One of the most interesting people I’ve met this year has been dead since 1926. I’d heard her name before I really met her, but if you’d asked me anything about her, I would have been very vague. Now I’ve had a window into the inner workings of her life, heart and mind. She’s a lot more human now than when she was just a reputation to me.
A charismatic conversationalist who came to life when conversing about the poetry of the east, travel and archaeology and many other subjects, she had auburn hair and knowing blue eyes. Gertrude Bell was a woman of great energy. She mastered in her lifetime of 57 years 6 languages, mountaineering (summiting some previously unscaled peaks), gardening, cartography, archaeology, mountain and desert travel and diplomacy (developing a network of connections across the tribes living in the Middle East). Some say she was also a spy and she is credited with assisting in the founding of modern Jordan and Iraq. She certainly excelled at extremes and under extremes. Her personal life was tragic – her mothered died when she was a child, her family wouldn’t allow her to marry her fiancé, who died tragically while still young and she later had a fervent, unconsummated affair with a married man who then died at Gallipoli. She fought to defy the set paths unmarried women of her generation would normally have taken – she loved her family, but she threw herself at challenges time and again. She would not be confined or limited.
Why was I drawn to her? Drawn to read her biography? It called to me from a shelf in Dymocks book store, from the moment I saw the desert landscape and the title Queen of the desert. Sometimes I think I wasn’t born for the maintenance of life and its routines and sometimes I think maybe I’m just lazy. The things that give me life are the crises and the extremes and the times you have to just push yourself and don’t have the leisure of reflecting. What does me in is the day-to-day, the repetitiveness of it all. It’s tedious and soul-sucking. I call myself a project person – someone who finds energy in projects, events and dramas. I think this draws me to other project people – other people who soared in the challenging times, but maybe didn’t do so well in the ordinariness of life – I feel like they’re my tribe.
I had a phase of reading the biographies of early aviators, Charles Lindburgh, Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson. I love the tales of their early aviation achievements, of how close they often were to death, only saved by chance, or by their own wits. But they were often driven back to the skies when their earth-bound lives failed. Amy Johnson had a difficult family life and a failed relationship, Charles Lindburgh had a child kidnapped and life was never quite the same again. In an aircraft they could block out society and challenge themselves, and travel to the ends of the globes, meet new people in far away places, land in danger or land to the cheers of adoring crowds. Despite Johnson’s and Earhart’s tragic deaths, they died doing what they loved.
In Western society today there are not so many ways to really challenge yourself. I fell in love with Robyn Davidson’s book Tracks long before it was a movie. Her lone travels with camels and dog across the centre of Australia, having learnt to train camels under harsh conditions in Alice Springs, were epic. She too was fleeing family issues, but her achievement and the freedom of that time were great. And like Bell, Earhart and Johnson she broke female stereotypes, something those around her didn’t quite know how to handle. I’m not a risk taker, but travel, living off your wits and responding to crises, taking on challenges and seeing them through – these all appeal to me – and even more when suburban-bound life disappoints or threatens to overwhelm me with the mundane. I’m inspired by those who’ve come before who forged new paths and roles where there were none. Life is short, do the things that make your eyes light up.