Alastair Roosmale-Cocq: Appreciations & Memories

VALE ONE by Jeremy Ludowyke

My name is Jeremy Ludowyke and I’d like to tell you something of Alistair’s life before he came to Australia in 1969.

Like Alistair, I was born in Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, of Dutch heritage and ancestry. The first Roosmale Cocq arrived in Ceylon from the Netherlands in 1763 and many were Magistrates or Judges in the first Dutch then British colony. Perhaps this is where Alistair inherited his magisterial bearing.

The Roosmale Cocq motto is Am Omni Re Paratus, meaning I am ready for anything. A creed Alistair could be said to have lived his life by. And he would have loved the fact that I have just inveigled a Latin phrase into his eulogy.

Alistair was the eldest son of Jamie and Marguerite. His father was a formidable and highly-respected man who rose through the ranks to become the nation’s Deputy Inspector General of Police. Marguerite, who I have had the pleasure of meeting, was a vivacious woman who befriended my family when we were stationed in Jaffna at the Northern tip of the island. His younger brother Trevor who died in 2013, was the Managing Director of George Steuarts, one of the largest companies in the country to this day and the first to export tea to Europe.

His life before Australia can best be described as a restless search for a purposeful expression of his diverse talents that led him to take some surprising twists and turns. But I hope you will recognise the man you came to know in the early chapters of his story.

Due to his father’s career. Alistair’s family moved around quite a bit during his childhood. He was therefore sent away at the age of 12 to board at Trinity College in Kandy, an elite private school. Here his lifelong passions for classical music and theatre were well nurtured. He was a member of the Chapel Choir and could be found playing a piano donated to the school by Lord Mountbatten.

Alastair resented being away from his family so was brought home to complete his schooling at St Aloysius College in Galle, the old Dutch capital at the southern tip of the island, graduating in 1952. In the last months of his life it seemed to be this period of his life that remained with him most vividly. However, rather than proceeding directly to University, Alastair returned to Trinity College for two years, assisting with their choir and Theatre performances.

In 1955, he commenced a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in English Literature at Peradeniya University in Kandy where he was also involved in staging and acting in University plays and was president of the Music Society and also conducted the University’s choir.

After independence, the language of instruction in Sri Lankan schools and Universities changed from English to Sinhala in 1956 and Alistair (who claimed to only know cooking terms and swear words in the local language) joined the exodus of those with European heritage from the island.

Almost on impulse – perhaps motivated by missionary zeal, he surprised family and friends by taking a position as a teacher in the Hope Waddell Training Institute, a Christian mission school in Nigeria, where he taught from 1960-67. He rarely spoke about this period of his life.

He returned briefly to Ceylon from 1967-69, where he became closely involved in contemporary theatre, staging plays such as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger at the leading theatre in Colombo. Unusually, he opted for back of stage roles in these productions.

In 1969, he emigrated to Melbourne and lived briefly with my family before boarding at Trinity College where he initially enrolled in a Bachelor of Theology and toyed with the idea of becoming an Anglican priest. He thrived in the intellectual life of the College winning the College prize for essay and oratory for a speech entitled ‘In praise of Twinings Tea.’

He won the University’s Melbourne Theatre Company prize for dramatic performance for his portrayal of Henry IV – not the Shakespearian version but Enrico Quarto by Pirandello where the titular character feigns madness because he prefers his imagined world to a real but harsher reality.

Perhaps this was a metaphor for Alistair’s inner thoughts at the time, as his restless search for purpose quickly took a new tack and he abandoned his theological studies to train as a teacher – a profession he and I were to share for the rest of our lives. There are others here better equipped to recollect those chapters of his life and I will leave it to them to continue that side of his story.

Whilst completing a Bachelor of Education at Monash University, Alastair collaborated with another Sri Lankan, Dr Dennis Bartholomeusz, Senior Lecturer in the Department of English in acting and staging a number of Shakespeare’s plays including Coriolanus, King Lear and A Winter’s Tale. He seemed to specialize in and enjoy playing villains. I thought therefore it might be fitting to let Shakespeare have the final word by paraphrasing the final verses of his most famous eulogy as my farewell to Alastair.

You all did love him once, not without cause:

What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?

Bear with me;

My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,

And I must pause till it come back to me.



Eulogy: italian-elogio, praise / Greek -eulogya – good speaking

Jeremy quoted the final lines of Mark Anthony’s funeral oration from Shakespeare’s ‘ Julius Caesar’. Let me close this circle of eulogies by quoting the first line of that speech:

                                                I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

My version:

                                                I come to bury Alastair AND to praise him.

 To praise his intellect, his creativity, his morality and his friendship.

 He was a teacher with a magnificent grasp of his subject matter. One need only look at his bookshelves: the classics of English literature, the Latin and Greek masterpieces, the Vacalapanta or 25 Tales and other Indian masterworks, French, German and African novels, poetry and plays.And a myriad of young people’s literature including the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis and Alice in Wonderland !Not to mmention science fiction, and Tolkien; an incredible range.

When he studied for his B. Ed. at Monash University children’s literature was one of his essay topics, essays for which he was always awarded 1sdt class honous, marks as high as 98%. On an essay on R. S. Peters, the examiner wrote:

This is an excellent discussion: beautifully organised and written, and resting on a thorough reading in the field. You give a fair and more balanced assessment of Peters than I usually do, and I find it difficult to pick on any detail that calls for criticism.

Of his studies for Dip. Ed at the Canberra College of Advanced Education the following comment:

Alastair proves himself to be one of the outstanding students of the first intake…and was Placed in the top five  of 100 students.

Later in life, Alastair completed the VCE Latin exam and went on to study Latin at Melbourne University and even started Greek.

As a teacher, Alastair always sought perfection and required high standards, whether in Australia, in Sri Lanka or in Nigeria. He considered himself just “a little teacher” which after several repetitions drove me to ratlle my fingers on the table, clear my throat and say: “Have you forgotten I am a teacher too? So you are not a doctor or a magistrate as others amongst family and friends BUT, tell me, who taught them? Little teachers!”

Let me quote from the farewell document from Calabar in Nigeria where he taught at The Waddell Institute, as well as taking part in directing the choir, playing the organ and producing plays:

We…appreciate your broadmindedness and frankness…your insistence always that we should leave no stone unturned…to produce the stamp of good musical standards.

As a teacher of no mean calibre, our children of your generation will ever remember you with gratitude, while we, as parents and guardians, do add your name with pride on the Honour Board of Notable Pedagogues of our nation.

Signed by the Head Pastor, Treasurer, Choirmaster and Organist.

‘Broadmindedness and frankness’-this is not just praise for teaching but more importantly praise of character.

No lesser praise is obvious in references from Victorian schools:

  • His knowledge of, and feeling for, literature is profound… (G.Cramer, Carey Grammar)
  • …particularly successful in gaining a positive response from the pupils he taught. His discipline was quiet and unobtrusive but very effective. He was both liked and respected by the pupils. His relationship with the staff members was excellent… (C. F. Wilson, Principal, Drouin High)
  • anding. His knowledge of English Literature and associated topics such as history, drama, philosophy and world literature is profound, and his presentation of ideas and concepts quite scholarly. These are expressed in an English which is subtle and so full of felicitous phrases that it is a delight to listen to. (D. Lording, Acting deputy Principal, Blackburn H.)
  • “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances; / And one man in his time plays many parts.” (Shakespeare, ‘As you Like it’’)

Alastair was a consummate actor, producer and set designer. His roles included the title character in Pirandello’s ‘Enrico Quattro’ for which he won the MTC Prize, The Misanthrope in Molière’ s play, Creon in Sophocles ‘ Antigone’  and the title role in ‘ Everyman’ where I had the pleasure of building the sets and acting in the part of  Riches. The list is far too long to mention.

 In his younger days in Sri Lanka, he conducted a choir and was president of the Music Society and even broadcast on Radio Ceylon. He was a man of many talents. He sang with the Ballarat Choir as a bass, participated many times in the South Street Competition winning not only certificates but also 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes.

Manel Fonseka remembers: Apart from his acting I cherish memories of the time he conducted the choir of the Peradeniya Anglican Church. Rehearsing under him was a very special experience.

Friendship. A friendship of 46 years characterised by many differences but also shared interests in literature, music, acting and food. Alastair was an excellent cook and I recall many a lunch or dinner with other friends at his home.

He was generous; always the first to say ‘ let’s go to lunch. My shout’. The Red Lion in Ballarat was a favourite haunt of his. Or it was coffee and cake .

He welcomed me and later me and my wife to stay at his home on many an occasion and was always welcome at my home. When my wife and I went to Europe for several months he was more than happy to be one of the people looking after our house.

 He was an honest and often humble person. We had our differences and usually he was the first to apologise if things had become a litlle heated. Yes, he could be somewhat prickly as Lester called him, or cantankerous as I did and you did have to be careful with what you said as Errol reminded me (though I never was careful) but in the end the friendship remained. After all we all have our quirks and foibles. Would we be human if we didn’t ? A rhetorical question.

 Friendship. Friendship is a tenuous balancing act between accpetance and refusal as two different personalities develop their affection for each other. Friendship is…compromise par excellence, the measure of real equality when you both respect each other and can be totally frank.

And Alastair’s friendship never wavered.

What more can one say ? That his last years were difficult as his memory grew frail. As we all age, do we all not become frail and tired ?

And now he has left us, we who ‘loved him once’, How do we react?

Disbelief, denial, shock, frustration, sadness, even anger. Or quiet, resignation to a fact of life?

Manel Fonseka expressed in 2 words what thousands of words could never communicate so clearly:

                                                            Oh, no.

When my father passed away, his best friend simply wrote”

                                                            Farewell, my friend.

What more needs to be said? Just one last thing: I wear glasses at the computer then take them off. A few minutes later I think: “Oh, I forgot to remove them’ but in fact I have. The sensation is still felt across the bridge of my nose. Alastair has left us but his presence is still with us. So

                                                    Farewell my friend, and welcome back


A NOTE from Michael Roberts, 14 April 2022

From our interactions in Galle and Peradeniya in the 1950s, I always considered HIM to be “Alastair” with an “a” after the “l”.  The obituary notices on web and the official brochure at his funeral farewell adhere to this nomenclature.

However, his close friends Dawn Gunasekea (nee Buultjens) and Jeremy Ludowyke knew him as “Alistair ” with an “i.” One thing is certain: Alastair/Alistair will be laughing his head off up there in the skies about the confusions he has generated in the world at large.

1 Comment

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One response to “Alastair Roosmale-Cocq: Appreciations & Memories

  1. Brian Ratnayake

    His late brother Trevor was my class mate at one time at St. Peter’s College, Colombo 4 and I lost touch with him since leaving College in 1952 to join James Finlay & Co. in Queen Street where George Steuarts office was next door !.
    May their souls rest in peace.

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