Shepparton, Victoria. 1971 (and 2021)

Oh it’s-a lonesome away from your kindred and all

Liz and I were lying on the seagrass matting amid a pile of purple cushions, sipping  red wine and listening to Lou Reed at full volume. This is the life, I thought, as I pushed aside any lingering doubts about living away from my family. I had moved to Mooroopna, a small town near Shepparton, a week ago and was looking forward to starting teaching the next day.

Now the publican’s anxious for the quota to come

It didn’t take long to settle into a routine as the social life revolved around the local Shepparton pubs. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights we played squash or tennis, prepared lessons, washed our hair, cooked dinner and listened to music. On Thursday nights everyone – the female teachers and the local males – went to the Overlander; on Fridays we went to The Victoria; on Saturdays we caught up at the Big Valley for a drink and a flirt; and on Sundays we went to The GV, drank beer or Cinzano and danced to visiting bands such as Johnny O’Keefe and Billy Thorpe.

Sometimes we went to the Royal Mail in Mooroopna for a cheap counter meal and on special occasions we dressed up and went to the Park Lake where we ordered carpetbag steak – a huge piece of beef stuffed with oysters – and drank Mateus Rose. The publicans didn’t need to worry about their quotas.

Then the stockman rides up with his dry dusty throat

Dicko wasn’t a stockman. He was the son of an orchardist. Taller than I was, blond, slightly suntanned, he usually wore pale moleskin trousers, plain shirt and tie and a hounds-tooth jacket. He was extremely polite and considerate and a little nervous at first. After a hard day working on the orchard, Dicko looked forward to the pub routine especially in February, he told me, when the influx of new teachers came to town. He soon checked out this city girl as she cautiously experimented with her new-found freedoms.

Then the swaggie comes in smothered in dust and flies

Dicko’s friend Chris was going out with Liz. The four of us played tennis, swam in the Goulburn River, water skied, watched the footy, had bush barbies and enjoyed outdoor country life. One day Dicko took me to his orchard. Rows and rows of peach and pear trees were being pruned, soil turned and readied for replanting. It was hot, noisy and dusty. The flies stuck to my wet face and tried to get into my mouth. I understood then why Dicko wore his Akubra with the brim pulled low and a bit of netting hanging down to his shoulders.

It’s no place for a dog ’round a pub with no beer

Dicko invited me to a concert at the Mooroopna Mechanics Institute. On a Sunday night. To see Slim Dusty. I had heard and rejected Slim and his music. It was definitely not for a girl who had grown up with the Top 100 Hits blaring from the transistor radio that was glued to her ear, and spent smoky nights at Thumping Tum and Bertie’s dancing to Max Merritt, The Loved Ones and The Twilights. Slim Dusty!

As we wended our way between a mass of utes parked untidily around the hall and tripped over dogs lying idly in the doorway, I smiled at the conservative outfits and tugged down the hem of my mini skirt to make it more respectable. I sat quietly beside an unusually excited Dicko and let myself go into the music. Slim was easy to listen to. Accompanied by guitars and drums he sang, in what was for me an unfamiliar slang, about places and experiences that resonated with his fans. They sang, clapped, tapped their feet and sat in slightly teary silence as memories and emotions flowed. I, too, was overwhelmed and wandered outside in a daze to share some of this with Dicko.

Then we grew apart, as happens in young relationships.

Why he’s gone home cold sober to his darling wife

I recently found a video of Slim singing his most famous song, his anthem for those in outback Australia, A Pub With No Beer. It was filmed at Broken Hill and shows hot, dusty swarms of people arriving in enormous utes and trucks. Dressed in jeans, check shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, boots and signature Akubra, he walks quietly onto the open stage and sings a bracket of old familiar numbers. As the applause dies down Slim’s wife, singer-songwriter Joy McKean, joins him and they sing the nostalgic Walk a Country Mile. The crowd bursts into a swirl of laughing, singing and dancing. He’s one of us they claim.

Oh it’s hard to believe that there’s customers still

And now the pubs are closed because of COVID and lockdown. The virus storms through Shepparton wreaking havoc on all it touches. Exhausted medical staff are over-run, locals are unable to get food or drink and an isolated and quarantined community is trying desperately to protect its vulnerable indigenous and multi-cultural communities. Customers dream of a beer at their old haunts and pub owners wait for permission to open their doors.

Stereo Story #615

See also Stephen Andrew’s story about appreciating Slim Dusty, and country music, despite initial doubts.

Music has played a big part in my life. I've enjoyed playing, singing, dancing, listening. I sing in a choir, have played Javanese gamelan for over 25 years and have a blog on Indonesian Keroncong music: https://keroncongsolo.wordpress.com/