Booth followed the advice, ingesting more new food, culture and adventure in those three years than most people manage in a lifetime. He eventually returned to Britain, supported himself as a truck driver, legal clerk, wine steward, English teacher and, only after he turned 40, a writer. But that boyhood hunger for discovery would help shape 13 novels, six books of children's fiction and 10 nonfiction works of history, biography, criticism and reportage. Add his mountain of articles, television scripts and poems, plus the 400 books by other poets (including Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney) that he produced at his small publishing house, Sceptre Press, and Booth ranks as a giant of modern English letters. So why haven't more people heard of him?
Many kids know his Music on the Bamboo Radio, about a boy stranded in Hong Kong by the 1941 Japanese invasion. Conservationists value Booth's many books and TV documentaries on African wildlife (he spent a few years in Kenya). There's also his 1985 international best seller Hiroshima Joe, the tale of a captured British soldier who survives the first atomic bombing. And Booth's Industry of Souls was short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize in 1998 (after being rejected by major publishers and picked up by a small imprint for a pitiful $1,800 advance).
Gweilo should rescue Booth from relative obscurity, if only for the story behind it. Two years ago, as the author was battling brain cancer, his children asked him to set down an account of his formative years while he still could. Booth finished just before dying in February.
Don't look for anything morose here, however. Gweilo is sometimes a bit novelistic for a memoir, but it is alive with delight in the new. The boy's golden hair is considered lucky by the Chinese, who cannot resist touching it. "I was a walking talking talisman," he writes. This, plus his status as a gweilo ("ghostly man," or Caucasian), allows him to walk undeterred into Hong Kong's brothels and opium dens to befriend coolies, Triad gangsters and the real-life model for Hiroshima Joe. Perhaps Booth's biggest coup is talking his way into Kowloon Walled City, a notorious no-go area of vice, violence and opium dens. Afterward, his guide, a young Triad member named Lau, gestures toward a pig being slaughtered in a nearby butcher shop. "Blood sprayed from its neck," writes Booth. "Lau put his hands on my shoulder in an affable manner and said, 'You talk [about the Walled City], maybe you [end up] like this.'"
But Booth's appetite for Hong Kong's idiosyncrasies is already whetted. He encounters a woman with bound feet, a waiter whose tongue was cut out by the Japanese as a punishment and a dentist whose recollections of wartime internment are so gruesome that Booth endures the drill without novocaine or complaint. He learns how to eat boiled beetles, polish ancestral bones during the Festival of Hungry Ghosts and speak rudimentary Cantonese. He spends long afternoons wandering around what was then a quiet city of green hills and mysterious alleys, catching geckos and digging up spent bullets—and, one scary day, the skeleton of a Japanese soldier. After watching a sailor pinch a bar girl on the bottom, he tries out that sign of affection on his family's elderly Chinese maid, with disastrous results. When his father gets into a minor road accident, an angry mob gathers—until Martin, then 9, stuns everyone into silence with a burst of newly acquired Cantonese obscenities.
Yet his idyll has a villain: Booth's father, a stiff, cocktail-swilling prig who denigrates the locals and mocks the boy for "going native." The elder Booth "was a natural-born bully," writes his ever-upbeat son. "On the other hand, I did grow up mixing a mean cocktail." The heroine is his mother—spunky, intelligent and curious about all things Chinese. Dad, a civilian employee of the navy, wants to go home; Mum wants to stay. As the family heads for the ship that will return them to England, she impulsively grabs Martin and leaps from the car. Gweilo is artfully shy of detail about what comes next, and sadly there will be no sequel. So this sunny, luminous memoir—along with the three forthcoming children's books the dying Booth also completed—will have to serve as his epitaph, ensuring that he will remain forever young.