Apologies for not writing a post last week – I was away on hols, in beautiful Cordoba, finding it hilarious that the husband and I were getting a little sunburnt while all the Spanish were shivering in their winter coats. We live in the wrong country, I tell you. This post is about a book set somewhere even hotter, and I hope it will chase away the last of the winter blues.
Beryl Markham’s extraordinary memoir West with the Night is a peculiarly feminine tale of African adventure and derring-do. Here are many escapades of breath-holding, fist-clenching excitement, but written about in thoughtful, lyrical prose. It’s an unusual combination, and a brilliant one.
Beryl Markham grew up in Kenya – although back then it was British East Africa – at the beginning of the twentieth century. She describes her wild childhood, hunting with a local tribe and getting mauled by a lion, then her adolescence when she helped her father train racehorses. This idyll is shattered by the First World War, and then by a drought which brings financial ruin to her father. He summons Beryl, aged seventeen, and tells her he is going to Peru. He asks her if she’d like to come with him or stay behind in Africa. Bold and courageous, Beryl decides to stay in Africa, reluctant to sever the connection she feels with the land. She rides north on her horse Pegasus to start training racehorses on her own:
I had two saddlebags, and Pegasus. The saddlebags held the pony’s rug, his brush, a blacksmith’s knife, six pounds of crushed oats and a thermometer as a precaution against Horse Sickness. For me the bags held pajamas, slacks, a shirt, toothbrush, and comb. I never owned less, nor can I be sure that I ever needed more.
Evidently, she is not your average seventeen-year-old girl.
After a successful spell training racehorses, Beryl changes tack and becomes a pilot, carrying mail, passengers, and then scouting for elephant. Later she flies to England, and then, from England, she makes the first solo East-West Atlantic flight.
I suppose it is an exciting life by any standards, and yet I was surprised by how entranced I was by it. I know and care nothing for horses or horseracing, but the chapter about a horse race had me edge-of-my-seat mesmerised. I don’t care much for aeroplanes, finding them at best noisy machines that make me feel nauseous, and at worst unnatural aberrations which are likely to send me to an untimely death. But in Markham’s prose, they are transformed into beautiful, incredible machines that conquer the vast land of Africa:
We swung over the hills and over the town and back again, and I saw how a man can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned to watch, to put my trust in other hands than mine. And I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know – that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.
Flying an aeroplane becomes a means of empowerment and a metaphor for life. I might never fly a plane, but I will happily take that inspiring knowledge that you can always get above or beyond the horizon.
There is something emblematic in Beryl’s graduation from horse to aeroplane, from living thing to machine. It is echoed in the moment when Arab Ruta – her childhood friend who follows her into adulthood as her loyal servant – gives her a clock as a goodbye present when she departs for England:
What a sad substitute, that hysterical jingle, for the soft and soothing voice that used to say, just after dawn, ‘Your tea, Memsahib?’ or long before, ‘Lakwani, it is time to hunt!’
It is also echoed in the way the Murani tribesmen are made to replace their spears with guns to fight in the First World War. A spear to a Murani, is not just a spear, but:
as much a part of himself as the sinews of his body … he will always hold it while there is strength in his arms and no cloud of age before his eyes. It is the emblem of his bloody and his breeding, and possessing it, he is suddenly a man.
When a Murani is killed in the war, this spear – almost part of his body – had been swapped for a gun, and ‘some said [his death] was because he had forsaken his spear.’
West with the Night is in many ways a chronicle of progress – from horse to plane, servant to alarm clock, spear to gun. What makes it such an intriguing book is that the nostalgia inherent in a memoir is coupled with excitement for the new. The looking back over a past life is met with Beryl’s looking forward to the next adventure. Her sadness at leaving Africa – ‘seeing it again could not be living it again… while you remember that unforgettable valley, the valley no longer remembers you’ – is swiftly replaced with eager anticipation of flying to America. It stops it from being a schmaltzy paean to a lost time, and instead makes it a beautiful record of a thrilling surge of life.
I loved every page of West with the Night and I was delighted that absolutely everyone at yesterday’s meeting of The Walking Book Club loved it too. But what none of us could quite believe was how selective Beryl had been in her self-portrait.
I was captivated by her life of adventure, filled with admiration at how she held her own as a woman in such a masculine world – but then, having reached the end and done a little digging around, I discovered the other side of her life. Beryl had three husbands and yet she mentions none of them in West with the Night. She had countless affairs, and while some of her lovers feature in the book, none of them is written about romantically. She also had a mother, brother and son – all of whom are absent from the book. Why did she leave all these major characters out of her life story?
It’s a puzzle, for sure. Perhaps she wanted to write about Africa, about her relationship with the land, rather than with these people. Perhaps, she didn’t want to undermine her rare position as a woman allowed into British East Africa’s macho male society by writing about such typically feminine concerns as love affairs, husbands and children. Whatever her reasons, I suppose being selective is the privilege of the memoirist. It just did feel like a little bit of a betrayal to have spent so many pages beside Beryl, learning about so much of her life, to discover that so much has been edited out.
There is a biography of Beryl Markham, Straight on Till Morning by Mary Lovell which looks good. Perhaps I need to read that to fill in the gaps a little more satisfactorily. Until then, I’ll leave you with a quotation from one of Hemingway’s letters:
Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West With The Night? … She has written so well, and marvellously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.
Apparently Hemingway made a pass at Beryl and she rejected him – hence, perhaps, why he thinks of her as ‘a high-grade bitch’ – but he still gives her writing his seal of approval. Indeed, when a Californian stumbled upon this mention of Beryl Markham in the 1980s, it inspired him to get West with the Night republished, leading to its popular rediscovery, forty years after its initial publication. I have to admit that I’ve never particularly got on with Hemingway’s writing – such short sentences, so much machismo, so utterly dissimilar from Markham’s prose! But I take my proverbial hat off to him for lauding her in this letter. Were it not for Hemingway, this inspiring, beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable book might never have come to light.