months of gardening leave travelling and catching up with pretty much everyone I knew, and with a spare month before my MBA starts I decided I’d take the plunge and go see all the people I know in Perth who I’d not seen in years. If I didn’t do it then, I probably never would. I stayed with a family I knew in Sakhalin, two adults and two girls aged around 6 and 8. They live in Cottesloe not far from the beach, and I had an opportunity to wander around the neighbourhood.

From what I could tell from the very large and expensive houses that dominate that area, Australians are to architecture what Germans are to fine dining. Some houses seemed a combination of several styles, as if the architect couldn’t decide what to go for so just used all his favourite features in a single design. One I saw looked like a British council estate bungalow which had been scaled up three or four times with a porch held up by a row of Greek columns. A lot of them are the ultra-modern box-style, which don’t look too bad in themselves but appear odd beside the old colonial-style houses. Obviously there’s no requirement in Perth for new houses to blend in with the surrounding ones. Some are described as Tuscan-style, and while I can see what they are trying to do they sort of look as though an Australian architect designed it while on the phone to his mate who was looking at a postcard his aunt sent him from Italy. And as I saw in Melbourne and Hobart, over half the houses had tin-roofs. In the UK, corrugated iron is usually reserved for farm buildings and warehouses, but in Perth they’ll build a $3m stone house with a swimming pool and landscaped lawns and finish off the roof, and even sometimes the walls, with the same stuff. Uninsulated. My guess is it was a cheap solution 50 years ago and Australians have simply got used to it.

The beach was nice if a little short of topographical features: no rocky coves here, it was straight beach and sand dunes for a couple of thousand miles in both directions, broken only by the harbour at Fremantle. They’d built a cycle and running path alongside and when I went there on a Saturday morning it was filled with beautiful people in lycra; I’d found the same thing at Melbourne’s tan track. There were also plenty of people surfing and kite-surfing, the water turning turquoise halfway through my trip when summer suddenly arrived making it look very inviting. Up until then it was a brownish colour and choppy. The wind in Perth, coming straight off the ocean, is strong.

I went into the city centre several times to meet people, and I think I’d seen most of it by the first afternoon. The two tallest towers belonged to Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton respectively, letting everyone know why the city is there and who’s in charge. The oil company Woodside moved into a brand new tower when I was there; I suppose it seemed like a good idea back when the oil price was over a hundred. Perth is a town of boom and bust – or rather, one big boom and then a bust – and everyone I spoke to referred to the boom era at least once. The place didn’t look as though it was in a slump though, and it seems to be slowly recovering. I wandered through the shopping district thinking it was a lot like Melbourne (particularly the covered pavements with the perpendicular shop signs hanging perpendicular), and then along Langley Park by the Swan river. It was nice, but perhaps not for the whole afternoon.

Possibly the biggest culture shock I received was when my host family sat down to eat at 6pm. Coming from France, I wondered whether this was a late lunch but it turned out to be dinner. Then at 8:30pm everyone took off to bed, leaving me wandering around in the dark. I awoke the next morning at about 7am and thought I’d get up to say hello to find the parents gone to work and the kids with the au pair getting ready for school. Their father had got up at 5:30am to go surfing, too. Later I was out with a blog reader for a drink and we finished up around 8pm. I walked through deserted streets to the railway station, where I joined about 5 other passengers going in the direction of Fremantle. I think much of this is explained by the fact it gets light at 6am, dark at 6pm, and there is no daylight savings time in Western Australia.

Perth wasn’t as expensive as I was expecting, and much cheaper than Paris for food and booze. One evening I went to a birthday party held at a French restaurant, and found it staffed by French people and the food excellent. Otherwise I was mainly eating decent burgers and the sort of meat-cheese-chips-sauce melanges you only find in Australia. I also ordered a rack of lamb ribs in Fremantle which had been brilliantly marinaded before overcooked.

As in Melbourne, I found the Australians extremely friendly and pleasant to be around, but the place itself rather dull. As my holiday wore on I reached the same conclusion of Perth that I did of Melbourne: if you have a good job, it’s a great place to raise kids. From what I could tell everything worked, it was safe, the weather was great, the schools good, there was plenty of space, and you had everything a family could want or need. But if you were a single bloke I think you’d go a bit nuts after a month; it’s not like you could drink all night if the bars empty at 8pm. Interestingly, I met two foreign wives – one French, the other Russian – and both said they find Perth to be a cultural desert and they’d like their children to spend at least some time back in the motherland before they reach adulthood. Like anywhere, I guess it comes down to what stage your life’s at and what you’re doing with it. So with that, I’ll say I had a great time in Perth and it was absolutely wonderful to see people I’d not seen in years, as well as meet some new people who read this blog. But Perth isn’t a place I’ll be hoping to live in any time soon; I would definitely go back for another visit, though.

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44 thoughts on “Thoughts on Perth, WA

  1. A mining town in Australia a million miles from anywhere a cultural desert? Shock horror.

    I don’t imagine Big Tuna, Arizona does a great line in French restaurants or museums either. Or Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Or Blackpool.

    Did you ever get to Coober Pedy in Australia? Now that IS a rough place. A baked desert, with underground dwellings, an opal mine and the hardest, nastiest, shittiest people. Roughnecks, hookers and booze. The MacDonalds is the cultural centre.

  2. Or Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

    Ooh, I dunno. There were a handful of good Japanese and Chinese restaurants, plus a couple of Indians. There were even a couple of good pizza takeaways!

  3. I tried to like the place, but 12 months was enough for me. My first day their was a Friday, the taxi took me to a central hotel at about 4pm in the afternoon and the place was like a tomb.

    Apart from the relativity short flight to Asia and the paycheck, there was very little there for me.

  4. I visited Perth in the 1980s. As for flying times, I was accompanying a disabled friend who used a wheelchair packed into the hold, so she had to stay put when everybody else got off to stretch their legs in the Middle East and again at Singapore. I stayed with her out of solidarity and the cleaners came on and cleaned around us. I was so long in the same seat (apart from walking to the toilet) that I went insane and then recovered and then lapsed back into insanity.

    I also remember Perth itself being bland, and very sprawling. And hot as hell, with a cracking dry heat, like Arizona. Our host (English) took us to a really hard pub which catered for working-class Aussies and English migrants who had failed to get on and were in worse jobs than the ones they had left. It was like one of those horrible 1960s pubs with comedy names that you get on English council estates. Being with a wheelchair-using woman is useful in such situations, but it was one of the scariest drinking establishments I’ve been in. I remember one bloke getting hit over the head with a pool cue and walking round for the rest of the evening with a huge bit of detached scalp flopping into his eyes and spattering blood everywhere. What was even more remarkable was that he instantly forgave his assailant and bought him a drink.

    Our host said that a car was essential, because of the distances between suburbs, the trek into the city centre, and the heat. Social life seemed to revolve around drinks and barbies at each other’s houses. Back gardens were grim compounds of dry dirt and barbie-grease and not much else. The people were, though, as you say, very nice and friendly. I was a bit taken aback by their impatience, though. Having got used to America, where people fell over themselves to help a stranger and wanted to talk about whether I knew the Queen and Paul McCartney, etc., Aussies assumed that I was a dozy new immigrant if I was unsure of how to do things.

    One mystery remains for me. I went for a walk in the suburbs on the first morning there to get a feel for the place and to battle the fearsome jet-lag. Nothing much there, just winding roads and an occasional children’s play area with trees. It was already hot, and our host insisted that I take his spare hat which was a sort of “bucket hat” with a soft floppy brim. I was a bit self-conscious as I don’t normally wear hats, and thought I looked like a comedy Australian. We passed lots of kids who were walking, presumably to friends’ houses. All of them grinned broadly, and said “G’Day!”. I have never worked out whether that’s just how friendly kids greeted adults there, or whether they were taking the piss out of the obvious daft Pom.

  5. If you were to set a movie about a dystopian future after much of the global population had been killed, I imagine Perth would make a great location.

    As a plot device, you could use its isolation as a reason there were so many survivors there and the transformation from McMansions in the ‘burbs to semi-destroyed hell hole wouldn’t look like much of a stretch.

    You could save money on extras too as many of the locals already have that washed out, seen too much horror look in their eyes.

    Still, the Blue Duck is a nice spot for lunch.

    “This is your captain speaking. Welcome to Perth International Airport, the temperature is 34 degrees and the local time is, oh, about 1985”.

  6. “Freemantle” is actually spelled Fremantle. Going north from Cottesloe it is about 10km to find some rocks. Going south you have to go about 20 km to find same.

    Their are some very nice “cafe society” places along the south shore of the Swan River in easy walking/cycling distance from Fremantle. It’s a shame your hosts didn’t take you for a morning visit. Nightlife happens in Northbridge (north of Perth city centre). It’s an excellent place to be mugged/bottled on a Friday or Saturday night.

    Australians are very proud of their sporting heritage. The true Australian National Sport is car theft. If you go out at night, leave your car at home and take a taxi.

    I was born in WA (a sandgroper) and spent much of my life in Perth. When the opportunity came, I let my Oz passport lapse, took out my UK passport and moved to Japan. I miss Perth/Oz this much ><

  7. Do you know what’s behind Aussie tin roofs? If there’s an airgap & ventilation through the ridge it’d be an effective way of keeping a building cool in strong sunshine. Insolation sets up a convection current pulling hot air up the airgap behind the cladding, which exhausts at the ridge. And the profile of the material means it has a surface area considerably greater than its coverage area. It radiates heat away more effectively.
    It’s much the same principal as the pan tiles been used in the Med region since ancient times. (Although our local Dagos seemed to have missed the point & cement in every airgap they can see) Steel would be even better than pottery because of its low thermal capacity & high conductivity. It’ll radiate away any residual heat as soon as the sun goes down, giving cooler nights.
    When you look at any widely used building design, it’s always worth presuming the blokes built it knew what they were doing & asking why?

    Sympathy about the lack of nightlife, from someone’s also lived in Paris. We never used to go out until nearly midnight. Restaurant for a meal & then on somewhere for drinking & clubbing. That was years ago & I still haven’t really recalibrated. Even here in the Spanish resort town you’re essentially buggered finding anywhere to eat after eleven & the bars all start closing, not far past one. Virtual desert at two apart from some scruffy discos & the whorehouse. Even that’s winding up at three. Bloody afternoon hours, I tell you! Hardly worth bothering opening. Don’t know what wrong with them

  8. “Freemantle” is actually spelled Fremantle.

    My bad. Corrected.

    Going north from Cottesloe it is about 10km to find some rocks. Going south you have to go about 20 km to find same.

    “Some rocks” does not the Pembrokeshire coast make.

  9. When you look at any widely used building design, it’s always worth presuming the blokes built it knew what they were doing & asking why?

    I’ve been to a hell of a lot of hot countries. Australia is the one and only place I’ve seen tin roofs on houses. They also have large plate windows facing north.

    And bay windows are also widely used in England. 😉

  10. Well if visiting isolated areas to meet with a reader is your thing, then come to Portland. I know, I know, just crazy talk.

  11. @Howard Roark

    I’ll pencil myself in right after you.

    Re: Roofs

    Generally speaking, in Israel, Jewish roofs are angled/tiled, and Arab roofs are flat concrete, though there are plenty of exceptions. The only places you see tin roofs are bedouin encampments, but when your walls are used tires…. meh.

    Heat dispersal isn’t the only consideration, though. I think the red tile roofs are liked by Jews specifically because they have a European feeling to them. As for flat concrete roofs, they’re cheaper – I think – and it makes it easy to add another storey when your fifth son gets married.

  12. …Arab roofs are flat concrete…

    Is that not to enable a proper vantage point for AK47 / RPG fire down onto whoever your lot is Jihadding against this week?

  13. Lived in a cortijo in Spain’s Alpujarras. That was essentially an arab house because the Alpujarras were the last part of Muslim Spain. Muslim until the C17th. The town church started life as a mosque. All the traditional houses there have flat roofs. It was never originally concrete. Withies or bamboo covered with clay from the river as a water seal. Not saying it could have worked very well. Not with the sort of prolonged torrential rain you can get there. Even the ones now roofed with concrete & asphalted leak. But the roofs did have another purpose. They were used for drying agricultural produce on drying racks. Or the racks were covered with cloth & the roof mats & it was used as an annex during the dry months.

    Another country seems to use a lot of tin roofs is Colombia. We’ve lots of photos & video from the town my amiga comes from* & corrugated iron seems to be the dominant roofing material. It is across much of S.America. It makes a racket when it rains, though.

    *Getting to be my home town too, thanks to cameras on smart phones & VOIP. Don’t think there’s much of the barrio I don’t know. Even have conversations with the geezer runs the corner shop when one of the family takes my disembodied self in there. Buy rounds in the bar. I run a tab.

  14. Corrugated iron is standard in NZ. Including some quite expensive houses.

    It’s become an element that says “you’re not in Europe” and we’re proud of that. I really like seeing the “tin” roofs when I return, because it says to me that I’m home.

    Local architects use it as one of the few really vernacular elements in their palate.

    I guess it was used originally because it was the cheapest to ship really long distances. Tiles are hopelessly heavy. Shingles require different woods from the local varieties. Tin is cheap, light and packs tightly.

    NZ requires sloping roofs because the rain is very heavy. And frequent.

    I guess Oz uses sloping roofs because that’s how they thought houses should be built.

  15. Reading some of the comments about Perth reminds me of Mrs Richards from Fawlty Towers complaining about her view from her Torquay hotel window. What do you expect to see. Venices Grand Canal. The Champs Élysées. It’s Perth , not even two hundred years old and not a bad effort for being built in the middle of nowhere.
    As for corrugated iron roofs , when all your building materials have to be transported by rail or road at least three thousand kilometres then sheets of corrugated iron are a lot easier and cheaper to move than tiles.
    It mightn’t have the culture or night life of Europe but it has two million inhabitants whose forebears moved there because they had other priorities in mind when choosing a home for their families future.

  16. “Australia is the one and only place I’ve seen tin roofs on houses.”

    As Chester says, it’s normal in NZ as well. It’s cheap and effective, its more surprising to me it’s not more common elsewhere.

  17. It’s Perth , not even two hundred years old and not a bad effort for being built in the middle of nowhere.

    Well, yeah. Only I’ve been to Irkutsk and Khabarovsk.

  18. It’s cheap and effective, its more surprising to me it’s not more common elsewhere.

    Probably because most people in wealthy developed countries want their homes to have an aesthetic quality rather than the cheapest possible materials. I doubt you’d even get planning permission for it in Europe.

  19. I wondered whether this was a late lunch but it turned out to be dinner.

    In Orstrylya it’s known as “tay.” When somebody asks you to “come NFT” tea is often not on the menu.

    To understand the Strylyins you can start with “Let’s Talk Strine” or “They’re a Weird Mob,” both rather out of date but they give you a feel for the place.

    Perth was one of the favourite destinations of white Seffricans “taking the chicken run” from the Nineteen-Eighties onward and when one of our acquaintance announced his imminent emigration he would be known as “Packed For Perth,” PFP being the initials of the white Seffrican progressive party at the time.

    Seffrica is full of tin roofs. Up to around fifty years ago, corrugated iron (known as “corro” in Oz) was the default roofing material. That’s the sine-wave-profile zinc-coated mild steel. Steel is seldom seen on new builds today. Factories often have IBR (Inverted Box Rib) roofs and sometimes walls too, although it has been discovered by our enterprising criminal community that steel walls are singularly easy to break and enter one’s way through.

    In the Northern Territory near Aileron I visited a farmhouse with a double-skin tin roof. It was cool in summer and in winter the eaves would be plugged so that the sealed space would build up heat and radiate it down into the house.

  20. Fascinating thread for me this as I was born in Fremantle, but my parents came back to the UK when I was 6 months old, and I’ve never been back (partly because I deliberately don’t have a passport so work can’t send me to France to deal with our idiot French clients).

    Crinkle pattern tin is an excellent building material – cheap, light, durable, fast to put together. There used to be a whole village pretty much all built from the stuff in North Wales, between Bala and Porthmadog – most of it is fairly long gone now, but the Chapel is still standing (tin mission Chapels were quite a thing in a certain era of Welsh methodism).

  21. Tin roofs are pretty common here in NZ, and quite practical with our weather. I’d also much rather have a tin roof over my head during an big earthquake than tiles.

  22. It was a pleasure catching up with you last week Tim.

    Since you’re copping a bit of heat for the tin roof comment, allow me to pile on: we had the choice of Colorbond (steel) or tile roof when we built our place, we chose the steel option for a few reasons, but the biggest one is heat. Tiles tend to be dark coloured (light coloured tiles look a bit daft to my eyes), and due to their mass and colour make excellent storage heaters – try spending a summer in a house here with a black tile roof, I don’t recommend it! Our roof is very light coloured, with a heat-reflective coating and insulation beneath, and the temperature inside the house is reasonable for most of the year.

    Another factor against tiled roofs here is security – the roof carpenters only seem to nail down every 4th or 5th tile, so it’s straightforward to get inside the house by moving a few roof tiles (source – I’ve done this in a previous house after returning from a night out with no keys – I don’t recommend doing this after a few beers…)

  23. I live in Perth and I’ve never seen the tin roof except on houses built yeeeeeaaaarrrss ago. To be fair there are still a few such houses in nice neighbourhoods, but that’s just cos the old owners haven’t cashed out yet.

    Obviously there’s no requirement in Perth for new houses to blend in with the surrounding ones.

    Don’t nobody tell him about the Blue House of Scarborough Beach…

  24. “Well, yeah. Only I’ve been to Irkutsk and Khabarovsk.”

    I hear they wrote to Politburo to ask for such roofs, but the Party said no, tin was needed to make the buckets to put under the leaks in the asbestos roofs.

  25. Well, yeah . Only i’ve been to Irkutsk and Khabarovsk.

    I’ve never been to those places. Do they have nice beaches?

  26. we had the choice of Colorbond (steel) or tile roof when we built our place, we chose the steel option for a few reasons, but the biggest one is heat. Tiles tend to be dark coloured (light coloured tiles look a bit daft to my eyes), and due to their mass and colour make excellent storage heaters – try spending a summer in a house here with a black tile roof, I don’t recommend it! … Another factor against tiled roofs here is security – the roof carpenters only seem to nail down every 4th or 5th tile…

    So you were given a choice of a roof made from tin, or tiles badly suited to the environmental conditions which would anyway be installed badly? Hurrah for Aussie building standards!

    Look, I get why people use tin: it’s cheap and easy, and I said this in the post. But those defending its use remind me of the time I asked an American why you see so many fat people in the US schlepping around in awful white sneakers. “Because they’re comfortable,” he said. One of the reasons I like France is because they’re big on aesthetics. Now each to their own, but you can’t expect someone who lives in France to go to Australia and not notice half the houses have roofs made of tin any more than one should expect tourists not to notice the piss smell and dogsh*t in Paris.

  27. I’ve never been to those places. Do they have nice beaches?

    This is rather amusing. One of the things a couple of people in Perth said is when you complain about the lack of culture the immediate response is “But we have a nice beach!”

    No, Irkutsk and Khabarovsk don’t have nice beaches but we were talking about culture, not nature. Interestingly, they haven’t slapped a gigantic casino in the centre of town either.

  28. Don’t nobody tell him about the Blue House of Scarborough Beach…

    I went to Scarborough, didn’t see that! I did see the new swimming pool though, which was rather nice.

  29. Technical point: even if perth had daylight savings (and many newspaper column inches have been dedicated to discussing this in WA) it would not have been in effect during your visit. When we have had daylight saving, it doesn’t start until October. Also north facing Windows is a thing cos Southern Hemisphere.

  30. Also north facing Windows is a thing cos Southern Hemisphere.

    Indeed: nobody in their right mind puts huge windows facing the sun in a hot country. 😉

  31. I went to Scarborough, didn’t see that!

    I think they knocked it down, but it was the talk of the town for a while.

    But speaking of Scarborough and buildings that don’t blend in with their surroundings, did you notice the rather lonely looking 18-storey hotel? It cost the builder a lot of money to get around the planning regs (allegedly).

  32. But speaking of Scarborough and buildings that don’t blend in with their surroundings, did you notice the rather lonely looking 18-storey hotel?

    I did, and I was told it was the only seafront high-rise building right on the whole west coast. I was then told it was built by Alan Bond and…

    It cost the builder a lot of money to get around the planning regs

    …well, yes.

  33. ” I doubt you’d even get planning permission for it in Europe.”

    It’s difficult to see why not. I’ve done enough zinc roofs over the years. Even a couple in copper.

  34. I visited Perth a few years ago on the first leg of a ‘taster’ trip to Oz. For all the business trips I used to do I never got to Oz. For a short trip of a few days it was interesting – we got to ring at the Swan Tower, a ring of 16, which is ‘interesting’ for those of us who mostly ring 6 & 8-bell towers. It was in a nice situation on the river but they were building some monstrosity next door that will dwarf it. Also visiting Fremantle I went round the submarine HMAS Owens, a copy of post-war Royal Navy diesel boats. An interesting contrast to the ex-Russian diesel sub that I went round in the 1990s when it was moored up at Greenwich. So, there is stuff to do in Perth/Fremantle, but perhaps not the ‘culture’ alluded to above. I doubt I’ll get back there as our Aussie friends live on the East coast.

  35. @bloke in spain

    There’s a few streets of pitched copper roofed houses near me (UK). I’d guess built 1960s/70s. Verdigris looks quite nice.

  36. In Scotland and Ireland wriggly tin was a good safe replacement for thatch or turf. Fire, bug, rain, rot and, if well screwed down, hurricane proof. Away from salty sea breezes it will last over a century.
    A much underrated material. It must have been as important as railways in developing colonies.

  37. Forgot to say that it is also good for collecting rainwater, which might be important if your clean drinking water is restricted. But noisy in a rain or hail storm.

  38. I’m from Adelaide (yes haha the murder city whatevs its how we breed our warriors) which has a very similar climate to Perth. We are building a house now and no question about it, we were going for a steel roof.
    Both my husband and I have lived in lots and lots of houses and generally the tin roofs have been better for the summer, which can get pretty extreme. Of course, it varies according to the pitch, colour, shade, degree of insulation etc etc but overall it seems to be better heat-wise, and easier to maintain. I come from a family involved in building and real estate and it seems to be a pretty consistent opinion. Head up north toward the tropics and you’ll see almost exclusively tin roofs (often coupled with weatherboard)

    North facing windows/blocks are also a HUGE seller. You can guarantee if a house listing has north facing aspects it will be boldly printed. We are also trying to maximise the northern sun exposure in our place. Reason being, the winters can be freezing and having large windows to let in sunshine can really lessen your heating bill. In our current place we would have killed for north facing windows instead of being sat in the cold and dark. During the summer the sun is higher so north facing windows have less impact on the amount of sunshine inside. Also, on those really hot days in summer, you have block out blinds – your not leaving any windows open. So there is method to our madness.

    Also, it’s a taste thing. I can’t stand the look of tiled roofs myself, I think they look heavy, fussy and stodgy. I love the simple architecture in cities like Reykjavik. Travelling through the Scottish highlands recently, I loved a lot of the houses, but would often think, ‘gah, I would change that roof…’

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