NOT TO BE MISSED
"Vers l'Ouest avec la nuit", an autobiograhy by Beryl MARKHAM
Translated into French by Viviane Markham. Original title: "West with the night" .
Paris: Castor Poche Flammarion, 1995. (352p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Born in England in 1902, Beryl Markham arrived in Africa in 1906 where her father had bought some land. She spent most of her life in Kenya where she died in 1986. Her autobiography West with the night [Vers l'Ouest avec la nuit], evokes the most extraordinary and adventurous life: that of a toddler from Leicestershire who became an accomplished hunter, successful horse-trainer, aviatrix and Nairobi socialite. Years of activity as a professional bush pilot, many flights to London in the 1930s, and a solo crossing of the Atlantic from England to America in 1936, are amongst the audacious achievements that gave rise to her reputation. Fascinating as a personal account of aviation's infancy in colonial Africa, Markham's life also makes some interesting comment on human values and the nature of things.
Aviation being central to Beryl Markham's life, it seems fitting that her autobiography begins with the mention of a flight from Nairobi to the small encampment of Nungwe, recorded in her log for the 16th of June 1935. On that day, she had to fly a cylinder of oxygen for a gold-miner, near death with a lung disease. She also had to look for Woody, a fellow aviator who did not return to base and was presumed lost somewhere in the veldt. The night flight and landing on rough patches of dirt in the middle of nowhere do not need hyperbolical descriptions: they came with the job, but remained very risky business: "At a thousand feet the wavering crude-oil torches outline no more than a narrow runway a thin scar on the vast sprawled body of the wilderness." (p.17)
Her rough landing, followed by the delivery of the cylinder and subsequent rescue of her friend Woody, introduces readers to an eventful life crammed with daring assignments and astonishing stunts. But the very first lines of the book are not about the author's most amazing exploits; it is rather about the limits of autobiographical writing, and an acknowledgment of the chaotic and irrational flow of memory that neither follows chronologies, nor brings to the fore deeds of yore according to their importance in one's life:
"How is it possible to bring order out of memory?", she asks. "I should like to begin at the beginning . . . . But there are a hundred places to start for there are a hundred names Mwanza, Serengetti, Nungwe, Molo, Nakuru. There are easily a hundred names, and I can begin best by choosing one of them not because it is first nor of any importance in a widely adventurous sense, but because here it happens to be, turned uppermost in my logbook. . . . . This is remembrance revisitation; and names are keys that open corridors no longer fresh in the mind, but nonetheless familiar in the heart. So the name shall be Nungwe as good as any other entered . . . . in the log, lending reality, if not order, to memory." (p.3)
Beryl Markham's astute reflections on the vagaries of memory recollection are followed by a no lesser profound and surprisingly modern take on literary constructs that reinvent, rather than describe, reality. So, she says: "there are many Africas. There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa . . . . Whoever writes a new one can afford a certain complacency in the knowledge that his is a new picture agreeing with no one elses, but likely to be haughtily disagreed with by all those who believe in some other Africa . . . . Being thus all things to all authors, it follows, I suppose, that Africa must be all things to all readers." (p.8)
That open approach to the world's perception and rendition is quite contrasting with colonial wisdom, and it sets Beryl Markham's depiction of "her" Africa apart from that of many other writers of her generation. Furthermore, contrary to many new settlers and explorers, she does not perceive her surrounding as an exotic location full of mystery and dangers. To her "it is just 'home'" (p.8). The family farm, its people and the vast expanse of veldt that surrounds her are providing the markers underpinning her understanding of the world. "I was four when I left England", she says. "Conceivably it could have been the land of milk and honey, but I do not remember it as such . . . . All the country I know is this country these hills, familiar as an old wish, this veldt, this forest." (pp.124-5)
Thus her determination to stay in Kenya when financial ruin compelled her father and later her neighbour Karen Blixen, to sell their farms and to move on. She is not quite eighteen, fascinated with horses and confident she has enough experience to train thoroughbreds to victory on the local racing scene. Thus her leaving behind her father and her youth with just two saddlebags and her horse Pegasus. "I never owned less, nor can I be sure that I ever needed more" (p.135), she says. Material accumulation was not and never became a matter of priority for her. What was driving Beryl Markham was her desire to succeed, achieve and fulfil her dreams: At eighteen, as she was cutting loose from her father, it was getting a trainer's licence under English Jockey Club rules (p.134) and to become a professional trainer of race-horses. That, of course, was not easy, nor was it easy to find owners ready to trust the ability of a very young woman to achieve the best possible results on the track. But luck, as much as hard work and single-mindedness bore fruit and brought significant victories.
The pursuit of her new flying career curtailed, and eventually supplanted Beryl Markam's horse-training activities; but it is interesting to note that upon returning to Kenya in the 1950s, after a lengthy sojourn in America and 10 years after the publication of her autobiography she resumed training horses and became one of the most successful trainers in Nairobi.
A fortuitous encounter with Tom Black, on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, was the origin of her interest in aeroplanes. The young man was fixing his car that had just broken down and the pair was chatting under the blazing sun, Beryl sitting alongside Pegasus and the young man cleaning the grease on his hands. They were speaking about progress and automobiles, but what Tom was really interested in, he told her, was aeroplanes. He had flown one during the war, liked the experience and hoped he could find the means to buy his own. "When you fly", the young man said, "you get a feeling of possession that you couldn't have if you owned all of Africa. You feel that everything you see belongs to you . . . . It's there and it's yours. It makes you feel bigger than you are closer to being something you've sensed you may be capable of, but never had the courage to seriously imagine." (pp.152-3)
As luck had it, Tom managed to fulfil his dream, and Beryl was in Nairobi when he came back from London in his new aeroplane, full of ideas about a new airline that could reach every nook and cranny of the country. His enthusiasm was infectious and it did not take long before Beryl decided to learn to fly. "Tom taught me in a D.H. Gipsy Moth", she says, "and her propeller beat the sunrise silence of the Athi Plains to shreds and scraps. 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 . . . . 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." (p.185)
Getting her first pilot licence was a formality and a year and a half after she began to fly, she graduated to a "B" licence, that is "a flyer's Magna Carta" (p.189), she says; the diploma that allows one to become a professional pilot. She had about a thousand flying hours to her credit and began straight away free-lancing, "carrying mail, passengers, supplies to safaris, or whatever had to be carried." (p.191). Meanwhile, Tom was spending all his energy expanding the Wilson Airways of which he was the Managing Director and main pilot. "Often", Markham says, "we left the Nairobi Airfield just after dawn Tom perhaps bound for Abyssinia and I for the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Tanganyika, Northern Rhodesia, or wherever somebody would pay me to go." (p.191).
Exciting as it was in the beginning, flying passengers and mail around soon became somewhat tedious, especially after Tom left for England. Beryl Markham was brimming with energy and a new challenge came her way when Denys Finch-Hutton and later the Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke (Karen Blixen's ex-husband) who was organizing safaris for the rich and famous asked her if she would be interested in scouting elephants from the air and reporting their position to the hunters below. That was exciting, Markham says, "a release from routine, a passport to adventure." (p.198)
This contribution to wild-life slaughter is difficult to reconcile with the author's apology regarding the elephants and apparent condemnation of big game hunting: "It is absurd for a man to kill an elephant", she says. "It is not brutal, it is not heroic, and certainly it is not easy; it is just one of those preposterous things that men do." (p.205) Many pages of the memoirs are dedicated to the elephants, and the author's account of their shrewdness leads to some astute comments on wisdom, knowledge and beliefs: "This order of intelligence in a lesser animal can obviously give rise to exaggeration some of it persistent enough to be crystallized into legend. But you cannot discredit truth merely because legend has grown out of it. The sometimes almost godlike achievements of our own species in ages past toddle through history supported more often than not on the twin crutches of fable and human credulity." (p.208)
Pragmatic in her approach, she was not to spoil Blix's venture on a matter of personal conviction. The Baron was a good friend and a charming companion with whom she loved sharing the thrill of danger and the confidence in one's ability to escape unharmed, even the most perilous turn of events. A man whose only weakness, she suggests, was to be far too modest; one who "made molehills out of all the mountains he had climbed, and passed off as incidents true stories that a less modest man might enlarge to blood-curling sagas. Blix's appreciation of the melodramatic [was] non-existent" (p.202), she says.
In truth, the same charge could be laid at the feet of Markham, whose attainments include her night flights, thousands of hazardous landings on small patches of dirt, many air-journeys from Kenya to England and a solo crossing of the Atlantic, all presented as some kind of matter-of-course achievements. Her unpresumptuous reporting of the facts, though, does not prevent one from imagining the challenges and difficulties encountered by a young woman who not only challenged the social order of the 1920s and 30s, but also succeeded in making her mark in domains jealously guarded by men, such as race-horse training and commercial aviation.
Thus, Beryl Markham's comments about the maps she used during her many flights seem to be also a perfect fit for her entertaining and thought-provoking memoirs: "It is only paper and ink, but if you think a little, if you pause a moment, you will see that these two things have seldom joined to make a document so modest and yet so full with histories of hope or sagas of conquest." (p.246) West with the night puts forward an unconventional account of colonial life; one which provides a perceptive reflection on human behaviour, wisdom and beliefs. That, together with its entertaining style places this book among the great literary achievements of its time.
An hour long TV documentary on Beryl Markham is available on DVD "World Without Walls: Beryl Markham's African Memoir". Produced by Joan Saffa. Directed by Andrew Maxwell Hyslop. 60 minutes. SHG Productions, 1985. [Documentary not sighted].
This review is based on the French translation of the memoirs but quotes and page numbers are from the English original republished by Virago in London in 1984.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities