How you read affects what you read. So the fact that I began West with the Night in bed in a tent in Kenya both gave it great relevance, and made my reading distracted and scattered. Because of course you don’t go to Kenya to loll around in your tent with a book. So my memory of Beryl Markham’s memoir is limited to impressions and to the bits I highlighted, which I did more for her elegant acid humor than anything else. For instance, “The essence of elephant hunting is discomfort in such lavish proportions that only the wealthy can afford it.” She takes a patrician view of the world: “Possibly I do the Babus [Indian telegraph operators] an injustice, but I think at best they used to read the novels of Anthony Trollope to each other over the wire.” So much for the Babus.
And evidently West with the Night only scratches the surface of Beryl Markham’s life, which was by any standards remarkable. As the memoir tells it, she was raised by her father on a farm in what was then British East Africa. The book is eloquent and elegiac about these unfettered days spent in the wild and among native friends. When her father’s farm failed, she struck out on her own as a trainer of race horses. Flying only occurred later as a career. The book’s title refers to her 1936 attempt to fly solo from England to New York. It was originally published in the 1940s and re-issued in the 1980s, becoming a surprise best seller and turning Markham into an octogenarian celebrity. Evidently there has been much speculation about the true authorship of the book, based on the fact that Markham had limited formal education and wrote very little else. Certainly the lyrical style is a big draw, though from time to time I found it self-conscious and grandiose.
I heard a story about Markham as a grande dame of Nairobi, stalking around with thick white hair like a dandelion in seed. During the 1982 attempted coup she drove through an armed road block on her way to dinner at the Muthaiga Club. She arrived unharmed though her car picked up a few bullet holes. “She ordered her pink gin and curry, and the bartender had to take away her keys so she wouldn’t drive home and get herself killed.” The anecdote didn’t surprise me at all.