A visceral review of “Gweilo” by Martin Booth
I was reading “Gweilo” again because I’m interested in Hong Kong history and I’m still looking for old descriptions, pictures and accounts about this incredible city. From that point of view “Gweilo” is rich and catches the attention. But I humbly must confess that I don’t like this nonfiction book, even more after the second reading.
Ok, at first, the info about Martin Booth’s death just after the conclusion of his writing makes you an insider: “Then, in October 2002, I was diagnosed with the nastiest type of brain tumour around.” A human participation triumphs, of course, a great sympathy that opens the door.
Then is the good craft that strikes me. For example: “It was late on the afternoon of Friday, 2 May 1952, and I was seven.” So perfect that seems only the result of a good editing.
But soon here is his father’s first appearance: “Further along the rail, my father threw a streamer over the ship’s side. I followed suit, hurling mine with all my might into the sky. It arched through the air and, striking the corrugated iron roof of a dockside warehouse, bounced then rolled down to lodge in the drain. It was then I realized one was supposed to keep hold of one end of the ribbon. I threw another streamer…”
This phrase is a first, terrible value judgement, followed soon by the other one: “My father disappeared to his cabin…” that kills the father in an elegant, very British way.
On the contrary, the appearance of his mother is that of a star, on the stage.
She appears the last after the grandparents, the deck steward, the father, and the vessel too: “… but my mother and I stood at the rail ship’s for over an hour. The wind ruffled her short blond hair and rugged at her dress as we passed… My mother held my hand, not once letting it go. It was not that she was afraid I might fall overboard but that she wanted to share her exhilaration, too wide for words. As we sailed down Southampton Water, one might have expected her to cry, yet she did not. This was an adventure and one did not cry on adventures…”
After only a few pages, the characters are well defined, and also the conflict between father and mother, the place – the ship, the cabin –, the background too “… In England, still held in the grip of post-war austerity, chicken was an oft-dreamt-of, but rarely experienced, luxury. So was a pear…” Etc.
Speaking about craft, the description of his mother is an example of good balance between the necessity to be practical and concrete and the opposite one, to leave space to the reader. In terms of story, it seems that Martin, at the end of his life, finally intends to declare his love, his only love for his mother, beyond Freudian complexes, and that love must cancel everyone else around: “In memory of my mother, Joyce, a true China Hand”.
Of course, the first victim is his father, without mercy, without any sympathy.
Janet, one of my friends, told me that the mother is ‘a great character, a great figure: what a woman!’ I’m not sure at the end. There is only one light, one perspective, and no shadows. So she seems an ideal figure more than a concrete person. But: why not? Maybe she was really a great woman, ok, a great mother too, but – I wonder – is it possible that, on the contrary, Martin Booth’s father had only negative sides, without any possibility of redemption or any excuse?
Martin Booth, in fact, puts all his cleverness to make his father ridiculous and unpleasant. Let’s read this paragraph: “His first prediction was that we should see Gibraltar ‘off the port beam’, but it was hidden in sea mist. This upset him greatly. To see Gibraltar was, he considered, a rite of passage. ‘You have not lived until you’ve seen Gib.,’ he informed me with an eye as misty as the distance. ‘Why not?’ I replied. ‘It’s just a big rock.’ ‘Just a rock! Did you hear the boy, Joyce? Just a rock… What did they teach him in that bloody school?’ ‘To read and write,’ my mother answered. ‘Well’. My father, not to be wrong-footed, went on, ‘The Romans used to think that if you sailed too far out from Gib., you fell off the edge of the world.’ ‘But you don’t,’ I rejoined. ‘It’s round. You just come back again.’ This piece of puerile logic was met with a brief snort of contempt.”
Now, from the crafting point of view, I think is a good paragraph. The dialogue is very useful to underline the due dramatization. The characters are clear, as well as the conflict and the coalition.
From the point of view of the quality of the whole book, I think that the “treatment” to his father, that lasts all over the piece, until the clash with the tram driver, in the final pages, is not an asset. Also the last appearance of Martin Booth’s father, just in the episode of the tram, is functional only to his destruction. Was there this need?
Sorry, but I think that the relationship with his father is crucial for the account, maybe more than the one with his mother. Ok, she was a great figure; she was adventurous and liberal, also with her son, never apprehensive or anxious, eager to discover new things, new cultures, etc.
But, why a man at the very end of his life, telling the story of his youth to his children, feels the need to attack in that way his father, giving a very low, wretched picture of him? It is a strange thing indeed. What kind of secrets he his hiding and wanted to hid to his children?
Because, you know, you could also have a father who is a jerk or a stupid man, or a nobody, or you could have a father who is a murderer, I don’t know, ok, but you don’t need to destroy him systematically, in a terrible British way, from the first to the last page of your memoirs!
Why don’t you explain soon you had a jerk, stupid father, maybe inadequate to life, and stop that?
“My mother (pag. 260!), dressed in an old shirt of my father’s, a large pullover and a pair of jeans, enjoyed the crossing, as did my father, who, wearing a pair of neatly creased trousers with a cravat at his throat, persuaded the Chinese coxswain to relinquish the wheel to him once we were out of the harbour. The coxswain, assuming a naval gweilo would be familiar with the manoeuvring of a launch, agreed but soon regretted it when he noticed my father was heading straight for the wrong island. Not having the courage to admonish him, the coxswain mentioned it to Alec Borrie, a thin, tall, friendly man who was not only the trip’s organizer but also my father’s divisional superior – his Old Man. ‘I think we need to go a few degrees to port, Ken,’ he said quietly. ‘You are on a heading to Peng Chau.’ My father looked extremely sheepish and altered course. A few minutes later, he surrendered the wheel once more to the coxswain and busied himself with his binoculars. I noticed on these occasions that my father was often left out of the conversation and he seldom sought to join in.”
Stupid asshole, stupid man, surrounded by a wife always at easy, by friendly men, thin and tall, and by a son able to use his pen like a weapon and Hong Kong like a duty-free-world, just to unchain his Freudian Oedipus complex!
Can I close this visceral review underlining the power of the hypocrisy? ‘I notice on these occasions that my father was often left out of the conversation.’ On these occasions, page 260? C’mon.