Martin Booth

Poet and novelist with a keen sense of place
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The Independent Online

Martin Booth, writer: born Ribchester, Lancashire 7 September 1944; FRSL 1980; married 1968 Helen Barber (one son, one daughter); died Stoodleigh, Devon 12 February 2004.

Martin Booth was a novelist, poet, biographer, travel-writer, scriptwriter, children's author and sometime small-press publisher.

He was a natural raconteur, the stories often growing wildly in the telling, and his art as a novelist always lay in the dramatic unfolding of events, most often in pungently evoked locales. He was a keen observer of place, able to make the reader feel locations of which they had no experience. Nearly all of his novels feature foreign settings or other times, as if he were actively avoiding contemporary Britain. His masterpieces were Hiroshima Joe (1985), A Very Private Gentleman (1991), a literate and unusual first-person thriller, the Gulag novel Industry of Souls (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1998) and his last novel, Islands of Silence (2002), a deeply poetic novel set mostly during the First World War.

In an interesting throwback to his earlier days as a poet, Industry of Souls and Islands of Silence were both published by the fine small press Dewi Lewis Publishing, following a lack of interest (and, in my view, lack of taste) on the part of more traditional publishers. Of his five children's novels so far published, Music on the Bamboo Radio (1998) is a superb evocation of wartime Hong Kong, the abandoned British boy-hero very much the author's alter ego.

Martin Booth was born in Ribchester, Lancashire, but lived abroad, in Hong Kong and in Kenya, for most of his childhood, due to his father's employment in the colonial civil service. The experience of living abroad, of other cultures, of being an outsider, was to colour much of his subsequent work as a writer, though it would be many years before he managed to turn to writing full-time. Returning to Britain, he trained to be a teacher of English, a profession he was to pursue for the best part of two decades, mostly in southern England, and lastly in Taunton.

While a schoolboy in Hong Kong, he met Edmund Blunden, then teaching at the University of Hong Kong, who was to be a formative influence in his decision to take up writing poetry. When Booth began writing, it was in the midst of the Sixties poetry boom, and he quickly made a mark in the burgeoning small-press scene. Although he won a Gregory Award in 1971 for The Crying Embers, his profile took a dip in the more restrained poetry world of the Seventies and he turned increasingly to fiction, as well as to writing television scripts - initially for children's programmes such as Jackanory, but also for Wildlife on One.

Amongst his final verse publications were two fine volumes for James L Weil's Elizabeth Press in New York, which have never been republished in full in the UK, The Knotting Sequence (1977) and Cnot Dialogues (1981). These books give an indication as to how his poetry might have developed, but remain a tantalising might-have-been. In 1985 he published a typically contrarian history of recent British poetry, British Poetry 1964-1984, which remains a valuable guide to its period. As a publisher, from the late Sixties until the mid-Eighties he was responsible for the Sceptre Press, which made available finely printed editions of small collections by many of the best poets of the period.

Two early novels disappeared without much notice, but he was to make a decisive breakthrough in 1985 with the publication of Hiroshima Joe, a dramatic evocation of Hong Kong in the 1950s, the plot of which revolved around a PoW survivor of the bomb, in turn based upon a true-life figure that the author recalled from childhood. It was this bestseller which enabled Booth to give up teaching and turn to writing full-time, assisted by the tireless researching skills of his wife, Helen.

While Hong Kong was to feature in several novels, it was also to feature in what I believe to be the finest available guide to the city, The Dragon and the Pearl (1994), a book full of fascinating nuggets of information, and the sort of volume one might take along on long rambles through back streets. A childhood fascination with wildlife - probably rooted in his earlier African years - resulted in the keenly observed biography of the early tiger conservationist, Jim Corbett, Carpet Sahib (1986), and a memorable BBC film (Man-Eaters of Kumaon), as well as Rhino Road (1992) and several safaris in his later years. Non-fiction books on the Triads and separate histories of Opium (1996) and Cannabis (2003) were to follow, as were A Magick Life: a biography of Aleister Crowley (whose poetry Booth had also edited) and The Doctor, The Detective and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1997).

In later years Martin Booth came to appreciate Texas and the south-western states of the United States, a part of the world he had not previously explored, and with that came a taste for hats - ideal for the sparser hair-count of his later years - and for boots, as only Texans can make them. While the nature of his illness precluded him from dying with his boots on, I am delighted to report that he will be buried in his favourite pair.

He spent 16 months fighting a severe form of brain cancer. An operation soon after diagnosis removed part of the tumour, and medication - both traditional and non-traditional - kept it in check for some time afterwards. The lease of life given by medical intervention, and his own refusal to give up, gave him extra months in which he managed to complete three more children's books and a long-projected autobiography of his childhood years - to be published later this year under the title "Gweilo".

Tony Frazer

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