I really enjoyed this 1942 memoir by Beryl Markham, a woman living on the fringes of the 1920s Happy Valley set in British East Africa, where she was first a racehorse trainer and then a bush pilot, and in 1936 became the first pilot to fly solo from the UK to North America. It’s absolutely beautifully written, but the woman is a mystery. She left out so MUCH from this memoir (her mother and brother, her formal education, her three marriages, her son, her affairs with expensive men). But the essentials are here, and probably all the better for being isolated from the emotional complications that other people bring to a life.
After West With The Night was published and was praised highly by Ernest Hemingway, among others, Markham and it disappeared from public view. She returned to Africa in the 1950s to train horses again, and won strings of trophies and cups throughout the 1950s and 1960s. And then finally, in her 80s, this book was rediscovered, republished, and her income – always precarious – was thankfully boosted in the last years of her life. She was a remarkable woman.
She was born Beryl Clutterbuck in 1902 in England. She sailed to East Africa when she was four with her father, a racehorse trainer, and grew up on his farm, speaking Swahili, learning how to train racehorses, and learning bushcraft and hunting with the Masai. Her mentor, Arab Murani, a tribal leader, died in the First World War fighting in the British Army. His son Kibii, who later took Arab Ruta as his adult name, was Beryl’s closest friend as a child, and later her loyal travelling companion, servant, stable manager and flight engineer.
When Beryl’s father lost the farm after a severe drought, he left for Peru to train horses there, and Beryl – aged seventeen – rode her horse Pegasus north to the high plateau of Molo, and started work as a freelance racehorse trainer. She won the Kenya St Leger in 1926, but then trained as a pilot, gaining her licences in a couple of years. She tracked elephant for big game hunters, she rescued crashed pilots and lost safaris, she carried medical supplies and the post, and the only instrument her biplane had was a compass.
At some point during her early years as a racehorse trainer she must have married her first husband, but he has no place in her memoir: she even discarded his name, calling herself by her second husband’s name. Tom Black is in the memoir, a farmer and pilot she met in the early 1920s when his car engine was struggling. He taught her to fly (in the book) and they were long-term lovers (not in the book, but it’s clear their relationship was deep). He’s an important figure in flight history; the flying fraternity in the early years of commercial aviation was very close-knit.
Markham was also friends with Karen Blixen / Isak Dinesen. When Dinesen was finishing her affair with Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford’s character in Out of Africa), Markham took him as a lover in her turn. And also with Dinesen’s ex-husband Baron von Blixen, also a big-game hunter like Finch-Hatton. One of the extended episodes in West With The Night is of the elephant safari that so very nearly went wrong, led by Blixen, for Winston Guest, a cousin of Winston Churchill, whom Markham rescued from starvation and drowning by landing her plane in yet more profoundly inhospitable terrain.
Her adventures and recollections are written in the most limpid, clearly expressed prose, all pure straight lines and unadorned factual statements. I was not surprised that Hemingway admired her writing so much, nor that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had been one of her lovers too (this is the best biographical outline online that I’ve found for Markham: but the full biography that it draws on would undoubtedly be more informative. Her Wikipedia page needs correcting.) Saint-Exupéry’s books about flying through the African night in the 1930s with doctors and medical supplies are paeans to the human experience in the upper air, and it looks like Markham learned how to express herself the way she wanted to by reading his books.
This is a memoir about white people in colonial Africa that has to be read alongside Dinesen’s Out of Africa (which I don’t think I ever have read, but it’s the obvious comparison), with Laurens van der Post’s novels (liar though he was, he wrote about colonial Africa magnificently) Flamingo Feather, A Story Like The Wind, and A Far-Off Place, and with Doris Lessing’s stories in The Grass is Singing. Apparently Markham is depicted in the film White Mischief, but I don’t remember her character. I expect that she concentrated on earning a living with horses and planes. Strongly recommended.