Friday, January 20, 2012

Adventure classics -- She loved, she flew, she wrote

West with the Night

by Beryl Markham


“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,” Beryl Markham wrote in the opening chapter of her 1942 memoir, West with the Night. Take it as a warning that the only book by the British-born Kenyan aviator will not dwell on the aspects of her life we’d expect from a celebrity who was also a beautiful woman.

Not a word about her multiple marriages or multiple affairs with famous men. Even the reason for her initial celebrity -- the first woman to fly solo east to west across the Atlantic -- occupies only one not very lengthy chapter. (Flying against the prevailing winds makes a westbound flight more difficult than an eastbound one.)

The bulk of her book is about Africa, especially the East Africa where she lived from early childhood. Despite the immense social and political changes Kenya underwent during the time she knew it, her Africa was a frontier land of outback farms, Masai villages, hunting safaris and provincial racetracks.

“I remained so happily provincial I was unable to discuss the boredom of being alive with any intelligence until I had gone to London and lived there a year,” she wrote.

She began flying at the inspiration of pilot-mentor Tom Black (and possibly by a downturn in her first career as a race horse trainer). She received her pilot’s license, the first issued in the colony to a woman, in September 1933.

But as the world spiraled toward total war in 1936, she found herself once more longing for change. She described her decision to fly from East Africa to England as if it was a weekend outing. And once in England, remembering a man “who had lived in Zanzibar, leaning across the table and saying, ‘J.C., why don’t you finance Beryl for a record flight?’”

J.C. was John Carberry, an Irish peer and African settler. He financed and Markham
flew, finally making a crash landing in a swamp in Nova Scotia after a flight of twenty-one hours and twenty-five minutes.

She lived to write her book, but at least one biographer disputes her writing. Errol Trzebinski’s 1993 The Lives of Beryl Markham claims the real author of West with the Night was Markham’s third husband, journalist Raoul Schumacher. (Although Trzebinski had earlier stated in a PBS documentary that only a woman could have written the memoir.)

Maybe the real reason there was only one book is the one Markham hints at while describing the writing of a letter: “Silence is never so impenetrable as when the whisper of steel on paper strives to pierce it. I sit in a labyrinth of solitude jabbing at its bulwarks with the point of a pen. . . .”

Even for someone attuned to solitude, there comes a surfeit.

(Next Friday’s Adventure classic turns from modern machines to ancient adversaries in Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men.)

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