Stinker’s History: How fortunate we were

Daphne Rooke at Port Stephens on 3 April 1952. Photo: State Library of NSW.

I WOULD like to share a special story with you which starts in 1974 when my wife Ella and I arrived in Port Stephens.

Being recently appointed to Nelson Bay High School, it was time to search for a house to buy.

With a very limited budget – nothing – we finally settled for a shack in Fingal Bay.

An ordinary structure, but it was home.

Hardly anyone chose to live in Fingal, which was a bit of a ghost town between holiday times.

An elderly couple, who kept to themselves, lived next door.

They were inseparable playing golf, walking through the bushland and playing cards until all hours of the night.

Just the two of them.

I did notice that the study light burned, on many occasions, ‘til sunrise.

They were a lovely couple who always had a cheery smile.

It was soon after, when our children Jodie and Ben arrived, that we became close friends with our neighbours.

The kids could not wait to get home from school, toss their school bags in the garage and race over to spend time with the lady next door.

Bertie and Daphne Rooke really enjoyed having the kids visit as their only child, a girl called Rosemary, had left to live in England.

Our time together with the Rookes continued to grow and it was then that I started to learn more about them.

The reason that the light burned ‘til sunlight was that Daphne, who we always called Mrs Rooke or Mrs Rookey, was a writer.

If I listened closely, on still nights, I could hear the clatter of the old typewriter hammering out words under the single beam of a lamp.

On further investigation I uncovered something very special.

Interest grew when a huge man wandered up our driveway asking to know the whereabouts of Daphne Rooke.

The man introduced himself as Dr Ian Glenn, Head of Department of English from the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

He had travelled across the world to find my neighbour.

The academic stayed for a week or two and when he wasn’t interviewing Mrs Rooke, we shared a beer and discussed the world of rugby union.

It was through the South African visitor and research gathered by local historian, Kevin McGinness, that I learnt the real story of Daphne Marie Rooke (nee Pizzey).

The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate, on 27/5/1948, reported: ‘Prize Novelist Writes Story on Nelson’s Bay’.

‘Mrs. Rooke lives in a little house in the bush at Bardouroka with an eight year old daughter and husband, Mr I. Rooke’.

Fingal Bay was known as Bardouroka when I first arrived.

There was far more to our neighbour as the research unfolded.

Mrs Rooke’s published writings including novels, short stories and children’s stories, all became part of The Daphne Rooke Collection.

The Collection was donated to the University of Cape Town Libraries in 1990 by Dr Ian Glenn.

The collection consists of approximately 209 items, mainly works, galley proofs and working copies.

Included with the working copies are corrections suggested by the publisher, and correspondence with this connection.

Also in the collection are some incomplete manuscripts, background material and rough notes.

Apart from Daphne Rooke’s own writings, the collection includes reviews, journal articles and two short stories by her mother, Marie Knevitt.

Because of renewed interest in South Africa in the work of Daphne Rooke, Dr Glenn was able to receive funding from the Centre for African Studies at UCT, and from the HSRC, to visit the writer in Australia in 1988, and acquire the collection from her.

During his visit, Dr Glenn tape-recorded an interview with Daphne Rooke.

These tapes and an edited transcript of the interview form part of the collection.

Daphne Rooke was born in Boksburg, South Africa, in 1914.

Her talent for writing was recognised and encouraged by her mother, Marie Knevitt, a journalist and writer of short stories.

Her first novel, `A Grove of Fever Trees’, was co-winner of an Afrikaanse Pers literary competition in 1950.

Her novels were particularly popular in the USA in the 1950s and early 1960s.

According to Dr Glenn, she was the South African writer with the widest international exposure and the greatest commercial success at that time.

Her books were published by serious publishers and received appreciative notices in leading critical reviews of the time in the USA and Britain.

She used indigenous material and dealt with major historical issues of the day.

In spite of these factors, or perhaps because of them, her books were not well received in South Africa.

One of her novels, `The Greyling’, was banned in South Africa in 1962.

Dr Glenn describes some of the early South African reviews of her books as “uncomprehending” and believes that some of her work “deserves recognition and rethinking”.

She married Irvin Rooke, an Australian, and eventually settled in Australia.

She also travelled extensively in Africa, Australia, New Zealand and India, and some of her stories have been set in these places.

She has a daughter, Rosemary, and two grandchildren, living in England.

As neighbours, we had not the slightest indication of the esteem in which Mrs Rooke was held in the international sphere.

Irvin ‘Bertie’ Rooke was a typical Aussie from a previous generation.

Originally a Balmain boy, he grew up with a great mate Archie Jackson who, after playing eight Test Matches for Australia, was considered by many in the cricketing world to be the equal to Don Bradman until his early death from tuberculosis at the age of 23.

In his early days, young Irvin played the piano in cinemas as a backing to silent movies.

Later he was to move into the building trade where he was known as Bert.

“Piano players are not named Bert and builders are not named Irvin,” he explained to me.

I recall Bertie telling me he headed overseas with a builder, a man named Sheahan, who he was to learn was the father of test cricketer Paul Sheahan.

It was while he was overseas that he met Daphne.

Berty loved his golf.

He also loved a punt on the horses.

He spent hours studying the form guides before a decision was made.

He refused to give me a tip because he said that he didn’t want to see me lose any money.

In his later years he spent time in hospital.

On one occasion he was asked by the surgeon, “What does an old fellow like you do in a place like Fingal Bay?”

To which Berty replied, “I play golf three days a week, I play bridge two days a week and on Saturdays I bet on the horses.”

“That is only six days, what do you do on the other day?” asked the doctor.

“Ah, on Sundays I pray for long drives, good cards and fast horses.”

Bertie passed away in 1989, leaving Mrs Rooke alone.

Our entire family pleaded with her to live with us, however, she chose to travel to England to reunite with her daughter.

We visited her in England in 2006 before she passed.

Daphne Marie Rooke died on 21/1/2009 at Cambridge, England, aged 94 years.

How fortunate we were to have the Rookes as our next door neighbours.


Leave a Reply