Irish cycle tourer, author of 23 books and one of the great travellers of our age turns 80 today. Hilary Bradt celebrates a feisty and freewheeling life
I vividly remember my first meeting with Dervla Murphy in 1979. Husband George and I had just arrived at a hostal in Otavalo, Ecuador, while researching our guide to Backpacking in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. I emerged from our room to find George chatting to a tough-looking woman with an Irish accent. She was telling him where to buy good yoghurt. As she returned to one of the basic rooms that faced the central quadrangle, we held a hushed conversation.
“Do you think that’s Dervla Murphy?” George asked (we had heard that she was mule-trekking in Peru with her nine-year-old daughter, researching a book).
“Oh no,” I said, “she’s a proper writer; she wouldn’t stay in a place like this!”
But later that day George asked her anyway. Her face conveyed a mixture of surprise and dismay. “I’ll get some rum,” she said.
We talked for hours, covering not just travel but politics. After a chance encounter with an American, she was on her way to the US to sniff out the truth about the recent nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. That meeting encapsulated the essence of Dervla: modest, frugal, generous and intensely interested in just about everything. It was also a pivotal year in her writing career, because she unearthed enough disturbing facts about the nuclear industry to put the Peru book on hold. Instead, she wrote Race to the Finish?
Eight Feet in the Andes was eventually published in 1983, four years after her journey. Among my collection of Dervla postcards is one written earlier that year: ‘Last week corrected proofs of my Peru vol. And it is quite sensationally BAD – I mean, worse than you could imagine or believe. Cannot think why Jock is publishing it; it will destroy my reputation, what there is of it...’
The reviewers disagreed: ‘This adventure is one of Miss Murphy’s best. She remains her humorous, modest, self-mocking self.’ (The Daily Telegraph).
Her fans loved the book, but a friend made a perceptive comment, which Dervla quoted in one of her postcards: ‘I sensed something wrong as I read: after that trip you did the nuke book and I think that changed you –
I think you have become, willy-nilly, a political animal, and mental adventures now claim you and make the physical ones seem less thrilling. Am I right?’
Dervla agreed. ‘She is in fact absolutely right; I knew when writing Peru that it would be my last straightforward travel book, tho’ I would hope to be able to combine travel with future writing.’
We mused on this when chatting last month in London. “Writing the Three Mile Island book sort of percolated through to all subsequent books. I think, anyway, you become more politically aware as you get older. You can’t just go on writing about jolly adventures.” Uncompromisingly anti-capitalist (“Oh yes, if I could, I’d be outside St Paul’s!”), she now seeks out places whose political history is as interesting as their topography – South Africa, Uganda, Romania, Siberia, Cuba – but long-term fans of Dervla Murphy the travel writer can still revel in the adventures that provide the framework for political musings.
Because she dislikes talking about herself, Dervla has a horror of the publicity circus often foisted on authors.
In 1984 she described one book-signing event in The Bookseller. ‘My venue was Cambridge, where herds of besotted fans were expected to stampede into Bowes & Bowes, trembling in their eagerness to shake the hand that wrote the books that widened the horizons of so many. Dazzled by the prospect of signed copies, they would then spend so recklessly that strong men might be needed to help them carry home their parcels of DM hardbacks. In fact, four DM fans turned up – or four and a half if you count a nonagenarian who only came because he thought I was Isabella Bird.’
As she approaches her 80th birthday, self-deprecation remains one of Dervla’s most endearing characteristics. Her modesty is entirely genuine – she simply doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. If you want to make her hackles visibly rise, try suggesting that she is courageous. “People just don’t seem to be able to get hold of it! I’ve nothing to be brave about!”
But has there been a time when she was really frightened? “Well, of course.
In Ethiopia, when I thought these people were going to murder me, and they were discussing whether they would or not, obviously I was afraid then. It’s being afraid when something actually happens but not being afraid that something might happen. That’s the difference.”
But there is a Dervla quirk that sets her even further apart from the norm, best expressed by a reviewer of Muddling Through in Madagascar (1985): ‘Dervla Murphy’s appetite for discomfort verges on the Gothic.’ One can only concur, as one reads in appalled fascination her descriptions of sleeping in a pool of rainwater under the leaking roof of a £15 tent or walking 20 miles or so on feet punctured by cheap Mexican hiking boots. This disregard for comfort has not diminished one jot with age.
In her Cuba book, The Island That Dared (2008), written when she was 75, she recounts a train journey of such ghastliness that it’s only through knowing Dervla that you trust its veracity: ‘...by the light of a full moon...
I located the baño, seemingly occupied. Having waited a reasonable time I tried the door again, pushing hard. It swung open revealing a vacuum: below was Mother Earth... But for the moon I would have stepped forward to my death...’
She resorted to peeing, somewhat inaccurately, through the open carriage door. But there were other bodily needs: ‘The baño at the other end, visited during the day, had no door – or loo, or washbasin, though their sites were obvious. Here one had to relieve one’s bladder and bowels in full view of passers-by. The latter activity was performed as close as possible to the walls – a much-used space – half-way through our 24-hour journey.’
Dervla recognises that in her abhorrence of modern niceties, she is going against the flow. In the Cuba book she muses on whether she has somehow failed to evolve.
‘My genes reject car ownership, TV, washing machines, computers, mobile phones and other such complex innovations. Were a species, rather than an individual, I’d be doomed to extinction as a creature unable to adapt to its changing environment.’
Guests in her Lismore home learn to be stoical, although there have been subtle retaliations. I reminded Dervla of one such instance. She laughed. “Yes! I found an electric blanket tied to the gate! I never did find out who left it there, but it’s still in use.”
When I met her in October, Dervla was off to Canada for a literary festival, taking one of her grand-daughters to ease the suffering. “Banff will be lovely!” I said encouragingly.
“Oh, I don’t think so. All those signs. And footpaths!”
“And you’ll stay in a posh hotel?”
Dervla’s eyes flashed. “Absolutely not! I find my own hotels. Last time I found a lovely one in Toronto which cost only $15.
“But,” she says, “since I had a hip replacement last year, the surgeon said ‘No more carrying heavy rucksacks!’ So now I have – oh, I can’t bear it! – one of those little things that you pull behind you. So I think that’s the biggest disadvantage for me in old age. Not being able to wear a rucksack.”
But then her face brightened. “One of the really positive things is needing so much less sleep. I mean, it adds hours to your day!”
Dervla’s early life is documented in her autobiography Wheels within Wheels (1979). It’s the only book she admits to having enjoyed writing, since it was never intended for publication.
Hers was not an auspicious start for an author. She left school at 14 and spent the next 16 years looking after her mother who was crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. Apart from brief sorties by bike to continental Europe she had no opportunity to develop her wanderlust until her mother died.
Then in 1963 she undertook the journey that made her name. Full Tilt, the account of her cycle ride to India, has never been out of print. Since then she has spent part of each year travelling and part “in purdah” at her home in Co Waterford, writing the next book. There are 23 of them, all written with immense care and always a certain amount of anguish – I’ve never known her say her work is going well. The scholarship and research that goes into writing each book is evident in the bibliography at the back. Her Cuba book, for instance, lists 102 titles.
Although history and politics are woven into the text, these are still travel books. Being Dervla, hardly a day passes without some adventure, often brought on by her pursuit of discomfort. She sleeps on rocks or in caves, in driving rain; she goes without food and – worse – alcohol; she revels in being lost for days in the mountains; she always listens to the local people. And I mean really listens.
A South African friend commented: ‘When Dervla listens to you, you open up about aspects of your world that nobody else even thinks to enquire about.’
This is where her talent for travel writing lies. There may be better writers on travel but there is no better traveller who writes.
Dervla Murphy will be celebrating her 80th birthday today, 28 November 2011. Three of her books from the 60s and 70s – The Waiting Land, Where the Indus is Young and Tibetan Foothold, have recently been reissued by Eland Books, priced £12.99.
Wanderlust is running an exclusive competition to win signed copies of all three books above. Check out our competitions area for more information and for your chance to win.
Why Dervla Murphy won't write about Tibet... Wanderlust's Lyn Hughes interviewed Dervla Murphy for the very first interview of Wanderlust and again in 2006, on the release of Silverland. Read their catchup here.