RogerBW's Blog

West with the Night, Beryl Markham 27 February 2020

1942 autobiography of the first person to fly the Atlantic solo non-stop from east to west.

Which sounds like a bit of a cheat, of course, because the more you have to qualify an achievement the less of an achievement it is. East to west had been done in 1919 by Scott and the R34, the non-stop in 1928 by von Hünefeld, Köhl and Fitzmaurice, and the solo in 1932 by Jim Mollison, though no woman had done any of these and several people had died trying the combination.

He was flying a German Klemm monoplane equipped with a ninety-five horsepower British Pobjoy motor. If this combination had any virtue in such vast and unpredictable country, it was that the extraordinary wingspan of the plane allowed for long gliding range and slow landing speed.

Markham grew up in British East Africa, later the Kenya Colony, having left England with her father when she was four. (Her mother is one of the many omissions here; she abandoned them both to have an affair with a naval officer, though apparently she came back later.) As the only white child for a fair distance, she spent her time trying to get away from her lessons to go spear-hunting with the Maasai children.

"I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer." — Ernest Hemingway

But when the plantation went under – with a steam-powered mill, her father had established fixed-price contracts to supply milled grain, but when the harvest failed he had to pay more for the raw grain than he could recoup – she struck out for herself as a trainer of racehorses. She was on the fringes of the Happy Valley set, and among the many omissions – well, this was published in 1942 – are any mention of her numerous affairs, or even of her marriages. She was regarded as odd and nonconformist, not to say uncomfortably forthright, even by British colonial society.

June Carberry, small, nimble-minded, and attractive, presided over evenings at Seramai like a gracious pixy over a company of characters snatched from an unfinished novel originally drafted by H. Rider Haggard and written by Scott Fitzgerald, with James M. Cain looking over his shoulder.

The move from racehorses into aviation seems to have been inspired by a chance meeting with Tom Campbell Black (later the pilot of Grosvenor House in the MacRobertson Air Race); she went on to work as a bush pilot, flying urgent cargo (both people and goods) to places that were sometimes just a vague dot on a dubious map. There was also air scouting for safaris: find a herd of elephants, evaluate the ivory available, and point the hunt towards it by dropping a canister with a message.

The Italian idea was based upon the wistful suspicion that no foreigner (certainly no Englishman) could fly over Libya, for instance, and successfully resist the temptation to take candid camera shots of the newly contrived Fascist forts. The Italians, under Mussolini, would have been hurt indeed to know that a pilot existed (and many of them did) who had less curiosity about the Fascist forts than about the exact location of a bar of soap and a tub of hot water.

Then, drifting, she found herself in England, and was encouraged by John Carberry (who, it appears, probably hoped she'd die in the attempt) to find a sponsor and have a go at the crossing. The Vega Gull suffered fuel starvation due to icing, but made it, to America if not to New York; though the death of Campbell Black just a few days after the flight seems to have taken the fun out of flying for Markham, and while she tried to parlay her achievement into fortune, in part by writing this book, nothing really took. She stayed in the USA until 1952, then moved back to Africa, eking out a living as a horse trainer until the memoir was rediscovered in 1982. Which was very nice for Markham's last four years.

Amseat is a post on the Italian Egyptian border; it consisted then of wind, desert, and Italians, and I understand the wind and desert still remain.

(Some material on her from the 1980s is here, but beware of bias even more than usual; Fox took it upon himself to "prove" that Markham hadn't written the book but had instead got her husband of the time to do the hard work, and this has since been fairly effectively debunked.)

Obviously there are many assumptions and omissions here, but Markham makes the colonial life seem interesting in a way that very few people can manage; without meaningful memories of England, she wasn't trying to recreate them in a foreign place the way many of her contemporaries were. The writing is decent, if it tends to drift between tenses, and the memoir recalls an era of aviation when a prepared landing-field was strictly a luxury.

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