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On My Way to Samarkand: Memoirs of a Travelling Writer
Garry Douglas Kilworth
Infinity Plus, 362 pages

On My Way to Samarkand: Memoirs of a Travelling Writer
Garry Kilworth
Garry Kilworth has now been writing novels and short stories for 35 years and is as close to seven million words in print as he is into his seventh decade. While he enjoys writing novels, and dabbles with poetry, his paramount passion is the short story, which he rips from his brain and burns onto the page. A great deal of his inspiration for the tales he writes comes from traveling, especially in the Far East, where he spent much of his youth and a few years of his later life. His recent book, Scarlet Sash (Severn House), is a military crime novel set during the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. He is currently planning a volume of poems, half of them written by himself, and half written by the late Robert Holdstock. The shared collection will be entitled Poems, Peoms and other Atrocities, scheduled for publication from PS's Stanza Press imprint.

Garry Kilworth Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Memories of the Flying Ball Bike Shop
SF Site Review: Tales from a Fragrant Harbour

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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Samarkand, it turns out, is one of the few places not visited by Garry Kilworth in this account of a very restless life.

He was born in York in the early years of the Second World War, but fairly soon moved to Essex which is the still point about which the rest of this book revolves. His father was in the RAF, and chose to stay in the military after the war, so Kilworth had the typically unsettled upbringing that implies. The family moved from posting to posting, including a spell in Aden that gave Kilworth a taste for the exotic. By the time he left the last of umpteen schools when he was 16, he had no educational qualifications. On the other hand, he had learned how to live on a shoestring, how to forge lifelong friendships out of the barest acquaintance, and above all he had developed a love of travel, or perhaps more accurately a discontent when he has to stay too long in one place.

Contemplating the job prospects for an unqualified school leaver in 1950s Britain, he decided to join the RAF himself, as what was called a 'Boy Entrant'. This seems to have been a wise choice. The order and ritual of military life suited him, even 40 years after demobilisation he retains the crisp, sharp corners and rigorous order of the military life. More importantly, fed his hunger for travel, and encouraged his desire to write. In those days, despite the sports and the sightseeing and, of course, the work in what would once have been called Signals but in Kilworth's time seems to have been Comms, there was still an awful lot of free time to fill. The choices for a young man seem to have been drinking or reading; Kilworth was never a great drinker, so he read a lot. In particular, he read a lot of short stories and poetry, and in time started to try writing it himself. He doesn't seem to have done anything with these early efforts, other than hiding them away, but it gave him a ten-year apprenticeship before he began to write professionally.

Even more than the chance to read and write, however, the RAF sent him around the world. He variously served in Singapore, the Maldives, Kenya, Germany and Cyprus among other postings. In among all this, he had met and married Annette, who seems to have been every bit as eager to see out of the way places as he was himself. His accounts of these various postings, therefore, often follow the same general pattern. There are the misadventures of finding somewhere for the two of them to live, since they never seemed to qualify for married quarters; then there are the lists of old acquaintances they run into and new friends made who will themselves be encountered again later in the story; then there are the accounts of the different places seen, accounts that gradually acquire more substance as the book progresses. But now we also learn how some of these places would feed into his later fictions, perhaps most intriguingly we learn that the barren atoll of Gan in the Maldives was the basis for Cloudrock, one of his best and most atmospheric science fiction novels.

Here, also, comes the one point of genuine drama in the book, when he returned to Aden just at the point that the British were preparing to withdraw from the former colony. It was a time when British troops were coming under daily attack from a variety of rebel groups, and even men like Kilworth found themselves on the front line, taking part in armed patrols and standing guard through the night, while people he knew were being killed. It is a tense time, tensely described, and again we are told how these experiences fed into his early stories. Perhaps more importantly, on a personal level, it confirms Kilworth's own pacifist views. Throughout the book he mentions, without making too much of it, a continuing closeness to the church, but late in life he became a Quaker, and he writes movingly about why this should be and what Quaker beliefs mean to him (though I find it strange that he never actually specifies when or how he made this transition).

Among all his RAF postings, the only one that he clearly does not like is to the Ministry of Defence in London, so when, in the early 70s, he has to leave the RAF and take a civilian job which entails commuting into London, you get a sense that this is a very unwelcome development. But the job involves regular visits to the Caribbean. More significantly, he has barely left the service when he is persuaded to submit one of his stories to the Gollancz/Sunday Times short story contest, and wins. Or rather, he shares the first prize with someone who has never subsequently written science fiction. Kilworth's story, 'Let's Go To Golgotha', now much anthologised, is an excellent piece of work and a fine harbinger of the career that would follow. The victory didn't just open up the opportunity to sell more stories and, later, novels (though the short story remained his favourite form, which is only appropriate given that he has become one of the finest short story writers in the genre), it also introduced him to the community of science fiction. Here he made more friendships, the most important of which was probably with Robert Holdstock, who remained close until his death.

This new career, writing first science fiction and later children's fiction, historical fiction and animal fantasies among others, gave him something to fall back on when his civilian job reached a natural end. He records, on the first day of his retirement, that he put on his normal working clothes and went down to the station in time for his usual commuter train, then waved as his fellow commuters boarded and left before returning home, changing into casual clothes, and starting writing. Despite taking a number of part time jobs, this change in status did not curtail his globetrotting. Annette got a job in Hong Kong, and they lived there for several years (clearly one of his favourite places), and no sooner had they returned from this than they set off on a round the world trip. And even after this the book is filled with accounts of visits to Australia, Malaysia, the Pacific Islands, India, buying a home in Spain where they live three months of the year, and so on. By now, of course, the trips are impinging more and more on his writing, and we learn about his inspiration for The Navigator Kings and his historical novels, how popular his Welkin Weasels books are in New Zealand (though they have no weasels there), and so on. Through it all, however, I can't help feeling that the best thing he has written is Witchwater Country, his semi-autobiographical novel about his Essex childhood, and it is Essex that comes across most vividly in this book, from his account of the Great Storm of 1953 when he and his brother took refuge on the roof lashed to the chimney while the flood raged, to his long-time home of 'Wychwater' which became the setting for splendid literary parties.

This is, perhaps, not the best book that Garry Kilworth has written, it is too full of occasionally leaden accounts of RAF postings and business trips, littered with too many lists of friends made and encountered, for that. But as a record of the inspiration that lies behind so many of his stories and novels, it is unmissable.

Copyright © 2013 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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