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The Last Lighthouse Keeper: A Memoir

John Cook Jon Bauer

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Allen & Unwin
01 July 2020
Biography; Autobiography: general; Memoirs; Navigation & seamanship; Ships & shipping: general interest
In Tasmania, John Cook is known as: 'The Keeper of the Flame'. John's renowned as one of the last of the kerosene keepers : he spent a good part of his 26-year career in Tasmanian lighthouses tending kerosene, not electrical, lamps. He joined the lighthouse service in 1969, after a spell in the merchant marine. Far from reviling work on isolated islands such as Tasman and Maatsuyker, Australia's southernmost lighthouse, he discovered that he loved the solitude and delighted in the sense of purpose that light keeping gave him. He did two stints on Tasman, in 1969-71 and 1977, and was the head keeper on Maatsuyker for eight years.

Tasman's kerosene light was a pressure lamp fuelled by two big bottles that had to be pumped up to 75 pounds per square inch (about 516 kilopascals): It was the equivalent of pumping up a tyre every 20 minutes, John says. Then you had to wind up the weights - they went down the tower and turned the prism around like a big clockwork. If the weights went all the way to the bottom, the light would stop.

The main thing was that 365 nights of the year you sat in that tower, 100 feet up, and you had to stay awake, John says of Tasman. If you fell asleep the light would stop and then you were in trouble.

Keepers took watches around the clock, in a system similar to that on a ship. Day watches weren't a chance to slack off: standing orders required the watchkeeper to look seawards at least every half-hour and to log sightings of any vessels, and their course, in the area. But the main thing was there was always maintenance to do, John says. Because Mother Nature was your boss. She'd blow gutters off, that sort of thing - she was always stickin' her bib in, and you were repairin' it.

Tasman keepers also ran a herd of up to 500 sheep. They didn't have a freezer, so they'd kill and dress a sheep every fortnight. John supplemented his bulk stores, delivered every three months by the lighthouse supply vessel, with extras brought on the bi-monthly mail boat, and by keeping chooks, ducks and turkeys. I never ran out of things to do, he says. In my free time I used to do correspondence courses - I did navigation, diesel mechanics, business management and accounting.

In 1977, keepers left the Tasman quarters forever. I've got such strong memories of those places with people in them, and kids' voices rattlin' around, John says. It breaks my heart to think about those places sittin' out there empty with no lights on.
By:   John Cook, Jon Bauer
Imprint:   Allen & Unwin
Country of Publication:   Australia
Dimensions:   Height: 234mm,  Width: 153mm, 
Weight:   480g
ISBN:   9781760875381
ISBN 10:   1760875384
Pages:   320
Publication Date:   01 July 2020
Audience:   General/trade ,  ELT Advanced
Format:   Paperback
Publisher's Status:   Active

John Cook moved from the UK to Tasmania as a boy with his mother at the outbreak of World War II. John grew up loving the natural environment and being very practical. After serving in the Australian Navy, being a walking-track maintenance worker, operating a mobile x-ray health scanning unit and running service stations, John joined the Australian Lighthouse Service in 1968. He was a Light Keeper and later Head Keeper at various Tasmanian lights, notably Eddystone Point, Tasman Island and Maatsuyker Island, until 1993. John was also an honorary National Park Ranger. Jon Bauer was born and semi-raised in the UK, before moving to Australia in 2001 where he lived for thirteen happy years. He now lives in the UK again where he works as a somatic psychotherapist, as well as continuing to write short and long fiction. His novel Rocks in the Belly was longlisted for the Miles Franklin, won Best Debut in the Indies, was shortlisted for the Dublin IMPAC, broadcast on ABC National and published in eight countries. He has never worked in a lighthouse but he does have a lot of woolly jumpers, experience with extremes of wilderness and solitude, and shaves only sporadically. He is working on a new novel.

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