Tuesday 18 March 2014

Some non-fiction

Two non-fiction books today. I've been reading these over the past few weeks as I always like to try and have some factual books on the go as well as fiction.

First up, a book that qualifies for Bev's Mount TBR challenge, West With the Night by Beryl Markham.

Beryl Markham was born in England in 1902. Her father was a race-horse trainer and when Beryl was four he moved the family to Kenya, which was then British East Africa. Her mother apparently didn't like the isolation and moved back to Britain. Now either this wasn't mentioned in the book or I missed it or have forgotten it, which is quite possible, but I wondered where she was and assumed the she'd died. Whatever, Beryl was brought up by her father and led the sort of childhood where she ran wild and free with the local tribesmen's children. She also learnt about horses and at seventeen was a competant trainer herself. Which was just as well because her father suddenly decided to try his luck in Peru and Beryl didn't want to go. So off she went, on her own, into the wilds of Africa, to apprentice herself to another trainer. She must have been one tough cookie, that's all I can say! A chance meeting with a chap called Tom Campbell Black, tinkering with a motorcar on the side of the road, led to her deciding to learn to fly. Which of course changed her life forever.

First of all I must say that this is one of the most beautifully written books I've read. The writing is lyrical and poetical and I don't think I've ever seen Africa described in such stunning detail. After I'd finished reading it I looked Beryl Markham up and chanced on the suggestion that she may not have written the book at all. She was married to a writer when the book came out and apparently he might have written it. Well, I assume it's a valid point of view, but and for me it's a big 'but'... how can anyone who has not had these experiences of Africa possibly write about it so personally and intimately? Sorry, I don't buy it, but that's only my opinion. Whoever wrote it wrote something very beautiful and well worth reading.

Beryl Markham's life was amazing and this book only touches on the first 25 or so years as far as I can see. She was a brave, courageous woman who had to make a living in what was then a man's world and who chose two occupations that women simply did not partake in: race-horse training and flying. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and did it from east to west when the men had done it the other way round. She was close friends with the Blixens and Denis Finch-Hatton who were the subjects of the film, Out of Africa. There's a lot more to know so I plan to get hold of Straight on Till Morning: the Biography of Beryl Markham by Mary S. Lovell (she also wrote about the Mitford Sisters). The other thing to add is how these non-fiction books are often connected with one another, particularly when the times or settings overlap. Beryl stayed in Shepheard's Hotel in Egypt as did Agnes and Margaret from Sisters of Sinai. And when she flew to England with Bror Blixen she describes with great detail the forts the Italians built in Ethiopia after they had annexed the country in 1936... just as Sandy Curle described them in Letters from the Horn of Africa. I do like these little connections and of course they lead you on to find even *more* books that you absolutely *must* read!

I just want to add that this book was intended for the charity shop box but push came to shove and I really couldn't part with it.

The second non-fiction for this post is The Middle-aged Mountaineer by Jim Curran. About two thirds of this book is about Scotland so I think it pretty much qualifies for Peggy's Read Scotland 2014 challenge.

Author, Jim Curran, is well known in mountaineering circles, not only as a climber, but as a cameraman, documentary maker and writer. He's written various books about mountaineering including, K2:Triumph and Tragedy about the climbing catastrophe there in 1986, and a biography of climbing legend, Chris Bonnington. This book is about Curran's decision to cycle from the northern tip of the UK, ie. 'Shetland', to the southern tip, which is on the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall. He plans to climb some mountains along the way, call in on a few mountaineering friends and so on. Thus I rather expected this book to be about climbing mountains: but it wasn't. Middle-age and an injured hand rather put paid to any ideas he had of revisiting old climbs but luckily the book is still interesting and enjoyable. Curran himself comes over as a fascinating person who has had many amazing experiences on mountains, and which he doesn't stint in recounting to the reader. His friends and acquaintances read like a who's who of mountaineering. It's the first part of his trip, through Shetland and down through mainland Scotland which is the most interesting and which therefore takes up the majority of the book. Gorgeous descriptions of scenery and the variable Scottish weather; lots of enjoyable encounters with friends and strangers; and he revisits the Old Man of Hoy to meet the oldest man to climb it, Mike Banks, and where Curran himself had filmed a documentary about the French climber, Catherine Destivelle. I think I may have seen that actually.

In some respects this book is similar to one of my favourite reads last year, One Man and His Bike by Mike Carter. Both men loved the Scottish leg and seemed to feel rather a sense of anti-climax once they'd left Scotland and were faced with cycling through England. In fact Curran stopped off at his home in Sheffield, on the way, and nearly didn't get back on the road again. It leads me to conclude that Scotland must have something which England doesn't and it can't just be fabulous scenery. Nothing for it... I'll just have to get up there and find out for myself.



DesLily said...

wow that Beryl Markham book sounds good...glad you are getting such good books! xoxo

Penny O'Neill said...

Great reviews, Cath.
West With the Night has been on my reading radar screen for some time. You have now compelled me to read it soon.

BooksPlease said...

I'm wondering if my husband would like The Middle-aged Mountaineer - he used to do a lot of rock climbing, never 'mountains' and loves watching documentaries etc about climbing and bemoaning the fact he can't do it any more! I'll check it out - maybe our library will have a copy.

And I often find myself changing my mind about giving books away too.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

Since my college days I have had friends telling me to read the Markham. I attempted to do so a few times, especially when we went t Kenya, but for some reason I could never get into it. I wonder if I kept my copy.

Cath said...

Pat: Yeah, the Beryl Markham book was excellent. Of course, attitudes to Africa wildlife have changed in the last 80 years so that has to be borne in mind when reading this type of book.

Penny: Thank you. It's well worth a read but like I said to Pat, attitudes about hunting the wildlife have undergone a complete reversal and that needs to be taken into consideration when reading this one.

Margaret: Sounds like it just might be your husband's sort of thing.

Glad it's not just me!

Thomas: I have to admit I was not expecting it to be half as good as it turned out to be. I hope you still have it!

Susan said...

I have just finished reading Jim Curran's K2 book! So I was curious how you found this book by him (I really enjoyed the K2 Triumph and Tragedy, well-written and enthralling). I have the other bicycle book you mention on order for my husband for his birthday :-) Maybe I'll try and get this one too for him.

Cath said...

Susan: I do hope T likes One Man and His Bike. I enjoyed this Jim Curran one too... particularly the stories about past mountaineering adventures, so I think I'll try to find the K2 book at some stage.