The Last Lighthouse Keeper – a memoir

John Cook with Jon Bauer
Allen & Unwin Australia, 2020

This beautifully told story of John Cook’s time as keeper of remote lights off the Tasmanian coast is both a history of the lighthouses and a slightly fictionalised autobiography. Working collaboratively with British author, Jon Bauer, John Cook has retold the minutiae of lighthouse life, but has also delved into his own turbulent feelings during those 25 years in the service of sea safety.

Barbie speaks with John Cook about The Last Lighthouse Keeper
British author Ben Bauer talks about his collaboration with John Cook on The Last Lighthouse Keeper

Fascinating detailed accounts of the isolated and self-sufficient island life abound, and we follow John Cook’s development from a raw beginner to master of his island domain.

In the process, we understand that John at times lost perspective. He had run away with his partner to the lighthouse life – and definitely had run away from all the trammels of his previous life. His grief, however, followed him, as he acknowledges.

John Cook worked first at Tasman Island Lighthouse, then Maatsuyker, his holy grail. His love and care for wildlife and wild nature shine through stories of grim or frightening events. The weather is always with him and everything is ruled by it. The elements are always a contender, whether it be by preventing a medical emergency trip to the mainland, the destruction or damage of buildings, the cause of confinement to barracks or the force of the waves preventing the supply ship’s docking.

Neverthless John’s passion for Maatsuyker is life-long. He says it will always be home, despite the cost it wrought on to his personal life.

There’s a bizarre romanticism attached to lighthouses. The idea of that remoteness and the saving of souls from drowning drives this. The reality is that few of us could bear this life and those that did were of a special hardy breed.

Jon Bauer has worked over time with John Cook, hearing his stories and reading his early manuscripts and then fashioning the book we have today. Conversations are related, graphic descriptions of the island landings and storms are given.

Bauer’s writing is so beautifully attuned to his subject and to John Cook’s memories that we can feel ourselves there, breathing in the salt spray or the blood of a slaughtered sheep. We can feel the blast of storms so fierce they break glass in the light house and blow dogs off their feet. 

The Last Lighthouse Keeper reveals equally the intensity of the emotional pull of the lighthouse and the harsh conditions of these remote places of safety for seamen (and women). And running all the while betwixt and between is John Cook’s struggle with his personal demons, his quest for family and his search for ethical and emotional equilibrium.

This is a wonderful book. I confess for a love of lighthouses – albeit theoretical, architectural, story-based, probably entirely unrealistic. Climbing the spiral staircase of a lighthouse on a fine day gives me vertigo. I cannot fully imagine these distant lights during storms, nor the courage needed to maintain them day and night.

The mystique remains, even now, when lights around the world are automated and hardy families no longer devote their lives to saving others, bravely bearing the 24-hour task of keeping the light. I can but admire and applaud the reality of this life and thank John Cook and Jon Bauer for bringing so much of its starkness, beauty and terror to us with this book.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for giving me a review copy.