NOT every town has an easily discernible character, but every town has its easily discernible characters.
The Norfolk pines could be the way people remember Warrnambool, the river wharves at Echuca, Swan Hill perhaps the Pioneer Settlement and the spectacular Sound and Light show, but for many towns there isn't much that identifies them enough to put them into your memory.
But even the smallest place will have its characters, the people who, for whatever reason, do something particularly theirs.
Every time I return from Bendigo, I stop at the Four Posts Hotel for a beer. I have explained that I do this as my way of voting for supporting country pubs. Max is always there, seated at the round corner of the bar, nursing his beer. We always have a chat. Last time I stopped he's proud that he is now second in the local footy tipping contest, having picked all the winners the previous week, no mean feat considering the topsy turvy nature of results this year.
Swan Hill, being much bigger, has far more characters. One reason I enjoy life here is because I've been lucky to know quite a few. Two personal stories.
I first met Corado Sirolli at a parents-teacher day. He was a bit unhappy with my teaching method. His daughter was in my Year 12 Geography class, and she worried because I wasn't giving her neatly packaged answers.
I explained that at senior level, it was important to be given questions rather than answers. Independence of mind and capacity to work through problems was far more important than rote learning. He accepted this approach (and following that, his daughter started to develop as a student.)
We chatted a bit, I asked after his family, was told their names, including a son called Manrico. I replied, "As in Verdi's Il Trovatore." That was it. I was home and hosed. Jill and I were invited to dinner.
Eat! It was a feast even by hospitable Italian standards. Gina was a superb cook – and this first time, she didn't eat with us. She was too busy in the kitchen. That started the wonderful swapping of invitations; they to us, us to them, and so on. We learnt not to eat lunch when we went there for dinner.
At one of the evenings at our place, they told us they had both been trained in their respective church choirs in Italy.
They decided to sing the Hebrew Slaves Chorus from Verdi's Nabucco. It had become the musical rallying point of Italians protesting for their independence from their Austrian overlords. Beautiful and moving chorus with a strong emotional appeal to Italians remembering their history and eventual liberation following the Risorgimento.
Gina and Corado's voices had lost their youthful spring, but being trained choristers, they knew how to hold a tune.
It was one of those calm, gently warm summer evenings, there was wine and food, every thing was at peace. Their voices gently rose, entwining between the trees into the accepting sky. It was magic. And we were in it.
Bruce Jones is another one whose company was always welcomed.
One time we went to the Sydney Art Biennale. One night we were in a crowded restaurant. We were talking about Swan Hill, and he mentioned that he had long association with the Theatre group, which, of course, I knew. Bruce: "Do you know that I can turn on any emotion you want at any time". He said this in a rather challenging manner, so I said, just for the sake of it, "Be sad."
He looked at me for a few seconds, and gradually started to pucker up. A gentle sniff, a lowering of head, sucking at his lips. It was a lovely piece of controlled release of emotion, subtle, nothing rushed. The shoulders drooped. The sniff became audible.
A couple on the next table noticed him and started to pay attention. That started more on the table to look.
Bruce suddenly having gained an audience was too good to miss. I started to make up a story along the lines of; "You don't have to be sad. All right, your mistress has left you, but for heaven's sake, it's not the first time. And I know Brenda shot your dog, but it survived and she said it was an accident, she was sorry, perhaps overdid it a bit, and she did pay the vet's bill. Time to move on."
More sobbing from Bruce. Other tables stopped eating. It was Fifty Shades Of Grey with a dash of Peyton Place and Days Of Our Lives (unexpurgated).
Me: "And you always seem to get a new one. Don't know how you do it, but you do. Remember what happened with Rebecca? You've had enough mistresses to know that."
Bruce's sobs become louder, his demeanour more dejected. More at the next table were stopping eating and talking amongst themselves. "And isn't Brenda is having an affair with Harry - but she's being discreet; I think. Have you and Brenda ever gone in for threesomes? Or foursomes?"
Bruce by this time was close to in full flood of dissolving and we definitely had strong attention from the by now agog nearby tables.
Then I made a mistake.
I made a consoling, "You can stop now."
Bruce thought I meant to stop the acting, whereas what I should have said is something like, "There, there. You can calm down and we'll talk it out," giving scope for Bruce to do some improvising.
So, stop he did, straight away, picking up his knife and fork and reverting to the start as though nothing had happened.
I cursed my sloppy instruction, because I reckon we could have given the diners something juicy to take home and talk about, e.g. "You should have seen and heard what we did last night at . . . Restaurant."
Isn't it good to have friends, particularly if they're characters?
Words of wisdom by EM Forster: "If I had to choose between my friends and my country, I hope I would have the guts to choose my friends."
ADDENDUM:Bruce's real wife Joy agreed with and gave me permission to write the above true story. Part of the pleasure of having Joy and Bruce as friends was to be in the company of such a happily married couple.