TRIBUTE TO PETER COOK
It was with considerable sadness that long time member of OILR/SLR learned of the death of Peter Cook, from cancer on Sept. 18th 2009, at the age of 80. Peter was born 25th March 1929 in Gillingham, Kent, near London in the UK, the eldest of three boys.
He was a quiet and humble man, more concerned about the needs of others than talking about himself. As a result, we knew very little about his pre-retirement years. Fortunately, Bruce Sankey was able to make contact with one of his two younger brothers, Paul, in the UK, who provided the following interesting information for us, which was presented by Bruce.The family was, like most others in those times, exceedingly poor. They lived in a small two bed roomed terraced house close to the Dockyard in lower Gillingham. There was no money for treats of any sort but nevertheless the three children were in many ways quite uniquely rich. In the tiny back bedroom, under Peter's bed was a double bass and under the other bed occupied by another brother, was a cello. The bedroom cupboard stored two violins and a huge stack of "The Harmsworth Self Educator," a worthy magazine published in the 1920s on all sorts of topics from mechanics to geography.
Downstairs in the front room stood a large harmonium complete with mirror and candle stands. Under the stairs was a cupboard housing an amazing assortment of jumble. In an outdoor shed were two large chests one full of old wood-working tools and the other stuffed full with electrical plugs, wire, pieces of wireless sets and an infinite variety of other similar components. All these wonderful treasures were readily seized on by the brothers as rich material for scientific experimentations. If you mix potassium chlorate and sulphur and then strike the powder forcibly with a hammer you can produce a most satisfactory explosion. Peter took delight in reactions of this sort and became something of a chemistry boffin.
One Guy Fawkes Night, Peter and a friend who shared his pyrotechnical interests filled a large old wooden chest with the crude ingredients of gunpowder, a mixture of sodium nitrate fertilizer, coal and sulphur. A tin bath was used for storing the rest of the, mostly home made, fireworks due to be lit throughout the evening. All the local kids who had been privileged to be invited gathered in the friend's back garden. The atmosphere was one of soaring anticipation. Unfortunately one of the younger lads got over excited and accidentally dropped a lighted sparkler in amongst the fireworks. The whole lot went up in a most impressive firestorm which completely destroyed the neighbour's fence.
Peter's own recollection of some "experiments" was written not long ago, in response to a request from his younger brother Paul. This was part of his reply: "I must have been 16 years old," Peter wrote, "just after the war. I put a small piece of sodium in water; it stuck to the side of the container and exploded. I had to put my head under the tap to get it out of my hair. This experience led me to develop the sodium bomb a cocoa tin with holes in the bottom and a meat skewer to securely hold the sodium down. We then threw it into a pond. It worked well. We frequently made fireworks including the use of magnesium shavings from an unexploded incendiary bomb that a friend had found. [and he survived all this !]
On the ceiling of the front room at home is a brown patch made from glass apparatus which hit it when I tried to see the effect of igniting a mixture of acetylene and hydrogen. To this day I can remember looking up and seeing the glass descending from the ceiling."
His mother struggled to keep house and maintain discipline and had only the vaguest idea as to what was going on. "Don't tell Mum!" was a strictly enforced code. For if she found out about these schemes she would be sure to put a stop to them.
During the early part of the war, the family, together with their Government Issue gas masks, were evacuated to South Wales. They lodged for a time with a family in a mining town called Banwen. It was a wretched and bleak existence with which mum became disenchanted and resolved that they return to Kent, declaring that she would rather face the bombs in relative comfort than share in the rigours that the unfortunate Welsh mining community had to endure. So that is what they did.
When they arrived back home, the first spectacle to confront them was the absence of a row of some six houses that had once stood just across the back alley from their home. They had been comprehensively razed to the ground by Hitler's bombs. Mother was not deterred however and the four of them built an air raid shelter and covered it with earth. The bombed buildings behind made an excellent playground and place for the brothers and their friends to play in and carry out their experiments.
They soon became accustomed to the nightly air raids targeting the nearby dockyard and some nights if mother judged the bombing to be light, did not even bother to run to the shelter. The boys would stand and watch the searchlights and tracer bullets shooting into the night sky as though it were a firework display laid on for their benefit. The next morning as they walked to school all the children would search hopefully in the gutter for pieces of shrapnel and spent bullets.
The V1 flying bombs or doodlebugs were regarded more with interest than fear as they slowly chugged their way across the sky on their way to London. So blase were the boys of the flying bombs that Paul recounts Peter trying to photograph them with a pin-hole camera he had made. On one occasion, with great excitement, they watched a Spitfire shoot a doodlebug down right over their heads and saw the flying bomb plummet to earth with smoke pouring from its tail.
VE Day came with its bewildering street party and they were told that the war was over and everything would now be wonderful. It wasn't of course, as things were to become even harsher with a still more severe rationing regime coupled with the bitter winter of 1947.
Peter attended the Gillingham Grammar School for Boys where he was a diligent pupil and passed his Matriculation. Because of his interest in Science he was recommended to go to the Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall to learn skills as a mining engineer. He qualified and after doing his two years National Service in the Army he found a job with the Anglo American Corporation in a copper mine in what was then Northern Rhodesia. After a time, Peter decided to take a look at Canada and arrived in Vancouver in 1958. He took some temporary jobs, then attended UBC to obtain his teaching certificate and subsequently taught school. After a while in Vancouver Peter decided teaching was not for him and he moved to Kelowna. Apart from the climate, the scenery and the benefits of living in a small town, Peter soon discovered that the population of females outnumbered the males three to one. Understandably he saw no reason to move on from what he described as "Elysian Fields" and became a Canadian citizen.
He secured a position with the City of Kelowna in the Engineering and Planning Department for whom he worked for 25 years.
Along the way Peter owned and raced a centre-board sailboat, played table-tennis - (he was a double gold-medallist in the Senior Games held in Kelowna just a few years back) and was a very keen dancer, both ballroom dancing and Renaissance-era dancing. And, of course he enjoyed making music - especially playing the recorder. Bruce remembered talking to him about going to hear the Okanagan Symphony; he said "No thanks, I'd rather make music than listen to someone else perform".
His interest in music had started early. He related how he auditioned to join the School Choir at age eleven and was turned down. Undeterred, he went along anyway and was never noticed. When he first moved to Canada he was keen on Gilbert & Sullivan and performed in the chorus line of many productions.
***This is an edited version of Paul Cook's letter. The complete version, as given at Peter's memorial, can be found in the SLR archives.