Tim Winton Essay, Fremantle Herald - 30 November 2002

Birds at the Windscreen

some thoughts on civic progress

2002 was a weird year for me. Looking back I see that I spent more energy being an activist than I did as a novelist. Once upon a time I would never have let this happen. Somehow I used up all my passion on a coral reef a good twelve hours' drive from where I live in Freo. I've been to endless meetings, met politicians and planners and business people, helped organize stunts and write begging letters, worn t-shirts with slogans all over them and spent hours with people in committees. This short, sharp and sometimes shocking education in public affairs has confirmed that I don't really have what it takes to be a stirrer. But that's not to say I've regretted the experience. In fact it's recharged my hope in people and the sense of community service I once thought was lost to our culture.

Some days, being a part of the Save Ningaloo campaign has been like life as an extra in the movie, 'The Castle'. Except we're in no way assured of a happy ending. The little Aussie battler of that film wins out against the rich and powerful. In real life the forces of money and influence are much tougher to beat.
So why even try? Why bother? People on the street in Fremantle have asked me this very question. Even some of those who wish the campaign well have a feeling that the cause is hopeless. 'This is W.A.' somebody told me. 'Haven't you lived here all your life? Don't you know how things work in this state?'
And I have to admit that I understand what they mean.

I know how things used to work in W.A. I came of age in the 1980's when the popular view was that the West could do no wrong, but as a young man the overwhelming feeling I had was of an accelerating sense of loss: lost neighbourhoods, ecosystems, standards of public accountability, public buildings, ways of life. I observed the sheer weight of loss that Australians became inured to, the acquiescence with which we greeted change for the worse as though there was some godly inevitability in it. Australians lapsed into a cynical passivity, the defeatism that makes someone say 'why bother'. I don't share that cynicism but I understand where it comes from.

I grew up in Scarborough, a colony of holiday shacks that gradually grew into a lower-middle-class community with modest housing and an easygoing atmosphere. Like all Western Australians we were absurdly proud of our broad white beaches and unpretentious coastal culture. We justly celebrated the absence of high-rise development and the establishment of bush reserves in the dunes to our south and north. But all that was before Alan Bond and W.A. Inc.

Perth has always seemed something of a closed shop, a clubby town as isolated provincial cities can be. It's difficult to know how much mediocrity is settled for and how much is required in order to prosper in such a place. Either way, despite its many virtues, the city has always been fertile ground for the defensive and the unexceptional. The 80's, though, brought a new twist. The traditional league of gentlemen who ran the place from the Terrace was shoved aside by the new school of spivs. Hucksters, salesmen, entrepreneurs, call them what you will. Suddenly government was in business and business was in government. It was a giddy ride. Lots of exciting things happened. But in the aftermath the State was all but economically and morally bankrupt. The irony is that this took place under a Labour government. Not only that, the cabinet was probably the most talented in memory. Some of them are back in the job.
The era cost some people their reputations. For those of us from Scarborough, however, it felt that the 80's cost us our neighbourhood. When Australia II won the America's Cup we were as pleased as anybody until we realized what Alan Bond had in mind for our beach and our suburb. Part of his scheme involved a twenty storey hotel complex on Scarborough Beach from which the wealthy could observe the historic doings at sea. We thought he was dreaming. We'd grown up believing that local council regulations forbade high-rise development. And on paper they did. Nevertheless, Observation City was approved and built in short order. We watched, slack-jawed as it went up around us.

Nobody's ever safely established just what it took for Alan Bond to get that tower up. But in the atmosphere of hysteria and bluster that prevailed, somehow an exception was made. Just for Bondy. Locals were shut out of the process and we never stood a chance of holding out against it. All Sandgropers were equal of course, but it seemed that the rich were more equal than others. Some soul daubed the slogan - BONDY'S REWARD - on the hoardings as foundations were laid. Later a bomb went off at the construction site without much damage. Signals of impotence.

The edifice rose to cast its shadow across beach and streets. Our local pub, the Scarborough, somewhere you could sprawl on the buffalo grass in your board shorts and sandy feet to watch the waves at day's end, was demolished to make way for a wall of condos that completed the job of sealing off the people of Scarborough from their beach. After growing up where you could jog down with a surfboard before school and stand on the hill to check the state of the ocean, the effect of all that obscuring steel and concrete was devastating. Beautiful one day, Queensland the next. The car parks I learnt to drive in, the little shops and modest low-rise I took for granted as my neighbourhood were gone. The tower's new pub and cafes had dress regulations that favoured yuppies. We were left in the shadows, out in the cold. All of this was galling but it was the physical exclusion from the sea that hurt most.

Scarborough became condo city. Houses made way for high density infill to give speculators more bang for their buck. As a result its population became more transient. My old school was recently demolished to make way for a luxury subdivision, Ocean Rise. My family moved away. I go back for a surf now and then but it's painful with that great monument to ego and excess always at the corner of your eye.
The decade of greed imploded on itself. Some people shot through, some died. A few went to jail. There was a Royal Commission of course and an outbreak of amnesia. The dust settled fuzzily across the past. Yet that building is still the most visible structure for twenty kilometres along the coast. It was by no means the biggest outrage of the time but it's the closest one to my heart and it serves as a bitter reminder of a period that caused many ordinary citizens to lose faith in the processes of government and commerce.

The Scarborough experience and dozens like it bred a terrible cynicism in people of my generation. The scars of that time are healing but there are more than a few ghosts still to be set to rest.
During the W.A. Inc. years I was writing a novel that had its roots in family mythology. Listening to my parents and grandparents' talk about their lives, I noticed that the settings of most of their stories no longer existed. Whole swathes of Perth - the Georgian architecture of St Georges Terrace, the army barracks, the Embassy Ballroom where my parents met, the river foreshore from Como to Canning Bridge - were lost beneath ugly glass boxes and sprawling freeways. What the 60's hadn't accounted for with bulldozer and wrecking ball, the 80's saw off. I became fascinated by all these gaps and absences. I could find few of the places sacred to family memory.

Perth's provincial insecurity is probably part of Australia's old self-doubt, the cultural cringe. What deep anxiety requires a city to wreck itself anew every twenty years, what fear of time and memory? 'Notice me!' Perth shouted like a younger sibling. 'But wait, there's more!' Sadly there was often less than met the eye. In the 80's we mistook glitter for gold.

The novel I was working on in those years was Cloudstreet. I suppose it became something of a hymn to a city I never knew except through other people's memories. In the absence of so many places I was forced to reinvent it for myself. At a time when battlers were shunned in favour of the glamour set I found myself writing about the humblest sorts of Western Australians. I won a scholarship and spent the better part of two years abroad. In Paris and Rome, the lost Perth I was writing about became more haunting from sheer contrast. Parisians live in more or less the same physical city as their great-great grandparents. Continuity produces confidence and a shared legacy - civilization. And there I was, fresh from a town I could barely recognize from my own parents' time. In Paris I walked every morning past a house where Mozart had lived. In Shenton Park and Belmont my grandparents' homes are bulldozed already. Even my childhood suburb has been and gone. Ours is a provisional culture obsessed with the short term. Neighbourhoods, home country - they're all just real estate now.

I didn't write Cloudstreet from nostalgia because you can't get sentimental about what you never knew. I wrote out of a sense of diminution, an ache of absence. It was a gesture after the fact, a catalogue of shared losses. The process of writing didn't recover anything for anyone - it didn't stop reckless development or save any neighbourhood - but it confirmed my belief in sacred places. Years later when the book was adapted for theatre I sat in the Endeavour Boatshed with hundreds of others and sensed that maybe we all felt something like that. People's histories become entwined in buildings, parks, and neighbourhoods and not to honour that deep connection is to risk contempt for the physical world and the ordinary citizen's relation to it. Such contempt and many other forms of civic contempt lay at the heart of the excesses of the 1980's. Still, the state has moved on. Witness the return of Australia II and the public building that houses it here in Freo. For me, one troubling symbol has been transformed by another. The new museum has a simple beauty, a connection to place and a sensitivity to the human past that does its creators great credit. Clearly lessons have been learnt in W.A. But a few hangovers remain. The resort proposal at Maud's Landing is one of them. Maybe it seemed like a good idea in 1986, but most of us have moved on since then.

My agitation on behalf of Ningaloo comes from a personal love of the reef. But it also comes from a determination not to see history repeated. With the behemoth of the resort on their horizon I know too well what the people of Coral Bay and Exmouth are feeling. I know why they don't want it. I also know that it's frightening going up against a well-connected corporation. So why do I bother? Because doing nothing is the only guarantee of failure. Moaning and doing nothing is just trendy cynicism; it's also a kind of subservience to the powerful that would sicken our forebears. It's a passive acceptance of loss. The reef and its people deserve something better. They need mass support.

That's why I'm part of the campaign. Because another novel eulogizing lost lifestyles, lost species and lost jobs will not do. In situations like this my art just won't cut it but my actions as a volunteer may help.
Might and money are not on our side. But passion is. Informed, organized and alert, ordinary citizens can produce enough heat and light to see justice done. To prick the conscience of politicians and remind them who they represent. Just think of Leighton. Think of the forests. Think of those hardy souls who saved most of historic Freo from the bulldozer. That volunteer spirit lives on. I feel lucky to have encountered it this past year. The profit motive does not rule unchallenged. People still band together for mere principle. For others. For their natural heritage. All over the place, mostly unsung, there are humans helping each other for nothing, standing together against the odds, armed with little more than a fiercely beating heart.
Tens of thousands of us have rallied for Ningaloo. The E.P.A. has recommended against the resort but without conviction. It's given a hospital handpass to the Gallop government which has reserved its decision for six months. The West Australian seems to have come out in favour of the resort and the developers are crowing. Now the government must decide between the past and the future. Old habits or new hopes. I think a decision in favour of the white shoe boys will be a sign that nothing much has changed in W.A. since the bad old days.

Driving home from a day of gruelling meetings recently, tired and in low spirits, I stopped at traffic lights and noticed a magpie hurling itself against the windscreen of a Landcruiser beside me. The driver seemed startled at first, then amused. But as the bird persisted, fluttering, scratching, pecking at the shiny glass, it seemed to me that they began to look intimidated. $60,000 worth of steel and glass wasn't enough to make them secure from this bird. When the lights changed, the flustered driver stalled amid a chorus of horns. The bird kept at it undeterred and I lingered a moment to watch. It was like a moment of grace, the sort that keeps you going.

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