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text 2018-05-20 13:46

Lynn and MbD's exchange about elephants reminded me of Beryl Markham's comments on the subject in West With the Night, which FWIW I'll just render here verbatim:

"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 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.


Elephant, beyond the fact that their size and conformation are aesthetically more suited to the trading of this earth than our angular informity, have an average intelligence comparable to our own.  Of course they are less agile and phyiscally 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.


The elephant is a rational animal.  He thinks.  Blix [NB: Baron Bror Blixen, Karen Blixen's husband and Markham's close friend] and I (also rational animals in our own right) have never quite agreed in the mental attributes of the elephant.  I know Blix is not to be doubted because he has learned more about elephant than any other man I ever met, or even head about, but he looks upon legend with a suspicious eye, and I do not.  [...]


But still, there is no mystery about the things you see yourself.


I think I am the first person ever to scout elephant by plane, and so it follows that the thousands of elephant I saw time and again from the air had never before been plagued by anything above their heads more ominous than tick-birds.


The reaction of a herd of elephant to my Avian [plane] was, in the initial instance, always the same -- they left their feeding ground and tried to find cover, though often, before yielding, one or two of the bulls would prepare for battle and charge in the direction of the place if it were low enough to be within their scope of vision. Once the futility of this was realized, the entire herd would be off into the deepest bush.


Checking again on the whereabouts of the same herd next day, I always found that a good deal of thinking had been going on amongst them during the night.  On the basis of their reaction to my second intrusion, I judged that their thoughts had run somewhat like this: A: The thing that flew over us was no bird, since no bird would have to work so hard to stay in the air -- and anyway, we know all the birds.  B: If it was no bird, it was very likely just another trick of those two-legged dwarfs against whom there ought to be a law.  C: The two-legged dwarfs (both black and white) have, as long as our long memories go back, killed our bulls for their tusks.  We know this because, in the case of the white dwarfs, at least, the tusks are the only part taken away.


The actions of the elephant, based upon this reasoning, were always sensible and practical.  The second time they saw the Avian, they refused to hide; instead, the females, who bear only small, valueless tusks, simply grouped themselves around their treasure-burdened bulls in such a way that no ivory could be seen from the air or from any other approach.


This can be maddening strategy to an elephant scout.  I have spent the better part of an hour circling, criss-crossing, and diving low over some of the most inhospitable country in Africa in an effort to break such a stubborn huddle, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.


But the tactics vary.  More than once I have come upon a large and solitary elephant standing with enticing disregard for safety, its massive bulk in clear view, but its head buried in thicket.  This was, on the part of the elephant, no effort to simulate the nonsensical habit attributed to the ostrich.  It was, on the contrary, a cleverly devised trap into which I fell, every way except physically, at least a dozen times.  The beast always proved to be a large cow rather than a bull, and I always found that by the time I had arrived at this brilliant if tardy deduction, the rest of the herd had got another ten miles away, and the decoy, leering up at me out of a small, triumphant eye, would amble into the open, wave her trunk with devastating nonchalance, and disappear."

And a little later she warns:

"Elephant hunters may be unconscionable brutes, but it would be an error to regard the elephant as an altogether pacific animal.  The popular belief that only the so-called 'rogue' elephant is dangerous to men is quite wrong -- so wrong that a considerable number of men who believed it have become one with the dust without even their just due of gradual disintegration.  A normal bull elephant, aroused by the scent of man, will often attack at once -- and his speed is as unbelievable as his mobility.  His trunk and his feet are his weapons -- at least in the distateful business of exterminating a mere human; those resplendent sabres of ivory await resplendent foes."

And she proceeds to prove her point by recounting an instance where she and Baron Blixen literally came within an inch of being reduced to dust themselves, courtesy of a large elephant bull.


Markham, one of aviation history's great female pioneers (among several other accomplishments), was hired as an aerial scout by elephant hunters in a time when the ecological devastation wrought by their dubious occupation was not a noticeable concern; and she makes no bones about the fact that this was part of how she was earning her living at the time.  Given her comments in the opening paragraphs of this excerpt, however, and her alertness to the the unconscionable havoc that humans with guns can wreak, I would like to think that she'd be on the side of conservation these days (even if she'd probably also be unapologetic about her past) -- having grown up in Africa and considering it home, she clearly loved its wildlife vastly better than most of its human society.  Her comments elsewhere in the book (as well as, again in the opening paragraphs of this excerpt) also make it quite clear that like most of those who have seen the damage that guns can do in action, she was appalled by the notion of easy access to guns, and of guns in hands where they don't belong.  In another part of the book, she quotes with approval her friend (and flying instructor) Tom Black's disdainful comment on an amateur hunter's severe injuries at the claws of a lion he'd shot but not killed immediately: "Lion, rifles -- and stupidity" ... and she makes it perfectly clear that from her point of view, the lion's later death from its gunshot wounds was the vastly more regrettable and anger-inducing outcome of that encounter than the hunter's injuries.


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review 2017-01-28 03:00
What Pilots Know
West with the Night - Beryl Markham

Beryl Markham lent me her wings while I was laid up on a hospital bed, almost paralyzed, with surgeons recommending that, in order for me to walk again, they would have to carve me up. Once they would leave, taking their medical insights with them, the weight of their Cartesian scientific history and experience under their arms, I, undecided about the advantages of scalpels, would look at Beryl, black and white against the green cover, and think of the demands of book reviewing, of separating an author’s words from mine, and sighing at the effort to which I am not equal. For authors’ words have, in many cases, not only inspired my own – they have become my own. Why must I differentiate between them when, to me, they form the whole of who I am, and who I want to be, and who, perhaps, I once was? How awkward the insertion of apostrophes, inverted commas, quotation marks, quotes, and citations – they all seem like so many little interruptions that accumulate and exhaust, both, the reader and I. I have exhausted myself in searching for a style. Enough! I must write. Caveat lector.


She can write rings around all of us, Hemingway once wrote. High praise indeed from a Nobel Laureate. Then again, Hemingway always seemed to me to be... well, somewhat too earnest, writing like a genius kid in junior high who never quite managed to graduate to university. If Beryl wrote rings around him, it was because she indeed wrote better. It was the same unelaborate, though not simplistic, style of Hemingway. But, unlike Hemingway, it was not journalism. Having said that, I like Hemingway. I do not like the image the media has built of him, and I do not like most of his work. But I like him all the same, for his Hills Like White Elephants – which took me years to understand, and, even then, only by aid of a critic’s appreciation – and for his Death in the Afternoon, where he taught me that the great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand, and write when there is something that you know, and not before, and not too damned much after… But I digress, and Hemingway, too, will have his turn.


I am there, with her, when she sits down and eyes around the room for a beginning. I am her hand which turns the pages of a flying log which just happens to be there on the desk, that particular log and not any one of those numerous other logs that lie scattered about the shelves like old airplanes parked in protective hangars, their wings full of past adventures, wishing they could now write since they fly no more. My eyes are hers as they fall upon an inconspicuous entry, almost too ordinary, brief and indifferent:


DATE – 16 June 1935



JOURNEY – Nairobi to Nungwe

TIME – 3 hrs. 40 mins.

PILOT – Self



It concerns a routine flight, the transport of a canister of oxygen to a dying gold miner, dying of a lung disease; oxygen not as lifesaver but as final comfort, a final offering from the elements, from the very same elements which burnt his lungs as he sought his fortune. Her eyes, and mine, look upon this entry in this logbook, but she will not begin by telling this story. The facts can wait, as they always can. Instead, she dreams a little, and I begin to feel what Nungwe does to her and so to me. Where Sartre believed that anything which one names loses its innocence, Beryl proves him too completely wrong. For what are dreams but innocence, and dreams of places are but innocence located in names, names like Tsavo, Muthaiga, Mwanza, Nakuru, the Rongai Valley, the Mau Escarpment, Kabete Station, Voi - ah! Voi, which presumed itself a town back then, but was hardly more than a word under a tin roof! - and Mombasa. Mombasa! If only more places were named like that! The name itself ensures the place will never lose its dreamy innocence of times long gone, and of times that could have been, and of times yet to come. How alive Mombasa feels, even merely as a name, from a place like New York, or Vienna, or London. It is the gateway to that world of which you have always remained unsure: did it once exist, or is it somewhere still? That world which lives and grows without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks. That world where one is unable to discuss with any intelligence or reason the boredom of being alive. For such intellectual endeavors, London is the best place to be. Boredom, like hookworm, is endemic indeed.


I do not remember how, or when, I first looked upon a map and saw the world, how I first fused the idea of a flat cartographic drawing with the roundness of the globe, how I first pointed to a dot with a name and proclaimed ‘I am here’ with the confidence that requires no courage. But ever since then, my confidence in maps has never left me, and nor has the assuredness they give me to proclaim my location. My upbringing always seemed to me as if I had been born into so many locations at once. My life began with maps, as I was hauled across continents, into new landscapes, peopled by all shades and humors, and into new languages that became my own. Maps were my first education, my first texts, my first entertainment, and my first love of symbols on paper. Maps were where life was reflected and, in being so, where life itself opened up to me. In adult years, I discovered the pleasures, and the challenges, of the cartographic science and the mapping art, and was thus happy to find the child in the man I am. One must never lose sight of childhood dreams. They still have the power to move us from place to place, and so progress, and lend some wisdom to our oh-so-adult ways.


It was when I developed my mature, scholarly taste for maps that Beryl appeared, with Hemingway’s echo that I should read her, not him. She flew me 245 pages over East Africa in her biplane, in darkness and in sunlight, from the stench of blackwater in Nungwe, to the bright green of her father’s farm at Njoro, over the Kikuyu Reserve and into the Yatta in search of stranded Blix. Indeed, it was upon finding Blix and Winston that she told me something that has remained with me always, not for its allusions to practicality, but for its sheer poetic resonance. I had never realized before, she said, how quickly men deteriorate without razors and clean shirts. They are like potted plants that go to weed unless they are pruned and tended daily. A single day’s growth of beard makes a man look careless; two days’, derelict; and four days’, polluted. Blix and Winston had not shaved for three. Since then, on days when I decide not to shave, I cannot help but think of Beryl, and I picture Blix looking like an unkempt bear disturbed in hibernation.


My dwelling on this incident is, in part, because it was the beginning of the end of Beryl’s Africa, and mine, but mostly because of how she marked that end as a beginning. It came with no obvious reason, that goodbye. She simply looked up one evening and asked, ‘Want to fly to London, Blix?’ He said yes, without as much as a consideration, always the adventurer, always the child. By then Karen had gone, and Blix and Beryl were all that remained. It seemed as natural as birds migrate that they too should finally return to their northern lands, or die along with the times that Africa was now devouring in its desire to change. And yet ‘return’ would be the wrong term to use. Exile would be more accurate. For even if Africa was indifferent to them, even if they had learnt - like all those of us who have lived Africa and made it our home knowing that it can never be ours - that it would never succumb to some imposed domestication, return to Europe was exile in Europe away from Africa, and there is no truer way of describing it than that. This exile, for having haunted them all their lives, was a decision well-prepared, and thus needing no more than Blix’s unreflective yes.


It was this decision that brought maps and goodbyes and new beginnings all together suddenly one day, at a pilot’s hour bundled in mist. By this time, Beryl was flying a Leopard Moth, a high-wing cabin monoplane. I gazed at it with so much nostalgia for the biplanes of old that... Plus ça change… en effet plus ça change. I do not know what she saw in my face. Maybe she saw a child on his first day of school, facing the world as it suddenly opens with all its terror and its overwhelming possibilities, and, knowing how children can love maps, maybe she wanted to reassure me that I could follow her, and so be with her, even if only cartographically. And so she gave me a green covered book, with a photograph of her, complete with flyer cap and goggles restless above her eyes. And as my fingers wrapped around it, she held it too and said:


“A map in the hands of a pilot is a testimony of a man’s faith in other men; it is a symbol of confidence and trust. A map says to you, ‘Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not.’ It says, ‘I am the earth in the palm of your hand. Without me, you are alone and lost.’ Here is a valley, there a swamp, and there a desert; and here is a river that some curious and courageous soul, like a pencil in the hand of God, first traced with bleeding feet. Here is your map. Unfold it, follow it, then throw it away, if you will. It is only paper. It is only paper and ink, but if you think a little, if you pause a moment, you will see that these two things have seldom joined to make a document so modest and yet so full with histories of hope or sagas of conquest.”


She then let go of the book and turned toward the plane and an impatient Blix. But she stood a moment, taking in the humidity of the morning air. Perhaps she wanted to give the mist of cloud a little more time to rise. And so she looked at me again and said:


“You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness. If you read a book, or shuffle a deck of cards, or care for a dog, you are avoiding yourself. The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all. If it were otherwise, men would never have bothered to make an alphabet, nor to have fashioned words out of what were only animal sounds, nor to have crossed continents, each man to see what the other looked like.”


And she flew away.


Some time later I received a postcard from Libya. By then she was in England and already planning the Atlantic flight which would bring her fame. The postcard was of the corniche in Tripoli, draped in palm trees. On the back, in a quick hand, was written the following:


“Last night, Blix and I were taken in by a local woman. She showed us to two rooms, not even separated by a door. Everything lay under scales of filth. ‘All the diseases of the world live here,’ I said to Blix. He was laconic. ‘So do we, until tomorrow,’ he said. And so we did. And now we’re off to cross the Med.”


Beryl and Blix left Africa exactly how she taught me to leave places that one has lived in and loved and where all one’s yesterdays are buried deep: quickly. They did not turn back, and never believed that an hour one remembers 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. Pilots know that the cloud clears as you enter it.


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text 2015-11-30 20:40
U.S. Kindle Sale: Miscellaneous
Strong Poison - Dorothy L. Sayers
Bath Tangle - Georgette Heyer
Lucky Jim - David Lodge,Kingsley Amis
Lost Horizon - James Hilton
The Prince of Tides - Pat Conroy
More Than Human (SF Masterworks, #28) - Theodore Sturgeon
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West - Dee Brown
West with the Night - Beryl Markham
The Lord God Made Them All - James Herriot
Sophie's Choice - William Styron

Currently $1.99: Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis.  The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbo. Strong Poison, Murder Must Advertise, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Have His Carcase, The Nine Tailors, and Busman's Honeymoon, by Dorothy L. Sayers.  Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, by Harry Kemelman.  The Second Coming, by Walker Percy.  Sprig Muslin, A Civil Contract, The Unknown Ajax, Bath Tangle, and Sylvester: Or the Wicked Uncle, by Georgette Heyer.  Lost Horizon, by James Hilton.  Crazy Horse and Custer, by Stephen Ambrose.  Can't Anybody Here Play this Game? by Jimmy Breslin.


Currently $2.99: West with the Night, by Beryl Markham.  The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini, The Water Is Wide, and The Lords of Discipline, by Pat Conroy.  The King Must Die and The Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault.  Sophie's Choice, by William Styron.  Up the Down Staircase, by Bel Kaufman.  More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon.  The Lord God Made Them All, by James Herriot.  Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Carey.  Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox, by James McGregor Burns.  Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown.  The Fifties, by David Halberstam.  A Night to Remember, by Walter Lord. 

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review 2015-10-23 23:13
West with the Night
West with the Night - Beryl Markham

"I stumble out of the plane and sink to my knees in muck and stand there foolishly staring, not at the lifeless land, but at my watch. Twenty-one hours and twenty-five minutes. Atlantic flight. Abingdon, England, to a nameless swamp – nonstop." 



It is probably sacrilege to have read West with the Night and not to have loved it more. 



To be fair, when I read the book I could hardly put it down. It was a charmingly written memoir of what must have been an extraordinarily interesting person. Beryl Markham was funny, witty, daring, confident, dashing...in short all one would associate with an adventurer. Most strikingly, she was not at all what I would have expected from someone growing up in colonial Africa, where expats are said to have formed an exclusive society about whom history books and literature seem to like reporting in terms of stereotypes and cliches.


Markham was not like that. She grew up in the remote wilderness of Kenya as an equal to the local Nandi and Masai and it seems from her writing that she saw herself as African. 


"Competitors in conquest have overlooked the vital soul of Africa herself, from which emanates the true resistance to conquest. The soul is not dead, but silent, the wisdom not lacking, but of such simplicity as to be counted non-existent in the tinker’s mind of modern civilization. Africa is of an ancient age and the blood of many of her peoples is as venerable and as chaste as truth. What upstart race, sprung from some recent, callow century to arm itself with steel and boastfulness, can match in purity the blood of a single Masai Murani whose heritage may have stemmed not far from Eden?"


The book is full of passages that show her reverence for Africa in a way that is neither sentimental nor frightened by the unknown. Africa is Africa - what may seem as drama to European society is just a fact of life. To some extent, Markham even makes fun of the attitudes that seem to long for the theatrical: 


"I do not suggest that the lion of the Serengetti have become so blasé about the modern explorer’s motion-picture camera that their posing has already become a kind of Hollywoodian habit. But many of them have so often been bribed with fresh-killed zebra or other delicacies that it is sometimes possible to advance with photographic equipment to within thirty or forty yards of them if the approach is made in an automobile. To venture that close on foot, however, 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 is 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."


However, on finishing the book, I realised that even though I enjoy reading about her exploits - nearly being mauled by a lion, becoming a racehorse trainer, taking up flying, and organising safaris with Bror Blixen - there was something amiss with the recollection of stories. There was a guarded hesitation about the way she told the stories. 


Denys Finch-HattonMarkham, of course, is known for being a famous aviatrix but she is more famous for being one of the cornerstones of the love triangle described in the oh-so-famous Out of Africa - except that Karen Blixen does not mention her. Markham in return writes much about Denys Finch-Hatton and Bror Blixen, but does not mention Blixen's wife.


So, despite the humorous eloquence of Markham's book, I was left wondering what other relevant details were left out. Not that it is necessary for West with the Night to be a truthful, tell-all memoir. Not at all. It was just that the book seemed to suffer from a lack of credibility once I read more about the characters involved in her life.

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text 2015-10-14 22:19
West with the Night - Beryl Markham

My father leans against the mantelpiece and begins to load his pipe with tobacco whose aroma bestows a presence on thirty vanished years. That aroma and the smell of the smoke that follows it are to me the quintessence of memory. But memory is a drug. Memory can hold you against your strength and against your will, and my father knows it.


Beryl Markham - West With The Night

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