“What has politics to do with real daily life, as real people live it?”
Why have I never heard of Martha Gellhorn before?
I’ve taken a short break from Ideal Reading having become a little worn out after the epic Story of the Stone, struggling to commit to something else from those hefty tomes. This is rubbish, of course, I’m sure I could have read any one of them, but the fact is I came to this stunning realisation that reading from my selection of books that weren’t bought for idealistic purposes wasn’t actually breaking any rules. When my objective was to stop impulse buying and commit to reading from my existing stock, it was utterly permissible to read from any of my stock whether I’d read it before or not. Thus I cheerfully snagged this book off the ‘non-ideal’ shelves; a gift from a friend who made a kind and judicious selection from my wishlist though I cannot recall how or why this book ended up on it except it is by Eland (who I love) and it sounded interesting.
Why have I never heard of Martha Gellhorn before?
The book is Gellhorn taking a little backwards view at five of the many journeys she’d taken in her life which stood out in her mind as being particularly awful. Gellhorn was a prodigious traveller, famous (although not with me. I am fuming that her name is not as household as the once-upon-a-time husband whose name I won’t mention) for her journalistic activities in places of conflict and war: the Spanish Civil War, WWII, Vietnam. That these trips stood out against those others, which must have been hellish in the extreme, says something for the depredation suffered, the complexities of the awfulness of these specific journeys. She begins in China during the war. China was a place she dreamed of going ‘the Orient’ as she describes it having developed a longing ‘mooning on streetcar travels and stuffing [her] imagination with Fu Manchu and Somerset Maugham’. The reality was somewhat different, as she describes:
“Mashed bedbugs on the walls, bedbugs creeping over the board beds, peering from the wood floor. Bedbugs smell apart from their bite. Two bamboo chairs, a small table, a kerosene lamp, a bowl of dirty water without spittoon for emptying it in. Down the corridor, a fine modern porcelain toilet in a cement cubicle but not geared to modern plumbing; the bowl overflowed across the floor. The sight was more appalling than the stench though the stench was superlative. I flung Keatings powder everywhere until our room looked as if it had been hit by a powdered-mustard cyclone. We argued as to whether sleeping on the floor was safer than on the board beds.”
Ostensibly she was in China reporting on the war, looking for the mythical Sino-Japanese front, which turned out to be something far less dramatic than she’d imagined (or hoped, I suspect). Still she gleefully describes all the horrors – the boredom, the smells, the terrible poverty, the noises (farting, burping, coughing, hawking – only the last of which made her feel physically sick), the horrors and difficulties of getting from one place to another. Her descriptions of the CNAC air service put my meagre difficulties, the minor delays and overcrowding, on what is the now legendary Northern Rail service into sharp relief as I contrasted the smelly warm crush with the unheated, unpressurised flights, flying in the dark invisibility of fog to avoid the Japanese fighters which Gellhorn still describes as being “never a dull moment. Glowing with adrenalin and high spirits, I would gladly have started again on the next flight.” I begin to feel like an over-pampered, sulky white western princess conflating even the most minor discomforts, which is in fact exactly what I am.
From there Gellhorn moves to the Caribbean where she spends a not very fun time in boats, skipping from island to island trying to get sunk by a German U-boat. I kid you not. It was a trip in which she suffered great boredom and little peril, though it was clear the idea was considered more than a little crazy:
“Word of my scheme got around and resulted in a visit from a burly Texas Major in charge of guarding the island. He brought me a miniature pearl-handled silver plated derringer. It looked just the weapon for a crackpot wearing a negligee trimmed in ostrich feathers who planned to shoot her lover. He gave me four bullets, blunt-nosed 32s, showed me how to load this lethal toy, told me earnestly that it would cut a man in half and not to hesitate to use it. ‘You don’t now what can happen, all alone out there,’
I said I could not accept his expensive pistol, had never used a handgun and was never anxious about my honour. He insisted until finally I thanked him, wrapped the pretty thing in Kleenex, put the bullets in an airmail envelope and the lot at the bottom of my suitcase. Somewhere during the journey, I must have given it away.”
Not a U-boat seen, though she rescued a cat and learned to hate the sea. By now I was enjoying myself immensely, and though it is evident Gellhorn did not her wry, droll sense of humour shines through and what might be a tragedy in other hands is light comedy in hers. From all the horrors, the mistakes, the bad food and perilous journeys, you get the impression Gellhorn is in her element.
From the glistening Caribbean to the wilds of Africa and what becomes the longest section of the book, a self-funded trip to West and East Africa which Gellhorn describes in great detail. It is evident that Africa had a significant impact on Gellhorn, in fact she built one of her ‘several’ residences there and wrote about it more extensively afterwards. Did that mean she had a great time? Of course not! These are journeys from hell after all and perhaps the hell of Africa was not Africa itself but the fact of it coming out from under ‘civilised’ European rule:
“I lay under the mosquito net and thought white people were boobs, Africa has nothing to do with us and never will have. I also thought of politics: Cameroun has a black gentleman in European clothes representing his nation at the UN in New York. The naked pagans and the barbaric chiefs will be spoken for, in French, by an African who has learned the European tricks, and will be a black copy of the other gentlemen gathered in that glass palace on the East River. African politicians outside Africa, must represent their people even less than politicians generally do; or else they represent how their people might be a hundred years from now.
It is all mad and a joke. We are fools; we believe in words, not reality which the words are supposed to describe. Politics – the bungling management of the affairs of men – is a game played among themselves by a breed of professionals. What has politics to do with real daily life, as real people live it?”
And this is what I also loved about Gellhorn, for all the comedy of her trips she had a keen insight and really saw the lives of the people she encountered. They were not a battlefield statistic, an idea, a section of coloured blobs to be moved around a board. They were real, physical, soulful people; real in every sense, with all the senses high tuned to their glories and miseries (and smells, definitely smells). Gellhorn gets to the root of the matter. Africa was not for Europeans, the Caribbean was slower but better off (culturally, if not financially) before American money transfigured it into a pleasure palace. Gellhorn had been out into the world, really lived there, and seen it change. Her final journey was to Russia, a place did didn’t want to go and hated for all the right reasons and some unexpected ones too. I wonder what she would say if it now?
I adored this book, adored and admired it. Of course I want to read everything by Gellhorn now, though I’m restricted to this one little volume for the moment. I feel like I’m late to the party, yet her name is not one I’ve heard from any corners and when you search for her she appears most frequently in relation to her brief marriage to that other, more famous, writer and I find myself livid that we still live in a world in which female achievement is eclipsed, female experience erased, except such as it appears as a footnote in the lives of men. I suspect it is a scenario which would make Gellhorn herself equally livid, and yet I think she would also breezily ignore it and get on with whatever it was she had in mind to do, which is an excellent example I intend to follow. But in the meantime I’ll sing her name from the rafters along with those other extraordinary women – Dervla Murphy, Christiane Ritter, Jenny Diski, Svetlana Alexievich – who too have gone out into the world and played it as they chose, seen it in their own way, regardless of this odd social construct which spins around us, trying to control and erase our lives.
Politics the bungling management of the affairs of men: what has it to do with us, after all?