Thursday, September 13, 2012

Unlikely Daughters of the Dark Continent

My son gave me a couple of books lately, linked by their geographical background.

The first was, The Bolter, a biography of Idina Sackville—oh, those crazy Sackvilles! The author is her great-grandaughter, who, quite understandably, wants to throw a veil over some of Idina's exploits, though she has her mind set firmly enough on sales to make sure the front cover bears the sub-title, The story of Idina Sackville who ran away to become the chief seductress of Kenya's scandalous "Happy Valley set," while the back cover proclaims. "Her relentless affairs, wild sex parties and brazen flouting of convention shocked high society . . ." Well, that's true enough—five marriages with licenses, children left behind in England and the suggestion of a lesbian affair with a woman called Alice will appeal to the prurient, but the book did paint a vivid picture of a time and place I was not familiar with. The characters were English enough, with names like Dickie, Oggie, Buffles and Gee, but the landscape was unfamiliar and the history of the period enthralling. I read it during the summer heat as I sweated and swished away flies and the odd mosquito, but the cover of the book shows Idina in her silk dress and stockings after battling the tsetse fly and the mud to get to the farm she and her husband du jour had bought and taking her place in colonial Africa with its extended safaris and endless quinine water. And gin.

Al let on that his second gift was chosen in part because of the author's name and "I don't know of any other Beryl except the Admiral's widow in Brideshead Revisited." I didn't remind him that  in that snobby book the first name revealed her lowly station. In this case it gets worse—Beryl Markham was born Beryl Clutterbuck and takes her nom de plume from one or other of her husbands. Her book is a series of auto-biographical non-linear essays mainly devoted to Africa, so once again the number and nature of her husbands and whatnots is obscured. But the book is magnificent, so much so that some people doubted she wrote it herself. What praise from Hemingway—"she can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers."

Beryl Markham loved Africa. She loved the soil and the vegetation, the animals and the light and held the natives in great regard in a time and place that was not known for such respect. After a career as a horse trainer, she became an aviator, flying the Atlantic east to west.  As the book ends she is using her plane to "elephant-spot" for safaris for Baron von Blixen. Obviously the next book to read (or is it re-read?) is Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa.

Al had his own experiences in Africa which I hope to get to later. In the meantime. let me recommend these two books. Interesting and most enjoyable.

Help: I posted two photos here and then deleted them, but Blogger seems to think I still have them and will not allow me to delete this big space. Any ideas?

No comments: