Uncle T Checks Out

I was driving, so my wife picked up the phone.  A stranger needed to speak to me – and only me – about our mutual friend, Tom Cockrem. It was half an hour before I could call back, leaving ample time to speculate what might have befallen the inveterate vagabond in some far-flung African country… robbed at knife point? Locked up in some squalid cell?

Seriously ill, perhaps? Worse, actually.

“I have to tell you that Tom was admitted to hospital in Cebu on the 2nd and passed away on the 8th.”

No more pithy emails from ‘Uncle T’, no more afternoon coffees in Collingwood, no more guitar strumming inside that Aladdin’s cave of brightly patterned African textiles and jewellery, carved tribal artefacts, battered LP records – who else would remember The Kingston Trio? – and unwashed dishes which was his Melbourne studio apartment.

A couple of weeks earlier, Tom had bought a ticket to Freetown, Sierra Leone, a place in West Africa best known for brutal civil war and outbreaks of Ebola. After all, he’d never been there before.  Like a latter-day Peter Pinney, Tom was an impulsive traveller who inevitably suffered a hiccup or two: a mugging in Suva, a laptop lifted in Buenos Aires, a break-in in Bangkok…

This time, Ethiopian Airlines had other ideas, refusing him boarding for want of prior clearance. So, the footloose Australian had to cool his heels, not for the first time, in the relatively cosmopolitan city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

In Dar es Salaam, Uncle T resumed his habitual routine of pointing his battered Nikon at streetscapes and office towers, at dusky maidens and market mammies. Third World conurbations seemed to provide the easygoing street life in which he felt most at ease. Numbering tens of thousands, Tom’s images swelled the catalogues of the international photographic agencies, and the resulting royalties supported a largely carefree, if frugal, lifestyle.

This was a man out of sync with the zeitgeist of the twenty-first century. He deplored racism, but otherwise held little sympathy with the politically correct, gender-neutral, safety-first ethos that Anglo-Saxon society now demands. Yet, when he chose, Tom’s smooth tongue and acerbic wit would open doors.

Until around a decade ago, Tom – like this writer – enjoyed a by-line that appeared frequently in the travel supplements of many a metropolitan newspaper, and in the glossy pages of Middle Eastern consumer magazines. Tourist boards, tour operators and – occasionally – airlines sponsored the globetrotting that made it all possible. Together, we toured the Kremlin and explored the back roads of Bulgaria; Tom could be an amusing travel companion or an exasperating one. This was, of course, before the unstoppable rise of online publishing and user generated content threatened the survival of print media.

From Dar es Salaam, Tom had headed back to his second home: Cebu City in the Philippines.  Blending into a floating population of expats, he enjoyed the camaraderie and the trading of conspiracy theories.  Nonetheless, he kept his distance from the ‘sex tourist’ scene there, keeping pretty much out of trouble.

Until now.  A ‘serious malarial infection’ had claimed the former folk singer, one-time English teacher, travel writer and photographer, just short of his seventieth birthday.