My latest novel Bellevue is set in a place that is dear to my heart – and a place dear to four generations of my family – the Blue Mountains National Park of New South Wales. Over the years we’ve had many family holidays in the Upper Blue Mountains, the generations shifting but all of us united by our love of bushwalking and the wilderness.
On one mountain holiday, when I was very young and out walking with my mother, we found an empty and rather dilapidated house on the edge of the village in which we were staying. Naturally we took the opportunity to wander around the garden and peer in the uncurtained windows, and we were both smitten. The house dated back to the late nineteenth century – old by Australian standards – and was not that far from the escarpment overlooking the Grose Valley, although concealed by eucalyptus trees.
The house was a single-story sandstone building with the wide and welcoming verandas front and back that were typical of rural properties of the past, and it stuck in my memory. I have to confess that I’ve often fantasised about old houses and perhaps that was why I chose architecture for my first degree.
Over the many years since my mother and I first visited that old mountain house, I’ve often revisited it in my mind, with my mother and maternal grandparents by my side, and fantasised about what it would have been like living there. My mother loved old houses as much as I did, unlike my father who was practical as far as houses went. He liked the new that required little maintenance, although with regard to the landscape, he had the soul of a poet. My parents later retired to this village and, after this, there were even more family visits to the mountains.
My new novel is a homage to the Blue Mountains and to the memory of my parents and maternal grandparents. Bellevue is a mystery too, as in it tightly-woven family secrets are unravelled while new community connections are created.
The Blue Mountains are a part of the Great Dividing Range separating the coastal fringe from the fertile western plains. They are a magical place, more ancient eroded plateau than mountain range. A place with glorious flora and fauna, and ancient Aboriginal paintings in caves whose location has not yet been fully mapped. A place where the terrain is so rugged that, as recently as 1994, a previously unknown and ancient tree was found, only 150 kms from Sydney. This tree was from an evolutionary line thought to be long extinct – the Wollemi Pine.
The story that is at Bellevue’s heart takes place in 1972, at a time when development and construction activities were threatening natural environments, even those zoned as national parks. Anything was possible and indeed it still is. To powerful interests, little seemed worth conserving.
The early 1970s were a time when Australia was changing dramatically. That period saw the resurgence of the feminist movement in Australia. The end of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The early 1970s were also the time when ‘green bans’ – an innovative form of environmental activism initiated by the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) – began to emerge in Sydney. The first green ban was an alliance between the BLF and a residents’ action group of middle-class women who became known as the Battlers for Kelly’s Bush. Together they succeeded in preventing the development of parkland bordering Sydney Harbour. And from this first green ban, the term ‘greenie’ is said to arise.
People often ask me about the inspiration for my novels. For Bellevue, my response is simple: green bans, strong women, and the Blue Mountains. Bellevue is about a feisty widow – one of the Battlers for Kelly’s Bush – who inherits a dilapidated old house near a mountain wilderness, and who confronts her family’s past while she struggles to protect her inheritance and her community.
Although Bellevue is historical fiction, its themes have strong contemporary resonance. They focus on environmental and conservation issues, displacement from home, seeking a safe place, and caring for future generations.
Regulatory control over the natural and built environment has expanded since the early 1970s. An important development in Australia was the addition of the Greater Blue Mountains area to the World Heritage List, and in 2000 the Greater Blue Mountains became a UNESCO World Heritage Area. But that doesn’t mean that their preservation is guaranteed.
While laws have been established to prevent wholesale destruction of our environmental and cultural heritage, there is evidence that in some places these are now being weakened or ignored altogether. Moreover, restrictions on protesters’ rights and regulatory control of environmental activism have increased since the early 1970s.
In what many people view as an assault on democracy, a number of countries are increasingly restricting protesters’ rights. Criminalising peaceful environmental protests and altering the definition of lawful dissent do not seem appropriate ways to save our environmental heritage.