While growing up in Rocklea, during the 1950s and 1960s, I had the pleasure and privilege of having the influence of a kind yet unusual gentleman who lived two doors down from us. He was Mr Bernard Cook and to me, he was somewhat of an enigma. A simple man living a simple life, who also was an artist and musician.
I believe he would have been aged in his mid fifties, although I can’t be sure. I do know that he was living an alternative lifestyle. That is, it was much different from all the other ‘normal’ people in our street. He built his low set fibro house himself and had no electricity or town water. He relied on his tank water for drinking and washing. He did his washing by hand and from memory wore mainly khaki working clothes.
He kept his meat on a plate covered by a dampened, muslin or calico cloth bag which was suspended from the ceiling. His cheese and butter were kept in ceramic dishes. He cooked on a large open fireplace with three steel bars as a grate that held a large blackened kettle which was always on the boil, ready for a cup of tea – made with tea leaves. There were equally blackened pots and pans from use on the open fire. On the brick surrounds of the fireplace, he had painted scenes of sheep and cows and other farm animals.
His lighting consisted of glass kerosene lamps which, when I think back, were very beautiful and the house took on an other-worldly glow when the lamps were lit. We always felt we were stepping back in time when we visited him, especially in the late afternoon or early evening.
He didn’t worry about cupboards for storing his food. He kept his meagre groceries in the centre of his sizeable kitchen table. There were the staples of his life: flour, sugar, tea, bread, butter, jam, salt and pepper and a bottle of hot sauce. He bought perishables such as milk, butter and cheese from the corner shop and meat from the butcher two streets away on the main road. His table also made room for a number books and newspapers. There were often tubes of paint scattered around as well. Two glass kerosene lamps also took up room on that table. It was quite cluttered, but interesting.
He grew most of his fruit and vegetables. In fact, most of his back yard was covered in raised garden beds with paths to walk between. He always had far too much for his needs and either sold or gave away any surplus. His strawberries were probably the best I ever tasted. I remember he tried to interest us in gardening and many other things but he didn’t have many takers from the kids in our neighbourhood.
He welcomed all the kids to his house. Amazing when you consider he really liked to keep to himself. It was not unusual for him to host ten children in his home after school. He gave us ideas for play. In one game we had to pretend to be photographers and we had ‘pretend’ cameras. We had nothing except our hands and our imagination! We took turns in posing on a ladder, on the floor, on chairs and outside. It certainly got our imaginations going as we thought up different poses and settings for our subjects. I guess we were easily amused back then. Oh, and he never had any problems shooing us out when it was time for tea.
He painted, mainly in oils, and played the violin. He built himself a soundproof music room which was not much bigger than a linen cupboard but it allowed him to practise his beloved violin at any time of the day or night without disturbing the neighbours. He was a considerate man.
Mr Cook had a brother who lived nearby. I don’t recall his name but he used to visit with his horse and cart. My sister reminded me of this fact when we were discussing the ‘old days’. While we both visited him along with all the other neighbourhood kids, our memories often differ which is not surprising. I think his brother lived much like our Mr Cook. He always looked like he was from a different era as well. The horse and cart were a bit of a giveaway. Mr Cook’s form of transport was an old bicycle which seemed to suffice for his needs. I don’t know if he ever went far afield as we only saw him after school and weekends. He loved his little house and garden.
One of his few concessions to living in the modern world of the 1960s, was a small transistor radio. Mr Cook liked to follow the horse races. My father, a salesman at the time, arranged for the purchase of the radio. Every Saturday morning, Mr Cook would carefully remove the radio from the original packaging and place the batteries in the radio. He would have it on during the day and in the evening would once again remove the batteries and carefully place the radio in the packaging and put it away in his bedroom until the next Saturday.
I recall that we badgered him to be able to stay in his backyard overnight in a tent we discovered he had. After some discussions with our parents, we were allowed to ‘camp out’. He went to all the trouble of setting up the tent and even putting in a light for us. We lasted until about 8pm before we all wanted to go home. What a bunch of sooks we were! What a patient and kind man he was to do this and not complain.
Mr Cook tried to give me art lessons and violin lessons but sadly, I just didn’t get it then. Or even now. I am not artistic or musical. I just enjoy them. Mr Cook would have been pleased and disappointed I think. Pleased that I enjoy these things. Disappointed that I couldn’t understand how to do these things. I was not only uncoordinated but also unable to translate the notes on the page to the instrument. Art is much the same for me. I understand the techniques the artist uses to draw, paint and so on but I can’t transfer my thoughts into anything that resembles, well, anything. I probably should have persevered. I guess I will stick to writing. I may not be spectacularly good but I understand it better, and it suits me.
When I was about ten years old, my parents sold our house in Rocklea and moved ‘upmarket’ to Coopers Plains. We only saw Mr Cook a few times after we moved away. We found out that he died about ten years later. It was a sad day. I am forever grateful for the added dimension that he provided to my young life and the others in our street.
I am not sure whether Mr Cook was behind the times or ahead of his time. What I do know though, is that he lived his life on his terms and he was happy with his life, his house, his garden, his violin and his art. What more could you ask for?
Have you had wonderful, interesting people like Mr Cook in your life? If so, I would love to hear from you. Thanks for reading!