THE headlines called her 'Society Beauty', 'Flying Mother', 'Birdwoman'. She called herself 'an ocean flyer in embryo', adding, disarmingly: 'If I can dispense with the last two words, I am more than satisfied.' Taking five flasks of coffee, a cold chicken, dried fruit and a flask of brandy, she climbed into the cockpit of a single-engined Vega Gull one murky evening in September 1936 and took off westwards. By the time she landed 21 hours later in a bog in Nova Scotia, she had become the first person to have flown single-handed across the Atlantic the wrong way, from east to west, into head-winds.
It's a good enough claim to fame, but Beryl Markham did more than clear 'The Waterjump'. She was also the first woman to win a commercial pilot's licence, the first to become a champion racehorse-trainer and, certainly, the only one to combine such feats with winning an annuity for life from the House of Windsor in exchange for keeping quiet about affairs with two princes. Any of these achievements might merit a biography: the combination provides material for a pretty racy one.
As is so often the case, it all began with her mother. A glamorous Irish horsewoman, Clara Clutterbuck found herself unwilling to act as vet, midwife, butcher, and hostess on a primitive plot in Edwardian Kenya. When a handsome colonel arrived in Nairobi, she saw her chance and took it, escaping with him back to England and abandoning her infant daughter to an inattentive father and the Kipsigi Africans.
The child Beryl ran wild with the tribesmen, particularly with the group of 'pre-circumcision' boys whose life was devoted to developing such stoicism that no pain would cause them to flinch. If the stories she told in old age can be trusted - her biographer describes her as having a 'complex' relationship with the truth - she learned to hurl a spear with enough strength and accuracy to impale an impala, to hunt wart-hogs, to ride alone in the dark across swollen rivers and to survive being 'torn to pieces' by wild Wanderobo dogs. Her courage was such that, when thrown by a two- year-old stallion she hung on to him for seven miles over rough ground, losing most of her clothes and a good deal of skin; she killed her father's pet baboon with two blows of her rungu and she was ever so slightly mauled by a lion.
Amazingly, she grew up. Virginity rapidly became surplus to requirements and formal education seemed equally tiresome. She frightened off several governesses with such tricks as snakes in the bed, ran away from a couple of schools after a total maximum of five terms and was married by the time she was 16.
Marital fidelity never attracted her. 'There was nothing Beryl liked better,' said a friend, 'than to creep barefoot into the bedroom of her choice at the end of a day's work.' To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, her lovers were many and varied from the day she began her beguine: there were three useful ones that she married, and God knows how many between. The husbands she chewed up and spat out when she'd extracted all she wanted, the lovers included, for several startling years, just about everybody she met. The Prince of Wales and his brother the Duke of Gloucester both succumbed on safari in 1928, when Beryl was 26 and in her prime. Her only son, Gervase Markham, was born too soon afterwards to have had royal blood, but neither that nor his mother stopped the rumours.
Errol Trzebinski has researched this book meticulously. She writes about her brave, selfish, amoral, glamorous subject with a commendably steady eye. She combines sympathetic understanding with an evocative style and a refusal to be fooled. Only once does she fail to be utterly convincing, when she makes a case for Beryl having had One Great Love, the famous Denys Finch Hatton of Out of Africa fame. There doesn't seem to be much evidence for inconsolable grief after his death; nor after the hideously late abortion of his child.
Like many of her men, Finch Hatton had been at Eton, which was always attractive to her - in fact they didn't have to be Old Boys: she was not above teaching schoolboys tricks in the hayloft if they dared to come home for the holidays. It was to ensnare Finch Hatton that she took up flying, a pastime fraught with enough dangers even for her. After her epic feat, she settled for a while with an American husband, Raoul Schumacher, who was, usefully, a ghostwriter. He was undoubtedly the pen behind her best-selling memoir West With the Night, and it was indeed shameful that she never acknowledged it. Claiming authorship brought its own punishments, though: people either expected her to write another book or openly ridiculed her: 'Darling Beryl, how lovely to see you. I've just been reading your wonderful book. Do tell me darling, who wrote it?'
That was her old friend Gypsy. Others, with names like Bunny, Ginger and Cockie have been valuable, even sympathetic sources, for this book, though most women, understandably, tended to detest her. Her power over men, from Hemingway to Hilary Hook, was dazzling and left them - on the whole - utterly loyal and starry-eyed. Towards the end, however, she took to letting down their tyres and smashing their windscreens to stop them running away, but by then she was old enough to be their grandmother.
In her sixties, back in Africa, Beryl trained racehorses with phenomenal success, winning, for example, 46 races in 26 days. Here again, her biographer has uncovered her guilty secret: she fed them seketet, the pain-defying stimulant she had learned about as a child in the bush. Surprisingly, nobody guessed at the time, but then, if they had, they would never have dared to say so.
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