Tall Stories is the third book by Michael Duffy to feature the Blue Mountains as its subject. The Problem with Murder and The Strange Death of Paul Ruel, the first two novels in his Bella Greaves series, are detective stories steeped in the locations and community of the Blue Mountains. Tall Stories is a collection of stories and anecdotes based upon the area and its history. Some of the titbits of information in Tall Stories appear in Duffy’s Bella Greaves novels, like the story about the Osborne Ladies College, run as a kind of Naval Academy for young girls in Blackheath by the eccentric Violet Gibbons, or the abandoned plans of Oswald Ziegler to carve massive images of Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson – the explorers who found a way across the Blue Mountains – into the cliffs overlooking the Grose Valley, like an Australian Mount Rushmore. Like Duffy’s Bella Greaves novels, Tall Stories is only sold in Blue Mountains bookshops. But you can also acquire a copy from orphanrock.com, which means that if you live in India or America or somewhere else, you can still acquire a copy!
The thing you have to understand, if you don’t live in the mountains or come from Sydney, is that the Blue Mountains have a special place in a lot of people’s hearts. The Mountains are intimately connected with the history of the early colony. Their rugged landscape and proximity to Sydney made them a popular destination for tourists when distant travel was more difficult in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And while their popularity waned for a time, recent years have seen their resurgence. What Sydneysiders call the Blue Mountains is actually a part of the Great Dividing Range which stretches from Queensland all the way into Victoria. But the term is mainly reserved for townships that sit atop the ridge upon which the highway and railway run, east from Penrith, and westward towards Hartley and Lithgow, along with the bush surrounding them.
If you live in this area you are likely to know some special locations, as well as some of the stories associated with them. Duffy’s book describes a lot of these places and also dispels some of the myths that have become a part of the popular culture of the mountains. For instance, he mounts a reasonable argument that an Aboriginal myth associated with the Three Sisters – a famous rock formation and tourist attraction at Katoomba – cannot be linked to any actual Aboriginal myths: and that William Govett was not a bushranger but a surveyor, so he did not leap with his horse from Govett’s Leap, a tall thin waterfall outside of Blackheath, to escape pursuing police. The ‘Leap’ in the name, Duffy explains, comes from the Scottish word meaning ‘waterfall’. This kind of thing, he points out, has helped to make the place more interesting for tourists. It’s also pretty common. At Bull’s Camp, just up the highway from where I live (this story is not told by Duffy) there is some open ground now used by campers, which was once used as a stockpile area for the construction of the colony road across the mountains. Years ago I looked at this area and the stories associated with it. On the edge of Bull’s camp is a sloping rock with striations carved uniformly parallel into the sandstone. One story had it that this was (somehow) used as a flogging stone, the striations presumably carved for the blood to run away(?). It’s a gruesome detail that connects us with convict experience. Except that the grooves are cut horizontally, and they were more likely to have had other purposes. Two possibilities come to mind: to substitute the roack as a washer board for washing clothes; or to create a more tractable surface on the potentially slippery rock: details which are more prosaic and less interesting. The same goes for Caley’s Repulse in Linden, which is a mound of stones meant to represent the extreme limit of George Caley’s explorations. The mound has nothing to do with Caley. It is not even anywhere near where he explored.
Despite these little lapses, the mountains do have an interesting cultural history dating all the way back before White settlement, and Duffy’s intent is to, “to look at the other side of the Mountains, the human one”. As such, Duffy traces human occupation in the area from the period before white settlement when Aboriginal people were active in some parts of the mountains, to the exploration and settlement of the area, and in turn marking the landscape with a European character through the introduction of European gardens and architecture. There is a general logic to the book, walking us through the history of the mountains in a roughly east to west movement, beginning in the lower Mountains above the plains of Sydney, all the way to Blackheath and Mt Victoria in the upper-Mountains, and beyond. There is also a temporal movement, from the period of Aboriginals to more recent history. Some of the history, like the building of the railway, I’ve read about before. You can still see the original gatekeeper’s cottages built in 1867 as the railway was being constructed, sitting right next to the train tracks, now. There is even an old railway platform in Lapstone that was built for the convenience of a local politician when the railway still ascended from the plains in zig zags up the hill. When the Glenbrook tunnel was built the zig-zag railway at Lapstone was abandoned. Arthur Streeton, an artist, painted a scene of the construction of the tunnel which now resides in the Art Museum of New South Wales. We went to the gallery to visit the painting as I was reading this book.
There’s a lot to see and know about in the Blue Mountains, particularly if you’re a local. But even if you’re a local, you may be less familiar with some aspects of its history. Like the Woodford Academy, the oldest building in the Blue Mountains. I’ve often passed it and known that it was used as a school, but had never looked into it. Duffy gives a brief account of its history as an inn, then as a country house owned by Alfred Fairfax (whose family owned the Sydney Morning Herald), then as a private hospital, before it finally became school for boys. There are also less salubrious stories told about the Catholic School a few kilometres north of where I live. I found the grotto used by the school while bushwalking over ten years ago and wondered what it had been used for. Duffy puts it into the context of the repressive school system run at St Columba’s school in its earlier days.
Then there is the story of Norman Lindsay whose house is now a museum in Faulconbridge. If you’ve ever seen the movie Sirens with Hugh Grant, Sam Neill and Elle Macpherson, then you might be interested to know it was filmed at Lindsay’s home. Lindsay was an artist who liked to paint nudes. Duffy rather humorously notes that he counted 644 breasts as he toured the museum (“someone had to do it” he quips) but he is not explicit as to whether these are pairs or single breasts. I would like to know. I would also add that Lindsay wrote The Magic Pudding, a children’s story, which is now often used by politicians as a metaphor to describe the profligate spending of their opponents.
Duffy has stories that cover serial killers in the mountains (there have been a few), tragic accidents, the lure of the mountains to those considering harm to themselves (or others), some racy anecdotes about the Hydro Majestic (an impressive hotel sitting on the cliffs in the upper mountains), sad stories about the treatment of Aboriginal people, stories about missing people, ghost stories, and he even makes the history of some of the Blue Mountains’ gardens interesting to read.
I was particularly interested to read about some of the mining operations in the mountains. There have been coal and shale mining operations in areas now owned by National Parks, such as in the Jamison Valley beneath Katoomba, as well as farther afield in Newnes where members of my own family worked at the turn of last century. The valley next to the Jamison, the Megalong Valley, also hosted mining operations, and Duffy tells how shale was transported through tunnels dug through Narrow Neck, a plateau dividing the two valleys, to get it back to Katoomba more efficiently. For those interested I’ve included two videos I made years ago for other purposes. The first shows an expedition that a friend and I undertook to find one of these tunnels. The second is a bicycle ride from Blackheath into the Megalong Valley. It gives a good sense of the changing vegetation as you descend into the valley, and demonstrates what Duffy often talks about, that those who live in the Mountains on top of its ridge, are used to looking down into valleys rather than up. By the end of the ride, having descended into the valley, you can see the cliffs of the ridge upon which Mountains towns are situated.
Duffy is able to cast his net quite wide across a range of topics, because the intention of this book is not to be an academic study, but an entertaining read, covering most subjects that locals and tourists might encounter or be interested in. After all, the purpose of a book like this is to be interesting; to pique our curiosity and be just a little bit gossipy. I can imagine tourists visiting the mountains, buying this book while here, and flipping through it during their stay: maybe reading it from beginning to end like I did, or perhaps dipping into subjects as they seem interesting or relevant to where they’ve been.
Apart from that, the book, which is beautifully presented, makes a nice souvenir. The cover artwork by Rui Ricardo suggests an Art Decco style, which is appropriate for the older-world feel of parts of the Mountains, and the scene is a wonderful pastiche of well-known Mountains locations. Inside, Duffy has chosen engravings from The Picturesque Atlas of Australasia to illustrate the book. They capture a sense of that old world which the mountains still clings to. I’ve included a few of these images used by Duffy in the sidebar to the right, scanned from my own copy of the book.
The whole production of Tall Stories – the look of the book and its writing – makes Duffy’s love of the area and his interest in his subject evident. This is a quick, light read, but readers will come away feeling like they know more about the Blue Mountains – even that they have a sense of them.