A British African Amazon
Taken to Kenya at age three, in 1905, Beryl Markham was raised on a farm by her father and a much-hated governess – her mother soon re-abandoned pioneer life for England. And while other girls were groomed to be ladies of society, she learned to ride and train horses, played with the Nandi boys living on her father’s land, and went hunting with their fathers. Barely 19, she became a professional racehorse trainer; at age 24 (1926) her mare Wise Child won the prestigious Kenya St. Leger, beating the odds and the favorite, Wrack, likewise initially trained by Beryl but taken from her weeks earlier by an owner distrusting her experience. After marrying and divorcing again wealthy Mansfield Markham, whose last name she kept, she met pioneer aviator Tom Black (later pilot to the Prince of Wales), who awakened her interest in flying and soon became her instructor. Having obtained her B license – “a flyer’s Magna Carta” – Markham operated a taxi and cargo service out of Nairobi and worked as a scout for professional hunters like author Karen Blixen’s (Isak Dinesen’s) (ex-)husband Baron Bror Blixen. After her return to England, in 1936 she became the first woman to successfully cross the Atlantic from east to west, against the headwinds. (She didn’t reach New York, as planned – technical difficulties forced her plane into a Nova Scotia bog – but her achievement created substantial headlines regardless.) After being lured to Hollywood by a film project involving her flight, and marrying and divorcing again the man who later claimed this book’s authorship, writer Raoul Schumacher, Markham ultimately returned to Kenya and to racehorse training. No less than six of her horses won Kenya’s East African Derby, making her a local celebrity of considerable note. She died in 1986.
“West With the Night” is a memoir of Markham’s life in Kenya until her mid-1930s departure to England. In language rivaling Blixen’s in poetry and Hemingway’s in power and skill, it chronicles her unconventional upbringing, early 20th century colonial society, a racehorse trainer’s anxieties and ambitions, a flyer’s freedom and solitude, and those people who meant most to her: her father, her Nandi friends, Tom Black, and some persons also known to readers of Blixen’s memoirs: Lord and Lady Delamere, Baron Blixen, and Denys Finch-Hatton, for whose attentions she competed with Blixen (who herself isn’t mentioned at all, as Markham isn’t mentioned, either, in “Out of Africa”).
“There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa,” we are introduced to the continent she considered “home:” “Being … all things to all authors, it follows, I suppose, that Africa must be all things to all readers. … It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations.” And the people Markham most respected matched this environment in hardiness as much as in diversity and depth: Baron Blixen, “six feet of amiable Swede,” whose “appreciation of the melodramatic [was] non-existent,” and who was “never significantly silent” and “the toughest, most durable White Hunter ever … to shoot a charging buffalo between the eyes while debating whether his sundown drink will be gin or whisky.” Denys Finch-Hatton, “a great man who never achieved arrogance,” whose charm was “of intellect and strength,” who “would have greeted doomsday with a wink,” could “tread upon inferior men with his tongue,” and was “a keystone” in an arch of lives which fell at his premature death, “leaving its lesser stones heaped [and] for a while without design.” And Tom Black, Beryl’s messenger from Destiny, who taught her that “when you fly … you feel that everything you see belongs to you [and you’re] closer to … something you’ve sensed you might be capable of, but never had the courage to imagine,” but who summed up the effect of Kenya’s growing attraction to amateur hunters (aided not least by his own services) with the simple words “lion, rifles – and stupidity.”
Perhaps Markham’s most poignant accounts are those of her interactions with the Nandi. For unlike Karen Blixen, who came to Africa as an adult and never entirely abandoned a white colonialist’s attitude, Markham’s upbringing enabled her to innately understand their world: “He thought war was made of spears and shields and courage, and he brought them all,” we learn about young warrior Arab Maina: “But [in World War I] they gave him a gun, so he left the spear and the shield behind and took the courage, and went where they sent him. [When he was killed,] some said it was because he had forsaken his spear.” And when her childhood friend Kibii returns to become her servant, now a warrior himself and renamed Arab Ruta, she realizes that what a child doesn’t know “of race and colour and class, he learns soon enough as he grows to see each man flipped inexorably into some predestined groove,” and while Ruta will still be her friend, “the handclasp will be shorter … and though the path is for a while the same, he will walk behind me now, when once, in the simplicity of our nonage, we walked together.”
Like most memoirs – notably including Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast” and Blixen”s “Out of Africa” – “West With the Night” is a selective account; and as in those works, the omissions only enhance its power. Hemingway’s much-quoted lavish praise is both deserved and all the more notable as “Papa,” otherwise so thrifty in lauding contemporaries, intensely disliked Markham as a person. – Authorship of the book has been called into question by the claims of Markham’s ex-husband Raoul Schumacher, and by Errol Trzebinski’s biography (which relies substantially on third-party accounts and merely proves that Schumacher had time and opportunity to write the book, not that he actually did). It’s a great shame that writing as lasting and beautiful as this should be marred by such a controversy. Frankly, though, I don’t hear any voice but Beryl Markham’s own in this account; both philosophically and stylistically, I have no doubt that this is her story alone. And therefore, ultimately … “What matter who’s speaking?” (Michel Focault, “What is an Author?”)
“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.”
“To venture … close [to a lion] on foot … would mean the sudden shattering of any kindly belief that the similarity of the lion and the pussy cat goes much beyond their whiskers. But then, since men still live by the sword, it’s a little optimistic to expect the lion to withdraw his claws, handicapped as he is by his inability to read our better effusions about the immorality of bloodshed.”
“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.”
“There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo.”
“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.”
“The way to find a needle in a haystack is to sit down.”
“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 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.”
“We fly, but we have not ‘conquered’ the air. Nature presides in all her dignity, permitting us the study and the use of such of her forces as we may understand. It is when we presume to intimacy, having been granted only tolerance, that the harsh stick fall across our impudent knuckles and we rub the pain, staring upward, startled by our ignorance.”
“To an eagle or to an owl or to a rabbit, man must seem a masterful and yet a forlorn animal; he has but two friends. In his almost universal unpopularity he points out, with pride, that these two are the dog and the horse. He believes, with an innocence peculiar to himself, that they are equally proud of this alleged confraternity. He says, ‘Look at my two noble friends – they are dumb, but they are loyal.’ I have for years suspected that they are only tolerant.”
“Elephant, beyond the fact that their size and conformation are aesthetically more suited to the treading of this earth than our angular informity, have an average intelligence comparable to our own. Of course they are less agile and physically less adaptable than ourselves – nature having developed their bodies in one direction and their brains in another, while human beings, on the other hand, drew from Mr. Darwin’s lottery of evolution both the winning ticket and the stub to match it. This, I suppose, is why we are so wonderful and can make movies and electric razors and wireless sets – and guns with which to shoot the elephant, the hare, clay pigeons, and each other.”
“What a child does not know and does not want to know of race and colour and class, he learns soon enough as he grows to see each man flipped inexorably into some predestined groove like a penny or a sovereign in a banker’s rack. Kibii, the Nandi boy, was my good friend. Arab Ruta (the same boy grown to manhood), who sits before me, is my good friend, but the handclasp will be shorter, the smile will not be so eager on his lips, and though the path is for a while the same, he will walk behind me now, when once, in the simplicity of our nonage, we walked together.”
“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. Whoever writes a new one can afford a certain complacency in the knowledge that his is a new picture agreeing with no one else’s, but likely to be haugthily disagreed with by all those who believed in some other Africa. … Being thus all things to all authors, it follows, I suppose, that 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 is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.”
“One day the stars will be as familiar to each man as the landmarks, the curves, and the hills on the road that leads to his door, and one day this will be an airborne life. But by then men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines whose conductors are carefully promoted to a familiarity with labelled buttons, and in whose minds knowledge of the sky and the wind and the way of weather will be extraneous as passing fiction.”
“Still, not to be English is hardly regarded as a fatal deficiency even by the English, though grave enough to warrant sympathy.”
“A man of importance had been shot at a place I could not pronounce in Swahili or in English, and, because of this shooting, whole countries were at war. It seemed a laborious method of retribution, but that was the way it was being done. …
A messenger came to the farm with a story to tell. It was not a story that meant much as stories went in those days. It was about how the war progressed in German East Africa and about a tall young man who was killed in it. … It was an ordinary story, but Kibii and I, who knew him well, thought there was no story like it, or one as sad, and we think so now.
The young man tied his shuka on his shoulder one day and took his shield and his spear and went to war. He thought war was made of spears and shields and courage, and he brought them all.
But they gave him a gun, so he left the spear and the shield behind him and took the courage, and went where they sent him because they said this was his duty and he believed in duty. …
He took the gun and held it the way they had told him to hold it, and walked where they told him to walk, smiling a little and looking for another man to fight.
He was shot and killed by the other man, who also believed in duty, and he was buried where he fell. It was so simple and so unimportant.
But of course it meant something to Kibii and me, because the tall young man was Kibii’s father and my most special friend. Arab Maina died on the field of action in the service of the King. But some said it was because he had forsaken his spear.”
“The Old Days, the Lost Days – in the half-closed eyes of memory (and in fact) they never marched across a calendar; they huddled round a burning log, leaned on a certain table, or listened to those certain songs.”
“The only disadvantage in surviving a dangerous experience lies in the fact that your story of it tends to be anticlimactic. You can never carry on right through the point where whatever it is that threatens your life actually takes it – and get anybody to believe you. The world is full of sceptics.”
“Denys [Finch-Hatton] has been written about before and he will be written about again. 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.”
[On Baron von Blixen:]
“Six feet of amiable Swede and, to my knowledge, the toughest, most durable White Hunter ever to snicker at the fanfare of safari or to shoot a charging buffalo between the eyes while debating whether his sundown drink will be gin or whisky.”
“I suppose if there were a part of the world in which mastodon still lived, somebody would design a new gun, and men, in their eternal impudence, would hunt mastodon as they now hunt elephant. Impudence seems to be the word. At least David and Goliath were of the same species, but, to an elephant, a man can only be a midge with a deathly sting.”
“It is amazing what a lot of insect life goes on under your nose when you have got it an inch from the earth. I suppose it goes on in any case, but if you are proceeding on your stomach, dragging your body along by your fingernails, entomology presents itself very forcibly as a thoroughly justified science.”
“It is absurd for a man to kill an elephant. 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 like putting a dam across a great river, one tenth of whose volume could engulf the whole of mankind without disturbing the domestic life of a single catfish.
“Like night, the desert is boundless, comfortless and infinite. Like night, it intrigues the mind and leads it to futility. When you have flown halfway across a desert, you experience the desperation of a sleepless man waiting for dawn which only comes when the importance of it’s coming is lost. You fly forever, weary with an invariable scene, and when you are at last released from its monotony, you remember nothing of it because there was nothing there.”
[Quoting her friend Tom Black on an amateur hunter’s injury:]
“Lion, rifles – and stupidity.”
“None of the characters in (the story) were distinguished ones – not even the lion.
He was an old lion, prepared from birth to lose his life rather than to leave it. But he had the dignity of all free creatures, and so he was allowed his moment. It was hardly a glorious moment.
The two men who shot him were indifferent as men go, or perhaps they were less than that. At least they shot him without killing him, and then turned the unsconscionable eye of a camera upon his agony. It was a small, a stupid, but a callous crime.”
“You could expect many things of God at night when the campfire burned before the tents. You could look through and beyond the veils of scarlet and see shadows of the world as God first made it and hear the voices of the beasts He put there. It was a world as old as Time, but as new as Creation’s hour had left it.
In a sense it was formless. When the low stars shone over it and the moon clothed it in silver fog, it was the way the firmament must have been when the waters had gone and the night of the Fifth Day had fallen on creatures still bewildered by the wonder of their being. It was an empty world because no man had yet joined sticks to make a house or scratched the earth to make a road or embedded the transient symbols of his artifice in the clean horizon. But it was not a sterile world. It held the genesis of life and lay deep and anticipant under the sky.”
“It seemed that the printers of the African maps had a slightly malicious habit of including, in large letters, the names of towns, junctions, and villages which, while most of them did exist in fact, as a group of thatched huts may exist or a water hole, they were usually so inconsequential as completely to escape discovery from the cockpit.”
“[This place] presumed to be a town then, but was hardly more than a word under a tin roof.”
“[This town] doesn’t look like anything; it isn’t anything. Its five tin-roofed huts cling to the skinny tracks of the Uganda Railway like parasites on a vine.”
“… those false but democratic mourners at every casual bier …”
“It was … disconcerting to examine your charts before a proposed flight only to find that in many cases the bulk of the terrain over which you had to fly was bluntly marked: ‘UNSURVEYED.’
It was as if the mapmakers had said, ‘We are aware that between this spot and that one, there are several hundred thousands of acres, but until you make a forced landing there, we won’t know whether it is mud, desert, or jungle – and the chances are we won’t know then!
“From the time I arrived in British East Africa at the indifferent age of four and went through the barefoot stage of early youth hunting wild pig with the Nandi, later training racehorses for a living, and still later scouting Tanganyika and the waterless bush country between the Tana and Athi Rivers, by aeroplane, for elephant, 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 for a year. Boredom, like hookworm, is endemic.”