Laughing at life

Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway in China, 1941
Everyone's had them - those journeys that have moments of pure horror. Now by this I don't mean genuine horror - not the sort of horror you would feel, for example, if you were a war correspondent, but just enough to give the journey a certain comically awful twist, which will be regaled for years afterwards to tears of laughter.

My particular anecdotes of this sort would be the cheese that followed me across Europe; and then there was the time I was lost in a French forest with a lion on the loose - this would have been rather more horrible if I'd known that there was a big cat on the loose at the time, instead I sailed through the forest of Versailles completely oblivious until I met a gendarme armed to the teeth who asked me if I'd noticed a lion! And then there was the time I was stranded at Paddington Station in a blizzard steadfastly reading Peter Fleming's account of an even scarier train journey in News from Tartary.

I've long admired Martha Gellhorn, she was a great writer, one of the first (possibly the first) female war correspondent, who never let her sex get in the way of anything she wanted to do. She's opinionated, virtually unflappable, extraordinarily brave, and hilariously funny. She started her career writing for Collier's magazine in Madrid at the height of the Spanish Civil War. She later reported from the beaches of Normandy, stowing herself away on a ship to get there after Ernest Hemingway, who she was then married to, adroitly pinched her accreditation. One of her proudest moments was when her request for a visa to South Vietnam was refused by the American military who were so incensed by a series of articles she had written for The Guardian newspaper.

Travels with myself and another (the Another is Hemingway who features in the first of Gellhorn's "best horror journeys") contains memories of five of Gellhorn's travels spanning most of her career, starting with a journey to China in the early 1940s in which Gellhorn and Hemingway met Chiang Kai-Shek, avoided cholera and Japanese bombs, and realised that the Communists were going to take over China (they later told the American government this and were branded Fellow-travellers for their pains). Later journeys include a search for u-boats in the Caribbean, a journey in early post-colonial Africa, a visit to dissidents in Brezhnev's Russia, and life with the hippies of Eilat.

Although you might not want to be bombed by the Japanese, or risk being eaten by a crocodile having got your car stuck in an African river, or even be stoned out of your head on the shores of the Red Sea, most of these narratives didn't actually strike me as being true horror journeys - with the exception of the Chinese and Russian trips. There were certainly moments where you wondered what else could go wrong, but Gellhorn has a great gift for humour, and there was many a laugh-aloud moment in even the grimmest story. And she writes beautifully, even if sometimes you are going to disagree with her opinions.

For me the ultimate horror story was the most surprising. Gellhorn had never wanted to go to the Soviet Union, I have always been the complete opposite, I have wanted to go to Russia ever since the first time I saw a production of Petrushka on the TV when I was about 6 years old. Much against her better judgement, she visted after corresponding with a Russian dissident (my guess would be that this was Osip Mandelstam's widow, Nadezhda, who'd recently published several books about their lives). Gellhorn's writing here is fabulous, she vividly evokes the claustrophobia of living in a police state. Living in a state in which everybody, virtually, behaves abominably, and in which hardly anyone really knows what's happening in the outside world. At moments hilariously funny, it is also genuinely chilling.

For a taster of Martha Gellhorn this book cannot be bettered. Wonderful writing, and guaranteed to either give you wanderlust, or just thank God that you are safely at home. Whichever it is, it's a great read.


Popular Posts