Monday, September 12, 2016

West With the Night--Markham's Autobiography

(Title links to synopsis.)
Markham accomplished several 
"female firsts" in her lifetime: 
first female licensed 
racehorse trainer in Kenya, 
first female to complete 
a solo flight across the Atlantic 
from east to west, and 
first female licensed 
commercial pilot in Kenya.
I became interested in reading her autobiography as a result of having read Paula McLain's historical fiction novel, Circling the Sun 
(released July 2015), which I found fascinating!
Between these two books, I feel as if I have a 
fairly comprehensive understanding of Beryl Markham, the person.
To say she was a free and independent spirit, is definitely an understatement, 
especially for the time in which she lived!

Having read Circling the Sun first I was aware of some of her earlier intimate relationships,   and rumors thereof. I felt rather surprised that she mentioned
none of her intimate relationships with men in her autobiography, 
but strictly her personal and particularly professional accomplishments. 
Then I began worrying about my own motivations! Have I fallen subject to the sensationalism that seemingly pervades current mainstream media? Yikes! I hope not...

I am fascinated by the controversy as to whether it was her third husband 
who actually wrote West With the Night or whether she wrote it herself. 
However, per Wikipedia, the publisher had paid for another book to be written by both of them, and in the meantime, her third husband refused to be involved in writing a second book, so she submitted the manuscript she had written herself and the publisher refused it, stating it was not written by the same writer as was West With the Night
One biographer found indications that her third husband had edited the WWtN manuscript, though he claimed to have changed very little. So, who knows? 
The only thing I do know for certain is that I enjoyed reading this book. :)


Charles Baldwin Clutterbuck (Yep! No lie...Clutterbuck was this man's name!) moved his family from England to Njoro in British East Africa "because it was new and you could feel the future of it under your feet." He farmed and trained and bred racehorses, though we also learn he was quite an entrepreneur, building a grist mill from two old steam engines and making money charging to mill grain for those from many many miles around. With the profit from this venture, he purchased two more old railway engines, "fitted them with pulleys, and started the first important saw mill in British East Africa." Though this is not where Markham begins telling her story...
...I am no weaver. Weavers create. 
This is remembrance--revisitation; 
and names are keys that open corridors 
no longer fresh in the mind, 
but nonetheless familiar in the heart. (3)
I couldn't help but sigh after reading the first two paragraphs. So true, isn't it? I love this picture on the right; she appears to be in deep thought, much as I would like to imagine she might have been as she began writing her memoir... Beryl was just over six feet tall with blonde hair and blue eyes and evidently an appealing figure. She was described as a "Society Beauty" in some headlines. She was apparently quite attractive to most men.

She begins by describing her work as a free-lance pilot flying out of Nairobi.
Even in nineteen-thirty-five it wasn't easy to get a plane in East Africa and it was almost impossible to get very far across country without one. There were roads, of course, 
leading in a dozen directions out of Nairobi. They started out boldly enough, 
but grew narrow and rough after a few miles and dwindled into the rock-studded hills, 
or lost themselves in a morass of red muram mud or black cotton soil, 
in the flat country and the valleys. (5)
It is these descriptions I love to read...I can almost imagine these 'roads' as they peter out to become nonexistent before very long. In speaking of Africa:
Whatever happens, armies will continue to rumble, colonies may change masters, 
and in the face of it all Africa lies, and will lie, like a great, wisely somnolent giant 
unmolested by the noisy drum-rolling of bickering empires. It is not only land; 
it is an entity born of one man's hope and another man's fancy. 
...there are many Africas. There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa--
and as many books about it as you could read in a leisurely lifetime...
All of these books...are accurate in their various portrayals of Africa...an Africa true to each writer of each book. Being thus all things to all authors...Africa must be all things to all readers.
Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer's paradise, 
a hunter's Valhalla, an escapist's Utopia...it withstands all interpretations...
To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just 'home.' 
It is all these things but one thing--it is never dull. (8)

I think one must have a true sense of adventure to be able to do what her father did and what she did...living their lives in a scarcely inhabited environment so very different from anything in England...and definitely "wild" by comparison. 
...the soul of Africa, its integrity, the slow inexorable pulse of its life, is its own and 
of such singular rhythm that no outsider, unless steeped from childhood in its endless, even beat, can ever hope to experience it, except only as a bystander might experience 
a Masai war dance knowing nothing of its music nor the meaning of its steps. (13)
One of the things I love most about her autobiography is that she was raised alongside, actually with, the native children, so she knows of which she speaks firsthand. This is no imagined feeling about Africa, but a result of her direct experience of living in cooperation with nature, just as the indigenous people had for many generations and eons. 

Beryl describes her experience of flying during night-time: 
It is at times unreal to the point where the existence of other people seems not even 
a reasonable probability. The hills, the forests, the rocks, and the plains 
are one with the darkness, and the darkness is infinite. 
Before such a flight it was this anticipation of aloneness more than any thought of physical danger that used to haunt me a little and make me wonder sometimes 
if mine was the most wonderful job in the world after all.
I always concluded that lonely or not it was still free from the curse of boredom. (10)
I can understand a bit more about her personal relationships as a result of reading her autobiography; she definitely was never bored nor did she suffer from boredom as she was always creating and developing new relationships, never standing still nor remaining with one partner for too long.


She has landed in an out-of-the-way location of "scrubby huts" to deliver oxygen to a dying man...
Hot night wind stalked through the thorn trees and leleshwa that surrounded the clearing. 
It bore the odour of swampland, the small of Lake Victoria, the breath of weeds and 
sultry plains and tangled bush. It whipped at the oil flares and snatched at 
the surfaces of the Avian. But there was loneliness in it and aimlessness, 
as if its passing were only a sterile duty lacking even beneficent promise of rain. (18)
They ask if she won't please visit this dying man before she takes off. She finally agrees though she considers it to be a meaningless mission, at best. The man wanted news, news of the world outside his very small world.
Wherever you are, it seems, you must have news of some other place, some bigger place, so that a man on his deathbed in the swamplands of Victoria Nyanza is more interested in what has lately happened in this life than in what may happen in the next. 
It is really this that makes death so hard--curiosity unsatisfied. (25)
So bittersweet and yet so true... And although Beryl describes her total revulsion of "a human being swathed in the sickly-sweet atmosphere of disease and impending death" as much worse than her fear of any snake, I felt this was more typical of most humans than not. I believe this is due more to fear of facing our own inevitable mortality than anything else. 

In considering a fellow pilot who was lost in the Serengetti, she sees "a single jackal foraging expectantly in a mound of filth" nearby and thinks...
The sight of the jackal had brought to mind the scarcely comforting speculation that in Africa there is never any waste. Death particularly is never wasted. What the lion leaves, 
the hyena feasts upon and what scraps remain are morsels for the jackal, 
the vulture, or even the consuming sun. (23)
Add to this thought the fact that the area where the pilot was "lost" was thousands of acres of UNSURVEYED land according to the maps. This was not unusual, as much of Africa still lay unexplored. 
All this, together with the fact that there was no radio, nor any system designed to check planes 
in and out of their points of contact, made it essential for a pilot either to develop 
his intuitive sense to the highest degree or to adopt a fatalistic philosophy toward life. 
Most of the airmen I knew in Africa at that time managed to do both. (36)
I feel Beryl had the added advantage of knowing Africa from a 'native' perspective, having hunted and lived with the indigenous people as a child. Bishon Singh is in the Serengetti as she rescues Woody, that lost pilot. Bishon speaks to Beryl of flight:
'So,' he scolded, 'now it has come to this. 
To walk is not enough. 
To ride on a horse is not enough.
Now people must go from place to place through the air, 
like a diki toora
Nothing but trouble will come of it, Beru. 
God spits upon such blasphemy.'
'God has spat,' sighed Woody. (52)
Thank goodness for Beryl's commitment to keep flying over those thousands of acres in the Serengetti and looking, always looking, for just one little clue...and she almost missed it, thinking it a strange little bit of water, then realizing it was the sun reflecting off the wing of Woody's plane. She was quite a courageous soul! 

She describes a huge herd of impala, wildebeest, and zebra, fleeing "before the shadow of my wings," as she explores the Serengetti searching for Woody:
As the herd moved it became a carpet of rust-brown and grey and dull red.
It was not like a herd of cattle or of sheep, because it was wild, and it carried with it the 
stamp of wilderness and the freedom of a land still more a possession of Nature than of men. 
To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce 
is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, 
or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe. 
You know then that what you had always been told--that the world once lived and grew 
without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks. (38)
I don't know about you, but I can remember a similar sense of awe and spiritual presence as I watched herds in the wild shown on nature shows I would watch on TV as a child. I guess I have always been drawn to the seemingly fluid movements of herds of thousands of wild beasts. 

The sikh, Bishon Singh, who had been the first one on the scene when Beryl was attacked by a 'pet' lion as a child, had himself later been attacked by a lion, which he believed made the two of them like "brothers." Beryl devotes a whole chapter to this life event, "He Was a Good Lion," which might seem incongruous, given the fact that he had attacked her and continued to kill over the next three nights: a horse, a yearling bullock, and "a cow fresh for milking," until finally captured and caged to live out the "many many years" remaining in his life. 
It seems characteristic of the mind of man that the repression of what is natural to humans 
must be abhorred, but that what is natural to an infinitely more natural animal 
must be confined within the bounds of a reason peculiar only to men--
more peculiar sometimes than seems reasonable at all...
He had lived and died in ways not of his choosing. He was a good lion.
He had done what he could about being a tame lion. 
Who thinks it just to be judged by a single error?
I still have the scars of his teeth and claws, but they are very small now and almost forgotten, 
and I cannot begrudge him his moment. (66)
Beryl herself could understand that this 'tame' lion who was allowed to run loose on the Delamere's estate would attack her as she ran carelessly through the wild growth near the farm. She certainly seemed to suffer no long-term physical effects. She was especially close to Delamere and his wife:
Delamere had two great loves--East Africa and the Masai People. 
To the country he gave his genius, most of his substance, and all of his energy. 
To the Masai he gave the help and understanding of a mind unhampered by the smug belief
that the white man's civilization has nothing to learn from the black man's preferred lack of it. 
He respected the spirit of the Masai, their traditions, their physical magnificence, 
and their knowledge of cattle which, excepting war, was their only concern...
Delamere's character had as many facets as a cut stone, 
but each facet shone with individual brightness. (71)
According to Beryl, the Delamere estate became "an exemplary farm for all of British East Africa to profit by, but almost a small feudal state as well." 
...if Delamere was the champion of the East African settler (as indeed he was), then the devotion and comradeship of his wife were as responsible for his many victories as his own genius. (72)
Lady Delamere had served as Beryl's "adopted mother" and of her Beryl states,
I cannot remember a time when her understanding 
of my youthful problems was lacking or her advice withheld. (72)
I did chuckle at that last phrase regarding advice! :) That proved to me she did act more like a mother to Beryl than not. At least Beryl did have some adults who helped raise her through childhood. 

Buller, Beryl's faithful canine companion, was abducted from the hut he shared with Beryl one night by a leopard, and when she finally found him the next morning, he was barely alive, but following 10 months of "tedious nursing" he "became the same Buller again--except that his head had lost what little symmetry it ever had and cat-killing developed from a sport to a vocation." Years later he attacks a warthog about six times his size, and is torn open, but recovers once again. But even Buller's life finally ends...
What can be said of Buller--a dog like any other, except only to me? 
...Rest you, Buller...There is respect for a heart like yours, and if its beating stop,
the spirit lives to guard the ways you wandered. (136)
This made me tear up, having lost my childhood canine companion as a senior in high school. Being an only child living in the country on a farm, my dog was quite literally my best friend. :)

The first foal that Beryl births on her own with the help of Otieno and Toombo is given to her by her father. She names him Pegasus. It is on Pegasus that she sets out once her father has lost his farm...toward the stables at Molo where her father believes she can learn to train horses...as a professional. 
Remember that you are still just a girl and don't expect too much...work and hope. 
But never hope more than you work. (135)
It is on this long trip that she and Pegasus happen upon Tom Black, working to get his car running again... He shares with her his dream to own his own plane and fly again, having flown in the war.
It makes you feel bigger than you are--closer to being something you've sensed you might be capable of, but never had the courage to seriously imagine. (153)
He had been lavish with a stranger. He had left me a word, tossed me a key 
to a door I never knew was there, and had still to find...
Whoever heard of Destiny with pliers in his hand? (154)
It was many days before their paths crossed again, but he had an indelible affect upon Beryl's life. And although Tom accomplished much in his life, 
If a man has any greatness in him, it comes to light, 
not in one flamboyant hour, but in the ledger of his daily work. (153)
What a revealing insight...I so agree! It is easy for a person to be impressive or do something impressive once or for a short while, but what reveals a person's true character is his/her daily thoughts, intentions, actions and interactions, isn't it? He had planted a seed...and it grew over time...

I'm no horsewoman, but the description of one race where Beryl had trained the favored colt to be a champion only to have him stripped away from her at the last minute and she hurriedly trains another smaller filly with bad legs...the description of that race as she watches these two horses...it's so full of tension and such bursts of feelings! She states that you do not "watch" a horse race, you "read" it. And poor Beryl! Both of them race their hearts out...and does her handicapped little filly win it? Yes...she even sets a track record! Though the owner wisely retires her, ignoring the money that might be made by continuing to race her. That made me so happy. Why risk her legs breaking down just to get more money? No. Have a heart and care for her. Just celebrate her victory! That's so right...

Beryl did learn to fly and in the aftermath...
Life had a different shape; it had new branches and some of the old branches were dead.
It had followed the constant pattern of discard and growth that all lives follow. 
Things had passed, new things had come. The wonder of my first fledgling hours of flight were lost in the many hundreds of hours I had sat making my living at the controls of my plane. (197)
Flight is but momentary escape from the eternal custody of earth. (285)

In describing Denys Finch-Hatton (of Out of Africa fame):
If someone has not already said it, someone will say that he was a great man who 
never achieved greatness, and this will not only be trite, but wrong; 
he was a great man who never achieved arrogance. (192)
What came from him, if emanate is not the better word, was a force that bore inspiration, 
spread confidence in the dignity of life, and even gave sometimes a presence to silence. (193)
Denys had invited Beryl to fly with him as he tried out his theory of scouting elephant overhead by airplane for hunting parties. (After reading The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony and learning more about elephants, particularly their intelligence and communicative abilities, I was sickened by this talk of hunting elephants, but it is what was done at that time...) When Beryl mentioned it to Tom, he asked her to wait and not go with Denys on that day. Then her native companion later asked if she had heard from Denys. Somehow both of them had premonitions...for Denys and his Kikuyu boy died at the beginning of that flight...the plane simply 'crashed and burned.' 
Denys' death left some lives without design, but they were rebuilt again, 
as lives and stones are, into other patterns. (196)

Beryl's opinion:
As to the brutality of elephant-hunting, I cannot see that it is any more brutal than 
ninety percent of all other human activities. I suppose there is nothing more tragic about 
the death of an elephant than there is about the death of a Hereford steer--
certainly not in the eyes of the steer. 
The only difference is that the steer has neither the ability nor the chance 
to' outwit the gentleman who wields the slaughterhouse snickersnee, 
while the elephant has both of these to pit against the hunter. (208)
The older I get the more I realize that ALL beings, animals and plants, in this world are more than we humans believe them to be. I get her point about the steer. And having said all this, you would believe me to at least have adopted a vegetarian lifestyle, if not vegan, but I have not. Perhaps old habits die hard...and I must eat--something! :) According to her, elephants will always simply charge and kill a man. Though she and Blix were not dispatched in this way by one elephant they encountered, though it could have done just that with both of them... Wow...how scary would that be? According to Blix, there is an old adage translated from the Coptic
that contains all the wisdom of the ages--
"Life is life and fun is fun, but it's all so quiet when the goldfish die." (219)
Beryl's philosophy on life:
A life has to move or it stagnates...
It is no good telling yourself that one day you will wish you had never made that change; 
it is no good anticipating regrets. 
You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself 
because you strive against loneliness. 
Being alone in an aeroplane...irrevocably alone, with nothing to observe but...
the beliefs, the faces, and the hopes rooted in your mind--
such an experience can be as startling as the first awareness of a stranger 
walking by your side at night. You are the stranger. (283)
Oh, I think Beryl's on to something here. I firmly believe that few of us ever take enough time to be by ourselves, just to contemplate and wonder...about everything, life, death, all that lies behind and before us. As a species I believe the majority of us have not discovered and certainly not nurtured our introspective skills...and I believe we have lost much along with the loss of such abilities. 

Reading the last 20 pages or so of this book as Markham describes her record-breaking flight was tense! If you want to know just how brave and courageous she had to be to survive it, then you should read her account. Wow. She ended up crash-landing...so definitely not strictly according to plan, but she accomplished the main goal! And yes, that is a bandage on her head. Fortunately, a Cape Breton Islander found her...
I had been wandering for an hour and the black mud had got up to my waist 
and the blood from the cut in my head 
had met the mud halfway. (290)
She discovers that Tom has died, at the controls of his plane. And then she is traveling by ship back to...Africa, ostensibly to see her father. Taking with her many of the newspaper clippings about her record-breaking flight...as well as some of the articles written about Tom. 


As I look at these pictures
of her, I keep reminding
myself that she stood over
six feet tall.
She was quite tall and 
very good looking...
and definitely...
brave, courageous,
and never ever
stagnant!

I stumbled across this 1993 review of The Lives of Beryl Markham by Errol Trzebinski 
in the Independent, and now I really want to read it! 

And I feel as if I want to accompany these two books by also 
reading Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen. 
I watched the movie once, many years ago, 
and enjoyed it very much! Definitely do for a 'rewatch'!
I might as well add her Shadows on the Grass, too, 
since these five stories were a follow-up to Out of Africa

If you feel at all interested in this book, 
I strongly recommend it as an informative yet intriguing read!

Do you know much about Markham?
I am glad to have learned so much about her life.
In many ways I keep comparing what I know of 
Anne Morrow Lindbergh's life and Markham's. 
(I read and loved The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin!)
They were both female aviators at a time when only males flew planes!
They both accomplished female firsts, but were seemingly quite different people.
Though, as I consider, they also had some things in common.

Happy reading
--Lynn

2 comments:

  1. I only knew about Markham from Circling the Sun, but after reading your post I feel like I know a lot more! You did a deep dive on her- fascinating!

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    1. Fascinating indeed! She was an amazing person. If only I could live long enough to read all the books I want to read!! I would definitely read those I have listed...and who knows? I may get to at least some of them yet! :) Thanks for stopping by! I am so behind on everything due to work! Yuck! Hoping to change jobs soon.

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