Lighthouses and I have history.
Well, maybe not actual lighthouses – unless you count my sole visit to the one on Bruny Island in Tasmania two years ago. No, I’m probably referring more to lighthouses I’ve seen in films or read about in books.
Last year I went along to a film called THE LIGHTHOUSE. (For the trivia buffs – an identically titled and similarly themed but otherwise completely different UK movie was made back in 2016). It starred Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. A lot of people were raving about it at the time but, putting it politely, I failed to see what all the fuss was about and said so in a post I named LOST IN THE FOG.
One of my most favorite episodes of the 1960’s television show Lost in Space was titled THE HAUNTED LIGHTHOUSE. I’ve heard so many amazing things about the Virginia Wolf penned 1927 novel TO THE LIGHTHOUSE I’m curious to read it.
Only last week I got speaking to a mad keen stamp-collector who used to visit lighthouses in the 70’s as part of his role working as a supplies clerk for the Australian Commonwealth Lighthouse Service.
And who could forget my quirk-filled short story PIANO MAN about two bickering lighthouse keepers? It got published back in 2018 in the less than prestigious, less than acclaimed but quite colorful BALLOONS LIT JOURNAL. Who could forget? Well, how about everyone, including me most days.
But all of this was mere finger food when compared to the banquet on offer in reading THE LAST LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER (2020).
To label this book one of the most enthralling reads I’ve enjoyed would be underselling it. More accurately this 352 page memoir is no less than an inspired, visceral and wholly transporting masterwork. Really.
John Cook spent twenty six years as one of Australia’s longest serving lighthouse keepers. In the 1960’s he was running a service station and picking up the pieces after a marriage breakup. Seeing an ad one day in the local newspaper, he applied for a position with the Australian Commonwealth Lighthouse Service. So began his decades long love affair with, as he describes it, “a life in the lights”.
The book centers chiefly with his time spent on two Tasmanian lighthouse islands, Tasman and Maatsuyker (the last spot between Australia and Antarctica) It ends with his transfer to a third, Bruny – the one I’ve visited – where he stayed on for another 15 years.
The presiding tone of the book is summarized on page 55 when the author, referring to his first posting on Tasman Island, notes – “Either people come here crazy or this place turns them that way”. He softens that statement in the very next sentence, however, when he adds – “But no more than the real world does”.
Craziness in a great many guises is laid forth in huge dollops on nearly all pages. From the monotony of weeks without fresh food before the supply ship would arrive to fisticuffs with fellow lighthouse keepers to removing your own rotten teeth with a wood punch because visiting a dentist is months away to the microscopic gaps in brickwork that, via howling winds, could turn a lighthouse into an oversized whistle and drive a person insane with the sound. It’s all here and more.
Speaking of wind, it’s fair to say the weather is the chief protagonist in this story. I never thought I’d be one given to frequent descriptions of nature – and this book has that in spades – but the degree to which the author makes use of a veritable slew of colorful phrases to immerse the reader in what it felt like to be alone in a concrete tower perched 300 metres above sea level battling the elements, leaves one little choice but to be swept along for the ride.
Here’s a sample of descriptions of battering winds taken from THE LAST LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER –
- wind so strong it flattens grass
- I could hear the windows rattling in their frames and the wind trying to curl the tin off the room.
- wind that felt like you were clinging to the wing of a jet
- wind strong enough to burst reinforced window panes and tear through doorframes
- I would place tissue paper in my ears to withstand the sound of the wind.
- I have never known anything like that wind. It sets your ears roaring and your face has to turn away or your stubble will be shaved off.
- The tower would literally sway in the 100 knot winds because if it didn’t it would snap.
- I followed my torch beam down the path. It was the only thing not moved by the wind.
- winds so cold they turn your hands bluish in their pockets
Early on the author quotes the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who advised that men really need only two things: love and work. There’s plenty of both amongst these pages. Love provides one of the narrative spines running through the book, interwoven with a mystery whose answer is only party provided at the end.
The many and varied work routines are also well catered for in descriptive passages throughout the memoir. In the days of manual lighthouses there were always tasks to perform, all without the benefit of power tools. From operating a kerosene pump to logging weather conditions and vessel sightings every half hour to polishing the prisms (what he calls the ‘enormous rotating jewel’) to gutters that needed fixing, grass that needed mowing and 44 gallon drums of fuel that needed hauling and refilling.
There are sad parts of the book as well, not least of those when John Cook documents the beginning stages of automation and de-manning of Australian lighthouses that commenced from the mid 1970’s. (The last manned lighthouse in Australia was the Maatsuyker Island Lighthouse in Tasmania, where the author worked for a time in the seventies. It was deactivated in 1996 and allowed to decay.)
The end of the life of tv reception-less isolation came in gradual stages for John Cook, beginning with the day a portable generator got delivered to the remote island he was residing on. He says he was tempted to damage it, so much did it represent to him the civilized world he enjoyed being apart from. “It was the shape of ruin to me” (p 295).
Another pre-cursor to the end was when the island got connected to the mainland by telephone. “94 years after the 1st telephone service in 1880 in Tasmania, Maatsuyker now had a telephone. The world was edging closer to my rock. I felt like we had lost our peace and privacy. In the months to come we would be inundated by fisherman and pilots ringing up wanting to know weather conditions; even surfies wanting to know swell heights” (p296).
When helicopters began to replace mail boats, Cook could see the writing on the wall. “I felt like I had fallen in love with a dying woman” (p296). The day he was lifted off Maatsuyker Island by helicopter for the final time, he says he cried.
When he arrived at his next and final posting – Bruny Island (more populated and connected to the mainland than his other more remote, more ‘pure’ locations – he recalls how he was surprised that he was now required to lock the tower. “It was not something we had to do on the other islands” (p319).
Cook observes in one of the closing chapters, “The ocean gets in your head and soaks your brain”. That is my experience of devouring this genuinely brilliant memoir.
Reading like a thriller in parts, secrets and mysteries are laid out like a trail of breadcrumbs throughout, ensuring the reader is well and truly strung along for the ride. There’s a heartfelt love story here as well. Exhilarating, profound and exquisitely written, probably the highest compliment you can pay a memoir once you’re done reading it is think to yourself – even if it’s only for a few brief moments – “I wish I’d lived that life”. That’s how I feel about THE LAST LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER .
Most people who’ve led amazing lives don’t suddenly transform into gifted writers when they decide it’s time to finally share their stories. Unless of course that individual happened to be a professional author to begin with, which lighthouse keeper John Cook wasn’t.
Credit must therefore go to the ‘ghostwriter’ who helped give form and life to this incredible memoir.
Jon Bauer is a UK based author who lived in Australia for 15 years. He is a qualified psychotherapist and is currently at work on his latest novel.