We're in the North Gregory Hotel, the beating heart of the Central West Queensland town of Winton, and Dame Quentin Bryce has chanced upon a group of tourists who have gathered for a sing-song around the piano in the foyer. The song sheet of course is for Waltzing Matilda. This song is part of the fabric of what I soon realise is an extraordinary town.
Banjo Paterson wrote Waltzing Matilda in nearby Dagworth Station and the first public performance of the people's national anthem was made here at this hotel in Winton's main street on April 6, 1895. Naturally Quentin can't help but join in. Out here in the wide open spaces amid the warmth and dry humour of the country people, she feels completely at home. Quentin was raised in the tiny town of Ilfracombe, the other side of Longreach, and says her country childhood made her who she is today.
"My heart really does belong to the bush. It had such an influence on me, it gave me a sense of identity, a sense of happiness," she explains.
Winton is special to the former Governor-General. She wanted to bring The Weekly here for our July issue celebrating rural Australia, because in many ways it is the birthplace of her family.
When Quentin's mum Naida taught in the school here, she met her dad, Norman Strachan, who ran the local wool scours, and a wonderful romance ignited.
As we arrive in Winton the country is brown, dusty, sunburnt and battling a seven-year drought, but it is nevertheless achingly beautiful.
"Mum loved Winton. When she spoke about her years out in the central west, it was Winton that had a deep appeal to her," says Quentin, now a 75-year-old grandmother of 12. "She spoke particularly as she got older, when we had time to reminisce and look at photographs, sit and talk together. And her enjoyment of this town and her years here, held very happy memories for her. The hotel we've been staying in, the North Gregory Hotel, it was certainly part of them."
Quentin has a terrific photo of her mum, statuesque and all dressed up like a fashion model in hat and gloves with her dad in a smart suit, the handsome couple, seemingly immune to the punishing heat, on their way to the races.
"There were lovely balls and race meetings," says Quentin. "When you look at the photographs of that time you see how beautifully dressed people were. It was a very prosperous place, particularly during the height of the wool industry. When my father was managing the wool scours at Edkins Marsh, heading up a lot of the western and north-western towns, Australia was riding on the sheep's back. Everybody reminisces about the times when wool was a pound a pound. My sisters and I think we all have this smell of lanoline in our noses."
"It was in 1919 that my dad came out to the west," she explains. "He'd been a Sydney boy and was a lifesaver at Austinmer, a beautiful beach near Wollongong. He rescued a child whose family then offered to train him in the wool industry. That's how he got into the profession."
"My parents loved the west and the north-west, and you see in conversations here the way everybody's connected somehow. People also still have time for conversation and time for each other. Of course, their lives have got busier, but I know how important the friendships they made in the early years of their marriage and the formation of our family are; enduring friendships, as you do when you depend on each other."
"I can see my mother in her nineties now, on the phone talking to old friends when she could no longer get to see them. The days of those trunk calls, 'it's 3 minutes, are you extending?'"
"Country people make their own fun and they have the most wonderful sense of humour," explains Quentin. "Mum played the piano, Dad played the violin and we would all sing Australian songs around the piano. My mother would play waltzes and I would dance standing on my father's feet as he twirled me round. I remember how my father used to whistle. He was very tall and handsome and had four adoring daughters."
Ever since we have arrived in Winton people rush up to talk to Quentin, in the local store, at the air strip, out on the land. "I think they like to claim her as one of their own like she's a local girl," explains John Elliott, the Tourism Officer for Winton Shire Council who is currently busy planning a back lot for film companies from America and Japan to shoot in this extraordinary landscape.
"Quentin grew up down the road and even the rough and tough country people think she's one of us. Country people are harsh judges but they know that she is fair dinkum and I think that counts."
The full story of Dame Quentin Bryce's visit to Winton and the pleasures and pains of her country childhood is in the July issue of The Australian Women's Weekly, on sale now.
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