THERE'S just something about lighthouses, isn't there?
And no doubt they'll always continue to fascinate us. Why else would five major movies showcase them in the past 10 years, four of those films in the last four years alone?
As a baby-boomer, I lay part of the blame subliminally at the feet of effortlessly irreverent actor Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor Who of the classic BBC TV series, and his episode of The Horror of Fang Rock in 1977.
Since 1922, there's been at least 48 films featuring lighthouses. So, what's the attraction? Is it the mystery and allure of living on a remote, fog-shrouded isle, or the siren song of the solitude and often danger involved? The romance of far-away, windswept ocean outposts perhaps?
Whatever it is, I'm hooked. By happy co-incidence, a book has just been published about the life and times of John Cook, described as one of Tasmania's last traditional kerosene lighthouse keepers before the lights were automated.
Called The Last Lighthouse Keeper, his book explores Cook's physically and often emotionally draining 26-year career tending these crucial offshore beacons protecting mariners.
As the foreword states, the book takes the reader into another era, providing a unique insight into the hardships of a then dying way of life. As such, Cook's stunning memoir about madness and wilderness is historically significant.
From nights battling to keep the lights alive amid tempests, repairing damage, to strange happenings offshore and kamikaze birds, Cook's isolated occupation often became the stuff of high drama. With storms, hunger, lightning strikes and even an earthquake, it became almost, on occasion, a hallucinatory tale.
Like the time Cook and another keeper were near the tower on remote Tasman Island guarding the narrow sea approaches to Port Arthur. They were watching their giant light beam above rotating like a huge carousel while the lamp caught the darting bullets of rain outside.
They could hear the distant sea gathering its fists when Cook's fellow light keeper says, almost as an explanation for his bad, erratic behaviour, that "it's the mercury . . . and the (hissing kero) gas. . . it sends the women crazy faster than the men".
The liquid referred to was in the top of the lighthouse, in the lantern room, where a gigantic prism rotated on a bath of mercury. It was topped up from time to time because it evaporated, meaning that keepers inhaled it.
As Tasman Island marked the turning point for vessels in the Sydney-Hobart yacht race into Hobart, the huge mass of glass in the shape of prisms was awesome. Consisting of about 640 pieces of hand-cut and buffed flint glass from the Victorian era, it was almost two metres in diameter, weighing about four tonnes.
But it was only part of an engineering marvel from 1881. The tower stood 29 metres and was almost 280 metres above sea level. It was made of cast-iron plates bolted together on a big concrete plinth, as it had to withstand gales. Tower keepers had to climb 125 steep metal steps nightly, their footsteps echoing like an ominous drum. Windows rattled, the tower would sing in the wind and bolts would creak.
This incredible hardship post of the Tasman Island lighthouse, which occupies much of Cook's revealing book, had a rugged, terrifying grandeur. A massive, flat-topped rock with exposed sheer sides, was like a seaborne Uluru with its own fog or mist and occasional disturbing spirit. Cook's wife, Deb, called it "Alcatraz".
Tasman Island was light keeper Cook's initial and most memorable posting when he joined the lighthouse service in 1968. He discovered he loved the solitude and needed the sense of purpose light keeping gave him, although personally heartbroken and missing his kids dreadfully.
Cook joined up after a stint in the Australian Navy and then running service stations. He later became head keeper at various Tasmanian lights, notably Tasman Island, Bruny Island and eight years at distant Maatsuyker Island until 1993.
It takes a certain type of personality to survive the sheer hard work involved, let alone the cruel forces of nature always trying to grind light keepers into submission.
Sure, there were delightful warm days watching the sight of thousands of frolicking porpoises at sea, whales, beautiful sunsets, or later watching the magical night sky, sometimes with the aurora australis overhead. But there was also the nightly ritual (before electricity) of pumping up the gas pressure on the kerosene light ("like pumping a tyre every 20 minutes").
There was also the regular winding up of weights going down the tower that kept the prisms constantly turning. If the weights went all the way to the bottom, the rotating light would stop. It was like living in a giant grandfather clock.
Worse still were the fierce storms and winds often lashing the coast, curling tin off the keeper's cottage roofs, smashing windows and causing the whole tower nearby to sway.
The single most frightening episode was probably one stormy night when forked lightning struck the white needle of Tasman tower. The noise inside was incredible with the light weights adding to the din by swinging and banging against the wall. Salt spray "had even made its way up (the cliff top) to the lantern panes, 1000ft up from sea level".
Cook's extraordinary memoir has been masterfully aided and his prose polished by co-author Jon Bauer, who says he's never worked in a lighthouse, but does have a lot of woolly jumpers.
In Cook's words: "Books, like lighthouses, illuminate the dark seas of life", adding that his story is "mostly true though some events, dates and individuals have been fictionalised" (to prevent lawsuits we presume).
"I loved the life of the island, because I knew my body was more alive than those on the mainland. People asked how we withstood the isolation and boredom, but in some ways, it was more stimulating to have your senses turned up to the top," Cook says.
"Some nights I'd lie out on that flimsy (hollow tower) balcony, almost 100ft from the ground, and roar. The sky would be doing its slow roll. . . nothing between me and Antarctica but the raging of the ocean," Cook says.
"The wind would be howling and that great beam of light would whoom past my face. Whoom - one million candles worth of energy, punching out into the black."