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Cook, Kenneth Bernard (1929–1987)

by Jacqueline Kent

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Kenneth Bernard Cook (1929-1987), novelist and film-maker, was born on 5 May 1929 at Lakemba, Sydney, and named Bert Kenneth, third and youngest child of Herbert Warner Cook, inspector for a time-payment firm, and his wife Lily May, née Soole, both born in New South Wales. His father left the family soon after. Kenneth attended Fort Street Boys’ High School, then became a cadet on the Richmond River Express at Casino while also writing essays, stories and plays. He worked as a journalist in country towns and in Sydney for some years. Acting with the Genesian theatre company in Sydney, he met a librarian and researcher, Irene Patricia Hickie, whom he married on 17 March 1951 at St Canice’s Catholic Church, Elizabeth Bay.

In 1952-54 Cook worked for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, at Broken Hill—a town he loathed—and then at Rockhampton, Queensland. There he wrote a novel which, initially accepted, was later considered libellous and pulped. After six months in Brisbane, he returned to Sydney in November 1954. He resigned from the ABC in 1961 and that year published his best-known novel, Wake in Fright, which drew on his experience in Broken Hill. The novels Chain of Darkness (1962) and Stormalong (1963) followed; royalties together with successful real-estate speculation enabled him to take his family overseas for an extended holiday, described in Blood Red Roses (1963). Back in Australia, he, Philip Hickie and John Crew set up Patrician Films Pty Ltd to make television films, mainly for children.

Cook stood for Federal parliament twice, unsuccessfully: in 1966 for the seat of Parramatta on behalf of the Liberal Reform Group on an anti-conscription ticket, and in 1969 for Bennelong as an Australia Party candidate. A Catholic of liberal views, he opposed the Church’s stand on the Vietnam War. He expressed his passionate opposition to the war in the novel The Wine of God’s Anger (1968), and—couched as government oppression at Eureka—in the musical play Stockade, first performed in 1971. Stockade and Wake in Fright were released as films that year.

Continuing to write with the aid of Commonwealth literary grants, Cook published many novels including Tuna (1967) and Pig (1980), two of his best books. He separated from Patricia; they were later divorced. The butterfly farm that he had established on the Hawkesbury River failed; in 1983 he was declared bankrupt after personally guaranteeing a film project. Ill and depressed, he wrote The Killer Koala (1986), the first of three collections of comic bush stories, contrasting the heroic image of the Australian bush and the stark reality: the amusing obverse of Wake in Fright. Sales of 30,000 copies helped to restore his confidence, as did his marriage to Jacqueline Frances Kent, a writer and editor, on 5 January 1987 in a civil ceremony at St Leonards, Sydney.

Survived by his wife and the two daughters and two sons of his first marriage, Cook died of myocardial infarction on 18 April 1987 at Narromine. He was buried in Frenchs Forest lawn cemetery. A consummate professional, he wrote novels, plays, songs, screenplays, and radio and television scripts. At heart he was a storyteller, and he knew how to treat serious, even tragic, themes with compassion and a light touch. Probably because of his popular success, he was an underrated Australian writer.

Select Bibliography

  • Westerly, no 3, 1977, p 75
  • Bulletin, 15 Dec 1973, p 43
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 June 1985, `Northern Herald’ supplement, p 1, 21 Apr 1987, p 4
  • J. Kent, `Jacqueline Kent Remembers Kenneth Cook’, Australian Author, July 1987, p 3
  • H. de Berg, interview with Kenneth Cook (transcript, 1972, National Library of Australia)
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

Jacqueline Kent, 'Cook, Kenneth Bernard (1929–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cook-kenneth-bernard-12344/text22177, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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