How did I live for 47 years without reading Martha Gellhorn?
She’s best known in some circles for her brief wartime marriage to the writer Ernest Hemingway, much to her chagrin. But she is better known as a brilliant war correspondent and travel writer, though she wanted to be remembered as a novelist.
She covered the Spanish Civil War, went ashore on the beaches of Normandy on June 7, 1944, and wrote about the fighting in Vietnam. But she also wrote about her travels in China, Africa and beyond.
While I don’t envy her the horrors of World War Two, I do envy Gellhorn for living in a sort of golden age of travel.
She lived and wrote in a period when travel was cheap, and when it took a long time to get anywhere. It was the age of the great flying boats — the Pan Am Clippers — a time I wish I’d experienced.
“Those big PanAm flying boats were marvellous,” she writes. “We flew all day in roomy comfort, eating and drinking like pigs, visiting the Captain, listening to our fellow travelers, dozing, reading, and in the late afternoon the plane landed on the water at an island. The passengers had time for a swim, a shower, dinner, and slept in beds. Since that was air travel at its best, it has naturally disappeared.”
Gellhorn seems to have done much of her writing in a series of borrowed or rented rooms, scattered across the map; some in place names I recognized and some that I had to look up.
“I lived in seven countries where I established eleven permanent residences,” she said. “A residence is a flat or house that you rent or buy or, if insane, build. I built one and a half houses in two countries and in my opinion house-building is far worse than any horror journey.”
She preferred a set of circumstances which changed with unpredictable regularity:
“Residences are different from temporary furnished quarters of which I remembered seventeen before I stopped trying to remember. Some temporary furnished quarters preceded permanent residences, some were linked to jobs, but mostly they were and continue to be bolt-holes for writing. At home, wherever home is, there are interruptions. I settle in temporary furnished quarters in foreign places where I know nobody and enter into a symbiotic relationship with a typewriter. […] No mater how unsatisfactory the work or how drab the furnished bedsitter, I have the scenery, chosen with care, sea or mountains, and the joys thereof.”
The conclusion of this book states that it was written between 1975 to 1977, “In temporary furnished quarters at Claviers, Spetsai, Comino, Icogne, Naxxar, Antigua, Ta’Xbiex, Lindos, Symi, Marsalforn”.
A strange coincidence, given the years I spent in Malta; many of those names brought images of streets and village squares immediately to mind. Others were Greek islands, and one Caribbean. A broad distribution in the space of two years.
Travels with Myself and Another covers what Gellhorn describes as “five journeys through hell” to civil war China, the u-boat haunted Caribbean, West and East Africa, Soviet Moscow, and Israel.
But this is not a gloomy book. It’s also very funny. Gellhorn knew that the worst experiences often make the best travel stories, and she recognized the ridiculousness in disaster and discomfort even as she was embroiled in it.
My favourite was the trip through East Africa, where she rents an elderly Land Rover from a white hunter. It sounded and handled like a tank, but the engine started and it moved. Less could be said of the driver.
“Joshua arrived in black imitation Italian silk pipestem trousers, white shirt, black pointed shoes, black sunglasses in ornate red frames, holding a cardboard suitcase.” Not exactly standard safari ware. But her challenges were just beginning.
Rather uncharacteristically of those employed as drivers, Joshua did not drive. “I expected Joshua to take the wheel and steer us out of Nairobi to the main Nairobi-Kampala road; gently but firmly, Joshua declined the honour. He could direct me better if I drove.”
He never once took the wheel on their entire journey. He was terrified of animals and of all manner of insects, and Gellhorn began to suspect that he’d never previously been out of Nairobi. That intuition was transformed to certain knowledge when she returned from a walk in the bush.
“The Land Rover was turned so that the passenger seat faced the track. Joshua sat therein, with the door open, his knees crossed, one foot swinging languidly outside. He held a miniature teacup and saucer in his left hand and as I stared, transfixed, he lifted the cup, his little finger curled, and sipped daintily.”
I will leave the rest for you to discover. Get yourself a copy of Travels with Myself and Another immediately — or better yet, order one directly from Eland.
My copy is bristling with so many notes and markers and turned down pages that it looks like a porcupine in a rage.
I rushed to my desk to tell you about it the moment I finished reading it. But not before ordering several of Martha Gellhorn’s other books. I grabbed a biography, too.