Deborah Burrows: The landscape of the past: wartime Perth as a backdrop to mystery

My motivations for writing novels set in wartime Perth.

My novels, A Stranger in my Street and Taking a Chance, are both set in Perth in 1943 and they describe the landscape of a Perth that has now changed completely. Then, Perth was a small, isolated city with a centre of elegant low-rise buildings, that had been constructed in the previous fifty years, in the aftermath of the gold finds in Kalgoorlie, during Western Australia’s first mineral boom in the 1890s. Now, Perth is a sprawling metropolis with a centre of high-rise skyscrapers built on the back of three subsequent mineral booms, and the large numbers of “Fly In Fly Out” workers who service the mineral industry in Western Australia have redefined Perth’s traditional sense of isolation.

One of the main motivations for setting my novels in the Second World War period, and in Perth, is entirely personal. It came out of a drive with my then ninety-year-old mother in 2010. When we drove through central Perth, she recognized nothing in the skyscrapers that lined St George’s Terrace. I drove her around the western suburbs of Perth and watched her increasing misery as it became apparent that every house she’d known well or lived in during her then 70 years in the city had been demolished. The house her mother had built in 1940, the houses her sisters had built when they married, the house she’d built with my father, were all gone. All the places that had sheltered her in her long life in Perth, all the fixed landmarks of her emotional landscape, had disappeared.

All except one, a little house that she’d lived in when she first came to Perth from Kalgoorlie with her mother and sisters in 1939. That house was in Megalong Street, Nedlands, close to the University of Western Australia and the site of the American Catalina flying boat base in World War II. It was to form the backdrop for my first novel, A Stranger in my Street.

That drive with my mother made me vividly aware of how much the Perth my mother knew as a young woman had changed. In the 1940s, St Georges Terrace had been accounted one of the most elegant main streets in Australia, but three mining booms since the 1960s have seen landmark buildings tumble, to be replaced with towers of steel, glass and concrete. The trams and trolley buses that transported my mother to her job at the General Post Office are no more. The dance halls, ballrooms and cabarets where she danced with American servicemen have disappeared. The Perth that was “just a big country town, really” is gone.

I decided then that in my novels I wanted to chronicle the old Perth, to preserve in words what had been lost, to recreate the landscape of the past. And I wanted to do so in the context of mystery novels set in the time when my mother was a young woman. I was determined to incorporate the stories she’d told to me in order to ground the novels in my mother’s reality of living in Perth during the Second World War. Using the stories and memories of someone who had been an inhabitant of the landscape of wartime Perth, would, I hoped, provide an extra dimension to novels that would not be reliant only on my research and imagination.

What do I mean by ‘landscape’?

People tend to interpret the word landscape as simply the physical setting, but there is a human landscape as well. So, the landscape of my novels is more than the buildings of central Perth and its suburbs set along the banks of the Swan River.  Although those are obviously part of the mise-en-scène, I consider that it’s misleading not to take into account the people who lived in that setting and how it shaped them and how they shaped it. And it’s important to remember that the emotional landscape of a city such as Perth changes over time just as much as the structural and physical landscape.

So the landscape of my novels is one inhabited by people, people who have emerged from the aftermath of a Great War that did not end all wars, and who survived the hungry years of a Great Depression and are now having to cope with blackouts, and casualty lists, and rationing, and conscription, and identity cards, and censorship of private letters, with the six o’clock swill and hordes of young servicemen in their city seeking R&R.

The people of Perth inhabited suburban houses in streets that were really little communities and most of them were white, due to the rural segregation of Aborigines and the White Australia Policy. They used public transport, so the pace of life was much slower – although, during the War, Perth had more charcoal burning cars than any other Australian city, an early indicator, perhaps of the city’s enduring love affair with motor vehicles. Perth was seen as a safe environment, so houses were left unlocked. Children were told to go out and play and not come back until tea. Neighbours knew each other and kept an eye out for each other in this time of national and often personal crises.

Because it must be remembered that Perth in 1943 was a city in a nation that was at war. And, as Western Australia had the highest enlistment rate of any state in Australia, it was a city that was missing its men. It was a time of fear, of constant worry about husbands, sons, boyfriends, brothers and friends who were in danger. It was a time of change, when women were being “manpowered” into jobs traditionally done by men.

It was also an exciting time, and I wanted to recreate that sense of excitement. The poet and novelist, Dorothy Hewett, was then a young reporter in Perth, and she was quoted as saying:

“Therewas this sense that it was important that you lived for the moment because there mightn’t be any other one, mightn’t be many more moments or perhaps none, and therefore a tremendous amount of licence and liberation came into people’s lives which would never have happened - perhaps at all, particularly in a place like Perth.[1]

More than a little of that “licence and liberation” Hewett describes was because Perth had been “occupied” by American troops. Those Yanks had money, manners, smart uniforms and they knew how to jitterbug! American movies were the staple entertainment at the pictures, and it was as if Hollywood had come to Perth. Americans occupied most of the rooms in the city’s hotels, and they jammed the picture theatres and dance halls, hotels and cabarets. They wore tailored uniforms and handed out sweets and chewing gum and flowers and chocolates and nylons, and they romanced Australian girls. Even now, people remember the Americans vividly as part of the landscape of the time.

Obviously there was also a physical landscape and it has to be described in the novels. 1940s Perth was a city with a definite city centre of solid sandstone elegance, which was located around St Georges Terrace, and its suburbs radiated out from that centre. It was the most isolated capital city in the world. And in 1943 that meant real isolation, a journey of 4 or 5 days to Melbourne or Sydney by train, or by boat, via Adelaide.

Unlike other Australian cities there was no large scale manufacturing industry or industrial slums. So, when my nineteen-year-old father was on leave in Melbourne in 1942, he wrote that Melbourne:

“…did not impress me. To my eyes it looked smudgy and dirty and not a bit like Perth, which is always clean no matter where one looks.”[2]

In 1942, HR Knickerbocker, an American journalist, wrote of Perth that its: 

“modern stream lined residences, its American-styled shops, and its maze of scenic water ways and parks make it one of the loveliest cities in the southern hemisphere. Perth’s only trouble is that it is so incredibly far from everywhere else.”[3] 

But in 1943 Perth was also a city at war, and the landscape reflected this. Garish propaganda posters were plastered on walls and in the trams and trains: ‘Make do and Mend’, ‘Dig for Victory’, ‘Be like Dad and Keep Mum’, ‘It’s Fight, Work or Perish’, ‘Safety Demands Obedience’. Sandbags were piled against shop windows. Department store windows were boarded up, or covered with planks or wire netting or criss-crossed with cotton strips. Air raid shelters were constructed in suburban back yards and slit trenches had been dug in parks and by the roadside. Submarines were crowded into Fremantle Harbour and there were always war ships in Gage Roads. Catalina flying boats rested in Crawley Bay; they took off and returned each day with a roar that was heard for miles around. Perth’s pride, the University of Western Australia – the only free university in Australia – was now off limits as an American base, with barbed wire laid around its perimeter. There was barbed wire also on suburban beaches and riverbanks. Army bases had been constructed on football grounds, golf courses and parks.

At least some of these elements had to be referred to in my novels, in order to paint a vivid picture of wartime Perth.

One pitfall I found, in my attempt to create a believable landscape of the past, is that some readers dislike any deviation from what they see as the “reality” of 1940s Perth. I had prided myself on my authentic recreation of the period in my first novel, A Stranger in my Street. In my second novel, Taking a Chance, I had the temerity to invent a fictional village that I named Richmond. I needed somewhere similar to the real village of Darlington, which is located in the hills above Perth and is famous for having hosted D.H. Lawrence in 1922. For plot purposes, my village needed to be bigger and to have a hotel and a church. So, I invented a village and peopled it with characters whose names I got from directories of the time and made it as “real” as I could write it.

Unfortunately, some Perth readers, who saw me as a chronicler of old Perth, rather than a writer of fiction who used old Perth as a setting, were upset that Richmond “didn’t exist”, as I was informed through comments on my Facebook page.

When I was crafting the novel, it had been a difficult choice for me, between adding fictional elements to a real village or creating an entirely new one. I chose to do the latter because Richmond was obviously fictional to anyone who knew the area in which I’d placed it and because a fictional village, rather than a modified real village, gave me more creative leeway.

Inventing a village named Richmond was driven by the needs of the plot, but the landscape of my fictional village was as accurate as I could make it, given my knowledge of 1940s Perth and of the little settlements in the hills above the city.

I suppose the old adage applies: you simply can’t please everyone.

How did I go about the reconstruction of the landscape of 1940s Perth?

I used digitized newspapers in the marvellous National Library of Australia site, Trove. This allowed me to read the same news items my characters read, to see the advertisements that tempted them, and to pore over the casualty lists that horrified them.

A source that gave me an insight into the seamier side of wartime Perth was Trove’s digitised copies of Perth’s ‘scandal rag’, the Mirror newspaper. The Mirror specialised in gossip and tawdry tales of the divorce courts. Accounts of husbands and wives being discovered in compromising situations by Perth’s foremost private investigator, Alf Sleep, were interspersed with excellent accounts of war news. For instance, on the front page of the Mirror of 23 January 1943 is the headline: “Women War Workers”; on page 2 is: “Red Army captures important town in new non-stop advance”; page 3 has: “Eleanor Roosevelt and the Royal Family”, page 4 has an article on sugar rationing. On page 5 we find: “Police tell of nude girls and drunken orgies”. The Mirror certainly captured the spirit of the times.

I also read the Australian National Dictionary to find when words were first used and in what context. Trove again proved invaluable if I was worried about whether a particular word or phrase was actually used in 1943. I would put the phrase or word into Trove and do a search in the newspapers of the 1940s. If it was used in contemporary newspapers, then I felt confident in including it in my writing.

I examined photographs of Perth in the 1940s to get a feel for the streetscape and the buildings that have now disappeared. These photographs were found on-line at various library sites such as Trove, or the state libraries, or in books. I also bought post cards and photographs from e-bay, or viewed collections held at libraries or in personal collections. I visited museums in Perth and other cities that had exhibitions that were relevant to my period. I read memoirs of people who had lived through the time. I had my mother’s stories, but I also spoke to people who had been resident in Perth in the early 1940s. They told me of parties and dances with Americans, and described hotels and houses and buildings that had been demolished long ago.

I studied the social and political history of the period. I analysed the Post Office Directories for 1943 to see where my characters lived, and where the shops, cabarets, dance halls, cafes and public buildings they visited were located. I looked at the Perth Street Directory of 1943, to trace tram routes and bus routes.

From all such resources I was able to build a picture in my mind, and hopefully on the page, of the Perth described by HR Knickerbocker, of the Perth my father remembered when he was on leave in “smudgy” Melbourne and the Perth of my mother’s stories.

But I was writing fiction, not history, and so I had to scatter my research lightly in the novels. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of including what I call “Wikipedia moments” in my books, where information has been dumped on the reader to prove that research has been done.

Conclusion

More than any other capital city in Australia, I think that Perth has changed beyond recognition in the last seventy years. In my novels I wanted to evoke a sense of the Perth of the early 1940s, and a sense of a city at war. I wanted to reconstruct what has gone, both in the landscape my characters inhabited, but also in the way they lived and behaved. I wanted the characters I placed into the landscape of wartime Perth to behave as people of their time, not as contemporary creatures moving awkwardly around in a lovingly recreated theatrical set, with their twenty-first century sensibilities intact.

And yet, although the characters needed to engage with their landscape as accurately as possible, they had to do so in a way that would be of interest to readers in 2013. And that is possibly the most difficult part of writing historical fiction – balancing historical plausibility with an engaging story.

I suppose my ultimate aim in researching the period so intensively, was to paint a picture of wartime Perth that was so believable that the reader would simply accept it without thinking too much about it. To ensure that the landscape of the past that I’d spent so much time so lovingly recreating would not be an end in itself, but rather an essential backdrop to the mystery stories I had created. 

[1] Dorothy Hewitt, quoted in Joanna Penglase and David Horner, When the War Came to Australia (1992), p.205.

[2] J. B. Williams, War Diary.

[3] The West Australian 13 March 1942: “Perth in Wartime. ‘This delightful City.’ American Writer’s Comment.”