Wednesday, November 7, 2012

In memory of: Don Silk

A guest post by Graeme Lay about Don Silk, a wonderful man whom many readers will have met or seen at Trader Jack’s in Rarotonga. The cartoon of Don, intended for his as-yet-unpublished second memoir, is by “Kata” (Tim Buchanan) of the Cook Island News.

Don Silk (1928-2012) Author
Don Silk, a legendary South Pacific character, died last week. Originally from Northland, Don spent most of his life on his adopted home, Rarotonga.

In about 1992 Don Silk sent me a manuscript. We had first met in Rarotonga in the late 1980s and when Don found out that I was a writer he said that he’d written something about his life and could I perhaps help him find a publisher for his manuscript? I said I’d try, but I had the usual reservations. The unspoken corollary to the saying “Everyone has a book inside them” is “Yes, and that’s where it should stay.”

But when I read Don’s manuscript I knew immediately that it was a winner. Not only did he have a great story to tell, but he told it superbly. Don was a born storyteller and his account of how he became the Aristotle Onassis of the Cook Islands was warm, funny and hugely entertaining.

Nevertheless initially there were the usual rejections from publishers, most of whom wondered how they could market a book by a first-time author who was based on a remote island in the South Pacific. Don grew despondent at this, but I reassured him. “We just have to persist,” I said. “Many successful books were first declined by publishers.”

So we did persist, and Brian Phillips of Godwit Press accepted Don’s manuscript for publication. It came out in 1994, titled From Kauri Trees to Sunlit Seas: shoestring shipping in the South Pacific. On the cover was a delightful photograph by Glenn Jowitt of one of Silk and Boyd’s little ships being unloaded off Mauke.

Eighteen years later, Don’s memoir is still in print and sells steadily in Rarotonga, in the Bounty bookshop and at Trader Jack’s. It has been reprinted several times. This is a huge tribute to Don’s writing ability and the engaging nature of his memoir. Those publishers who doubted that a book such as Don’s would sell greatly underestimated its author’s crafty marketing ability. The story of how Don offered, then sold, “the very last copy of my book” to hundreds of visitors to Trader Jack’s has become a legend on Rarotonga.

Don’s death greatly saddened me when I learned of it. He was one of the great characters of the South Pacific.

About eight years after his book was published Don sent me another manuscript which he asked me to find a publisher for. It dealt with his years ashore, and particularly his role as harbourmaster of Rarotonga. Like his first memoir, it was engaging, entertaining and very funny. It was also the most defamatory document I had ever read. Every bureaucrat in the Cook Islands who had incurred Don’s righteous wrath was in it, lampooned mercilessly and hilariously. This was the sequel to Kauri Trees, which another Rarotongan character, Ewan Smith, suggested should be titled From Sunburnt Knees to Alzheimer’s Disease.

I knew that no publisher would dare touch this sequel, and told Don so. He was philosophical about this. “Keep the manuscript,” he said, and I have. Perhaps I’ll donate it to the Cook Islands Library for their archives. It should carry the warning, “Contents are guaranteed to offend many people on this island.”

As for From Kauri Tress to Sunlit Seas, I still have my first-edition copy. The inscription reads: “To Graeme. Best wishes from the Friendly Harbourmaster. Without your encouragement I may well have burnt the manuscript. Don Silk.”

Don was buried at sea, off Rarotonga. How fitting. To quote from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Requiem:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea
Don’s death notice in the New Zealand Herald on 5 November introduced him as: “Pioneer truckie, boat builder, yachtie, skipper, South Seas trader, ship builder, stowaway, magnate, Harbour Master, author.”


Dermot said...

A lovely item, Graeme. I am pleased to say I have read the book, and it is indeed a very good read. Dermot Ross

Anonymous said...

I knoew Don for 9 months whilst I was a bar tender at Trader Jacks, I read his book many times, and I can tell you that he is justa great man and a great writer.
I poured this guy more Rum and Cokes than you could shake a stick at!

Anonymous said...

Sad to hear that Don passed away in 2012. When I called there in the 80's on the NZ govt owned Fetu Moana, he was our pilot. Years later I greatly enjoyed his book. I went on to become a pilot and harbour master in NZ. I would have loved to read his second manuscript.

Stephen Stratford said...

I would love to read that second manuscript too. Next time I visit Graeme I shall ask to see it. There ought to be a Cook Islands samizdat for stuff like this.