This Great Stage of Fools: An Anthology of Uncollected Writings by Alan Booth (Edited by Timothy Harris) - review by Lesley Downer

Lesley Downer

Our Man in Japan

This Great Stage of Fools: An Anthology of Uncollected Writings


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Alan Booth, who died in 1993 at the age of forty-seven, was a London-born writer and journalist who lived in Japan for twenty years and wrote two well-loved travel books, The Roads to Sata and Looking for the Lost, which have become classics owing to their sharp depictions of Japanese life and their bracing humour. Now Timothy Harris has put together this collection of Booth’s journalism and other writings. This Great Stage of Fools includes Booth’s reviews of Japanese films, descriptions of festivals and folk songs and tales from his travels off the beaten track in Japan. I should confess that I was a friend of Booth: he was a great raconteur, with a fund of sometimes outrageous stories that reflected his enviable knowledge of Japanese life and culture. But for anyone with an interest in Japan, or who simply enjoys colourful writing, this volume will be a treat.

Booth wrote most of his film reviews in the 1980s, and it’s fascinating to read his acerbic comments on films now held in high esteem, such as Kurosawa’s Kagemusha and Ran and Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. But it’s when he writes about his travels that Booth is at his best. This is not the Zen and cherry blossom view of Japan, but rather a down-to-earth, wry vision of the country. Booth loved remote communities and their festivals, where the wild spirit of old Japan was still in evidence. A great singer, he devotes a series of articles to folk songs and the small communities where they originated. He interweaves snatches of lyrics with tales of his own travels, evoking the loneliness of life in these rural hinterlands, where snow blocks the passes for half the year: ‘I am a fern shoot that grows in the shade at Sotoyama,/Withered for want of picking.’

His humour comes at the expense of the puffed up and pretentious, such as the television producer with the ‘smart little BBC grin’ who, alerted to rumours of cheating in the ritual battle for the shrine banners during the famous Awa Odori dance festival in Tokushima, remarks sarcastically, ‘That’s the samurai spirit for you.’ Booth silently retorts that ‘when swords were worn and armour was stitched with silk … the BBC camera team would all have had their heads cut off.’

In 1985 Booth set out on what was to be his last great walk, across Shikoku Island. He took the most gruelling possible route, leading to an eighteen-day knee-shattering slog up and down mountains. His account combines glorious descriptions of the landscape with rueful remarks about the state of his legs and feet. Most of the people he meets have never seen a foreigner before, let alone one they can talk to. Some of his encounters are poignant. Unbidden, a grandmother tells him about the pink slip of paper that arrived many years ago, ordering her nineteen-year-old husband off to China to fight: ‘So small, and with only a couple of lines of writing on it. Such a nothing it was; a little bit of pink paper … I still mourn for him, forty years on.’

The discovery that he had cancer in January 1992 didn’t stop Booth from writing. He notes how people skirt around the subject of cancer in his presence, until an old friend blurts out, ‘You’re in the shadow of death!’ These writings are laced with dark humour. He recounts his adventures in Calcutta, a city where it’s virtually impossible not to fall ill, and finds humour in the Japanese medical system, describing how he undergoes an intimate examination behind a flimsy curtain in a room containing more than a hundred people, whose ears prick up when he mutters that his ailment may be leprosy, caught in Calcutta.

Many books claim to reveal the ‘real’ or the ‘lost’ Japan, but Booth had both the ability and the personality to really get to the heart of the country. This Great Stage of Fools is a fitting memorial to an idiosyncratic voice.

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