Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 27, 2019

Beyond Words, a Year with Kenneth Cook, by Jacqueline Kent

Jacqueline Kent is the author of so many biographies of people in the arts, I’m surprised that I haven’t read any of her books before this one.  I’ve heard her in interview too, at the Woodend Winter Arts Festival in 2011, in conversation with Mary Delahunty about An Exacting Heart, the story of Hephzibah Menuhin, (which #SlapsForehead I meant to read but forgot about, which just goes to show that I should have bought it there and then.) Kent also wrote A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis, A Literary Life which won the 2002 National Biography Award and the Nita B. Kibble Award.  But I wasn’t sure about Beyond Words, a Year with Kenneth Cook… a memoir based on just one year?

However, it turns out that this memoir is about more than one memorable year with an iconic Australian writer.  It’s also about a woman who had a satisfying life as a freelance book editor and an emerging career as a writer, and how falling in love meant she had to confront choosing between independence and companionship.  Not only was Kenneth Cook a blokey bloke twenty years older than she was with a string of failed relationships behind him, he also had adult children from his previous marriage, and shreds of Catholic guilt still lurking within.  He was bankrupt (literally) with creditors still harassing him, he smoked and drank (a lot), and he was undisciplined about his writing.

But he was gorgeous.  She loved him.  He was funny and clever and exciting, and even though he needed ‘housetraining’ (as we feminists say of men who haven’t quite grasped the domestic implications of feminism) Kent and Cook were so happy together that they set up house and decided to marry.  By the time this happens, the reader is delighted, because despite their differences, they seem so suited as a couple.  (One of their more caustic friends comments that an author/editor marriage is a bit of a cliché, but it seems to me that it would be a kind of literary heaven, to write side-by-side with the one you love.)

The wedding was a relaxed and informal affair, despite the best efforts of the celebrant to indulge her taste for pink hearts, lace doilies, figurines of doting couples in eighteenth-century costume and Hallmark sentimentality:

Everybody was smiling except the celebrant.  In her bag with the documents I noticed a biro with an enormous plastic feather quill, the sort of thing used by writers in bad historical movies; clearly this was her last-ditch attempt to impose a sense of ceremonial colour on the signing of the register, at least. Resplendent in maroon and cream, she stepped in front of the tree she had chosen for the ceremony, opened her wedding book and cleared her throat.

Ken walked towards me and stretched out his right hand, the one with the crooked middle finger.  ‘Come here, woman, and marry me,’ he said. (p.178)

There are four photos of this joyful wedding, and I defy anyone to look without lips twitching in suppressed laughter at the one of Kenneth, hands on hips and almost daring the celebrant to go off-script!

You can read an edited excerpt about the time when they met and see one of the wedding photos at the SMH.

For those of us who know Kenneth Cook (1929-1987) as the author of Wake in Fright (1961), and more recently of the posthumously published macabre thriller Fear is the Rider, he seemed to be a quintessentially outback sort of man.  While he portrayed Australia’s outback as hostile and dangerous, he seemed to know it well, conjuring images of remote places not as an outsider but as an informed observer.  So it comes as a surprise to find him in urban Sydney, at least until it becomes clear how much he valued his family and wanted to be near them.  But as Jacqueline soon discovers, Cook had a restless soul and before the year is out they have set off on a fateful road trip.  She has misgivings:

I could not share his anticipated joy with the same intensity.  Though I too loved parts of Australia outside the cities, for me these were always on the coast.  As for the deep interior, I had hardly travelled in it, but my gut feeling had always been that it was an alien, indifferent landscape.  If there had been a continent-wide earthquake, if Australia had twitched its pelt and eliminated all settlement since white people came, it would not have made any difference, I believed, to the feeling or the spirit of the country, especially the inland.  When I mentioned my feelings to Ken he scoffed, and I understood why he wanted and needed to get into the bush, to lose himself in the flat haze, to let his imagination run, to explore his sense of possibility.

But I wanted to discover the man who had understood and shared Mary Durack’s love and knowledge of the country, the man who knew how to conjure the bush through his words. Like Ken, I too wanted to escape the whole bankruptcy business, not just because it was always there – and I knew Ken was more worried about it than he ever admitted – but because of its effect of it on our life together.  I badly wanted Ken and me to build up a store of memories, to have experiences that only we could share, to build a history of our own. And so I squashed down my misgivings – our mutual lack of bushcraft skills was part of them too – and agreed that yes, this would certainly be a fine adventure.  (p.184)

They made it just past Narromine and were camped at a lonely and isolated riverbank when Kenneth had a massive heart attack and died.

That is not the end of the story, and perhaps because it has emerged more than thirty years after the event, Beyond Words does not descend into self-indulgent emotion.  (Though the author has suffered so many tragedies in her life, it would be understandable if it did, but she says very little about her other losses).  She goes on to write about negotiating the aftermath with his children, about the great support of friends, and about the process of learning to be alone again.  She toys with the idea of travel, but wisely, I think, abandons it.

…why visit favourite places again when I could not turn to the person I most wanted to be with and say, Look at this, isn’t it wonderful? Better, I thought, to stay at home among familair places and faces I knew.  Being by myself was all right.  But now I knew there was all the difference in the world between living alone by choice and by circumstance.  I had people I wanted to spend time with, to go to movies and restaurants with, to visit.  What I no longer had, of course, was somebody to do nothing with.  (p.220)

She makes an important point about friendships as well:

Engulfed as I had been in Ken and his world, I had been in danger of forgetting something very important: Dr Samuel Johnson’s dictum that one must keep one’s friendships in constant repair.  Now, uncertainly at first, for I had neglected some long-standing friends for what seemed like a long time, I made connections again, and people were kind enough to welcome me back. (p..222)

[I did this myself, neglecting my friends when I was preoccupied with visiting my father every day during the last year of his life.  Yes, good friends understand, but still…]

Beyond Words is a wise and thoughtful book: highly recommended.

For other reviews and interviews with the author, visit Jacqueline Kent’s website here.

Author: Jacqueline Kent
Title: Beyond Words, a Year with Kenneth Cook
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2019, 256 pages
ISBN: 9780702260391
Review copy courtesy of UQP

Available from Fishpond: Beyond Words: A Year with Kenneth Cook; direct from UQP and all good bookshops.

 


Responses

  1. I’m glad they were happy, though I think happiness sometimes makes for boring writing. But, an Australia consisting of Sydney and the east coast? Even if that’s where everyone is, the Idea of Australia is of a huge empty desert continent. How could a literary person not internalize that? And I’m glad they made it to Narromine, it’s not quite the outback but it’s definitely on the right side of the Blue Mountains.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh dear, I have to confess that I feel much the same as she did, without the excuse of being back in the 1980s. I have no desire whatsoever to see the outback…

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      • I’d be happy if no one visited the Outback! But that feeling that there is a great emptiness ‘out there’ is a constant presence in Oz Lit and in our view of ourselves – or don’t you think so?

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        • I don’t think it’s empty, I just don’t think there’s anything there to interest me. I know that there are people who love wilderness and isolated places, deserts and mountains – my mother did, for one. But the only kind of isolation I like is on an ocean liner, I love having wild seas around me or that vast expanse of blue sea and sky. Unfortunately, modern cruising has ruined the whole idea of that.
          When I travel I want to see art galleries and museums and great architecture, and I want to hear foreign languages and learn about the history and culture of other places.

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  2. I have never heard of Kenneth Cook…but want to read him…and about him.
    Where should I start? Read this biography first…or dive into “Wake in Fright”?
    I saw this book on a list of Greatest Australian books by Geoffrey Dutton that I came across on Brona’s Books (23.10.2013 post)

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    • I think that Wake in Fright would be the best place to start. It’s dated, but it’s still powerful reading.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Just ordered it!

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  3. Memoirs written by artists and regular writers can be very illuminating. Both Kent and Cook sound like interesting characters who were are worth knowing about.

    The point about friendships is very true

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    • It is, isn’t it? I don’t think it happens now (I hope not), but when I was young, it was brutally often that girls would abandon their loyal girlfriends once a boyfriend was on the scene.

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  4. I just started reading this last night when I have four others to finish – but I’m quite hooked!

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    • Ah, I knew this one would interest you: it’s (in my experience, that is) a different kind of life writing altogether.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve read Wake in Fright (excellent but what an experience) and The Killer Koala: Humorous Australian Bush Stories (all this lethal fauna!) and his knowledge of the outback and his sense of humour are important part of his work.

    He must have been quite a character. I think of him as an Australian Jim Harrison.

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