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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Fremantle Impressions review

This review is currently awaiting publication by January Magazine. January Magazine has quite a big backlog of my reviews and I have kept the publicity folk at Fremantle Press waiting a while, so I thought I'd publish it first, till JM has the time.

FREMANTLE IMPRESSIONS By Ron Davidson. Published by Fremantle Press

The port of Fremantle in Western Australia is old. Founded in 1829, it's actually older than Melbourne, which didn’t begin until 1835. It has been a centre of whaling, of imports and exports, it has had convicts and Aboriginal rebels and union strikes and has seen the foundation of business dynasties. In the 1980s, it was the site of the America’s Cup. This was the first time in many years that the Cup was won away from the US - won by a millionaire yachtsman who later lost his hero status in Australia when he was arrested for crooked business dealings.

“Impressions” is probably a good description of this book, written by journalist Ron Davidson, who has lived in the city most of his life. Although it begins with the early days of the colony, describing the characters who lived there at the time, and the place itself, this is not a history of Fremantle - not really. A history, even a local history, is usually in some sort of chronological order. This book is more of a stroll through town, from place to place, with comments on what has happened over the years in each spot.

First, the book’s positive aspects: Fremantle is a fascinating place, and this is made clear in the course of the literary wander around town. As well as its long-past history, the author interviews people who have their own memories of the place and what was happening during the historical events. Every second page is a beautiful sepia photo of Fremantle’s past.

Ron Davidson clearly loves his town. If you’re visiting a place as a tourist, it’s always good to learn something about it - and have something to take home, to remind you of your holiday. You don’t need to read about famous historical figures to get a feel for the past of any place. The lives of ordinary people tell you far more than battles and politics ever could. Even the notion of a stroll around town gives you the feeling of being there, with a guide.

The trouble is, if you actually do want to wander around Fremantle by yourself, and learn something about the various buildings and wharfs you pass, this book isn't going to be as helpful as it might be. There are no chapters, no themes and no index. If you want to find your way around, how do you do it if you can’t even look up the information about where you are? If you simply enjoy reading local history, it won’t help much either, as it doesn’t run in chronological order. Even chapter divisions with a theme for each would help - the history of a particular part of Fremantle, for example, or of an industry, or even a family dynasty.

If there is a new edition of this book, it really would be a good idea to give it an index, if nothing else. It’s too dense for a coffee table book - and too small in size anyway - but would come in handy as a self-guided tour book if the tourist could look up information about where he or she was. A current map would also be useful.

This is a good book, but could be better, with a better layout.

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