These photos are from Dervla's archive. Please scroll down the page to read a selection of interviews.
A young Dervla with her bike in Barcelona
Dervla in Tibet
A young Dervla with bike
A young Derlvla with bike
Dervla in Addis
Muddling Through in Madagascar
Dervla and her bicycle, 1994
Dervla and Rachel
Dervla in Canada, 1991
Dervla and dogs
OX TRAVELS: MEETINGS WITH REMARKABLE TRAVEL WRITERS - 2011
This is the piece that Dervla Murphy wrote for OX-TRAVELS, (ISBN 978-1846684968) published in 2011 by Profile Books, which contains three dozen stories of MEETINGS OF REMARKABLE TRAVEL WRITERS, all royalties were pledged by all the writers to the coffers of Oxfam.
Three Tibetans in Ireland
On a cold grey day at the end of March 1964, shortly after my return from India, I first met a Tibetan in Western surroundings – the foyer of a central London hotel. I had been working for some months in Dharamsala, then an overcrowded and under-funded refugee camp for Tibetan children, and that moving encounter with the Tibetan way of being made me feel slightly apprehensive about Lobsang. How would this young man, only five years out of Tibet and three months out of India, be reacting to our Western ways? But I needn’t have worried; by the time our refugee-elated business had been concluded I knew that Lobsang was in no danger of being ‘tainted’ – he was simply adjusting to his new circumstances to the extent required by good manners.
As we walked through St James’s Park my companion explained his background. The second youngest of eight children, he was born in 1943 in Lhasa where his civil servant father practised as an oracle. Only in retrospect can one fully appreciate the uniqueness of Lobsang’s generation of Tibetans. Born the son of a government oracle, he is now the grandfather of an IT-savvy seven-year-old.
In 1945 Lobsang was orphaned and two years later adopted by his father’s brother, an austere uncle, an Incarnate Lama of the Gelugpas who had founded two monasteries. At one of these – Tubung Churbu, twenty miles west of Lhasa – Lobsang spent his school holidays in a small community of a hundred monks, some of whom were his contemporaries. Although one can’t have an informally relaxed relationship with an Incarnate Lama, his Abbot uncle’s unspoken affection comforted him. During term time a warmhearted Lhasa aunt mothered him and three of his brothers.
When the Lhasa Uprising began in March 1959 Lobsang’s only sister (a pioneering agronomist) was murdered by the Chinese and he fled to Tubung Churbu; his family was sufficiently prominent for every member to be at risk. The monks were preparing to follow the Dalai Lama to India and two weeks later the Abbot set out with twenty-five young lamas, his sixteen-year-old nephew and a train of sixty mules carrying a library of ancient Sanskrit manuscripts and a famous collection of t’ankas [traditional Tibetan Buddhist paintings on silk scrolls]. To avoid the Chinese, refugee caravans used perilous passes over high mountains and this comparatively short journey took more than three months. Half the mules were lost through injury. Lobsang and his friends suffered acutely from loneliness and grief; they already sensed that their exile would be permanent. He described himself as ‘caught between two fears’. Would the Chinese successfully pursue them? And what awaited him at journey’s end? He spoke only Tibetan and a little Chinese and could not begin to imagine the world beyond the mountains. He was then unaware of the significance of money; always his needs had been provided for yet soon he was to be unsupported …
But not immediately: at Kalimpong Uncle arranged for his nephew to lodge with Sherpa Tenzing of Everest during the monsoon, while learning Nepali, Hindi and English. The Abbot continued to Benares where he was soon to hold the chair of Sanskrit Studies at the Hindu University. His t’anka collection had survived the journey and a year later formed one of the main attractions at Delhi’s International Exhibition of Oriental Art.
In November Tenzing helped Lobsang find a job as houseboy to an expat family – an unremarkable move by our standards, but in Tibet this youth had been attended by personal servants who wouldn’t allow him to put on his own boots. At this stage he found himself being scornfully regarded, in some refugee circles, as too naïve to make the most of his connections. In fact he wished to equip himself with some means of helping the tens of thousands of illiterate Tibetans then drifting about northern India in bewildered misery. After nine months he had saved up enough to leave the Americans (despite their offer to double his wages) and become a voluntary worker at Mrs Bedi’s School for Young Lamas. There Joyce Pearce of The Ockenden Venture discerned his capabilities and offered him the opportunity to help settle orphans in European homes, which is what brought him to London.
Before we said goodbye at Waterloo station Lobsang had accepted my invitation to spend his summer holiday in Ireland, on the smallest of the three Aran Islands.
In the 1960s Inisheer’s only roads were narrow dirt tracks, the traffic consisted entirely of donkeys, water was drawn from wells, clothes were homespun, everyone spoke Irish – and there two of my books were written by candlelight. It seemed to me that a Tibetan would find himself at ease on Inisheer, an intuition soon confirmed by Lobsang.
Our two and a half hour steamer journey from Galway, on a cloudless August morning, was Lobsang’s longest sea voyage. When we anchored, a fleet of currachs – frail little craft of wood-lathe and tarred canvas – immediately surrounded us to ferry passengers and goods ashore. Boat-days were then quite an event for the 280 or so islanders and inevitably Lobsang’s arrival provoked uninhibited curiosity. This slightly discomfited me but afterwards it transpired that the refugee had observed a family weeping as they said goodbye to an emigrant daughter and had been more aware of this sad feature of Inisheer life than of his own conspicuousness.
For three weeks we shared a friend’s cottage (Daphne was the only outsider living permanently on the island), washing at the well three-quarters of a mile away, cooking over an open turf fire and sleeping on the floor. Lobsang enthusiastically took on many of the daily chores and had soon dug a splendid latrine for use with turf ash. He also volunteered to collect dung to supplement our expensive imported turf but here ethical complications arose; cowpats containing insects were ineligible for burning. Observing this, Daphne and I discreetly abandoned forays to collect barnacles and periwinkles.
After sunset we sat around the glowing hearth and returned to Tibet with Lobsang. He had seen more of his own country than most non-nomadic Tibetans. In 1956 Uncle had taken him on an eighteen-months’ journey to a sacred mountain in west Tibet. This pilgrimage of a Very High Lama to a Very Sacred Mountain generated a caravan of 100 horses and mules and 300 yaks, carrying camping equipment and stores for sixty monks and servants. West Tibet’s barrenness made it necessary to carry so much food – mainly tsampa [roasted flour], cheese, dried meat and compressed vegetables, plus emergency fodder for the animals.
At nightfall everyone but the Abbot helped set up camp – excellent training, Lobsang remarked, for him and his otherwise pampered young companions (all fledgling lamas). Several flooded rivers had to be forded, the equines swimming through the swift icy water, the yaks being ferried on square, flat-bottomed boats of wood and yak-hide. Excitements were few- a panther killing a dog, or hundreds of wild horses galloping across the steppes. Recalling that happy and peaceful journey, Lobsang had to pause occasionally to control his emotions. Already he realised that even as we spoke Buddhist Tibet was being changed forever. From him I learned that the sudden violent dispossession prompting a refugee flight is peculiarly traumatic. Apart from the loss of a settled home and traditional occupation, and separation from close friends and familiar places, it is the death of the person one has become in a particular context. Three years after our Inisheer interlude, Lobsang noted: ‘Every refugee must be his or her own midwife at the painful process of rebirth’.
By May 1965 I was back with the Tibetans, running a children’s feeding programme in Pokhara’s refugee camp, overlooked by Machhapuchhare. On 12 May, as I walked between ragged cotton tents, occupied by recently arrived nomads from west Tibet, piercing squeaks drew my attention to an object lying on the palm of Ngwanag Pema’s hand. It was very small, very black and very vocal. Moments later I had exchanged the equivalent of ten-and-sixpence (50 pence in new money) for a twelve-day-old Tibetan bitch to be delivered once she was weaned. I wondered what the astrologists would make of the coincidence that this pup and I had entered Nepal on the same date: 1 May.
Six weeks later Tashi moved in to my mud-floored room in the bazaar and I took time off to help this refugee adjust to her new environment. All afternoon she lay on my lap while I wrote but hours passed before her look of puzzled distress began to fade. Then at last she wagged her tail – a brief and doubtful wag, but a wag’s a wag for all that and this sign of dawning trust enchanted me. A night of unmothered whimpering would have been understandable yet Tashi slept soundly, curled up on my stomach. As she was much too young to be left alone I carried her everywhere, for the next month or so, in a cloth shoulder-bag.
By mid-September Tashi’s furry cuddlesomeness had been replaced by a silky strokability. Her build was distinctive; one tactless Irish friend was to describe her as ‘a stocking left too long on the needles’. Her black coat had elegantly symmetrical white and tan markings and her admittedly ridiculous brown feathery tail curled up and over her back. Several schools of thought debated the delicate question of her breed. A local ‘expert’ pronounced her to be a smooth-haired Tibetan terrier which was absurd; but Ngawang Pema – hoping to sell the next litter to foreign visitors – agreed with him. An Indian UN official, who himself bred Afghan hounds, defined her as a Miniature Himalayan Sheepdog – a theory reinforced by Ngawang Pema’s occupation. Personally I regarded her as a perfectly good Tibetan mongrel or pi-dog. However, anyone besotted enough to go to the immense inconvenience and expense of transporting a dog from Nepal to Ireland must be tempted to pretend, as a face-saving device, that the import belongs to some rare Central Asian breed of enormous snob-value. Therefore the form I filled in on 15 September, to begin the arduous process of obtaining Irish citizenship for Tashi, boldly proclaimed her to be a Miniature Himalayan Sheepdog.
A week previously I had informed the Irish embassy in Delhi that on 3 December I planned to land in Dublin with a Nepal-born dog. In reply came a parcel of lengthy documents making it plain that Ireland’s Department of Agriculture is allergic to alien quadrupeds. One could visualise the thin-lipped bureaucrat who had devised all these regulations to wither any imprudent relationships cultivated by expats. Reading them hardened my determination to ‘import a domestic pet of the canine species into the State from a place abroad…separately confined in a suitable hamper, crate, box or other receptabcle which must be nose and paw proof and not contain any hay, straw or peat-moss litter’. Impatiently I completed the preliminary forms and wrote letters to ‘the approved quarantine premises’ and ‘the approved carrying agents’ while Tashi lay happily by my feet unaware that during the next few months a lot of people were going to make a very big fuss about a very little dog.
Throughout October and November all my ‘reminding’ letters to the Irish Embassy in Delhi and the Department of Agriculture in Dublin were ignored. By 26 November Tashi’s entry-permit should have been awaiting me in Kathmandu but it wasn’t. From there I sent many frantic cables to Delhi and Dublin, Tashi accompanying me every morning to the new ‘Indian aid’ Telephone and Telegraph office. While I drafted progressively less polite messages the staff eyed my companion derisively and commented on the unusual brand of lunacy revealed by the compulsion to import such an object to Ireland. After four days of impoverishing communications I ended my campaign defiantly; at 3.20 pm on 3rd December a black and-tan bitch from Nepal would land at Dublin airport with or without her visa which had been applied for on 15 September.
In Delhi we stayed with friends for a few days while Tashi received and recovered from numerous inoculations. At once she displayed characteristic Tibetan adaptability, both to her new surroundings and her new friends. In a bazaar near the Red Fort I bought the statutory ‘nose- and paw-proof’ basket which is still in use almost half a century later as a bathroom laundry basket. On the eve of our departure I cunningly took Tashi to Air India’s central office and introduced her to the Authorities. Nothing else was necessary; they immediately agreed that it would be superfluous to imprison such a very small passenger between Delhi and London. Moreover, it could easily be arranged to have an empty seat beside mine. And so it came about that Tashi, conceived in western Tibet and born in a nomad’s tent at the base of Machhapuchhare, now had the run of a Boeing 707. From where we are in 2011, it’s hard to believe that once upon a time air travel was easy-going.
At Beirut Tashi expressed the need for a grassy spot – and promptly disappeared into the darkness of the night. As engine trouble in Bombay had already delayed us by three hours the captain asked the passengers if they would be kind enough to forgive another delay – this time a short one – while Miss Murphy pursued her puppy. Ten stressful minutes later I was stumbling into the cabin clutching a trembling Tashi who apparently hadn’t much liked what she’d seen of the Lebanon.
At Prague I chained her, lest she might have anti-Communist prejudices, and at London – feeling traitorous – I roped her in her basket and delivered her to the waiting RSPCA van. When she had been handed over to an Aer Lingus official he ruthlessly consigned her to the terrors of the hold, ignoring my pleas that she should be allowed to travel in her basket on my lap.
The scene at Dublin airport was surreal. My final defiant cable had activated a platoon of uniformed officials who were falling over each other in their anxiety to ensure that the infinitesimal Tashi did not break loose and overnight turn the nation rabid. A grotesquely large covered truck stood waiting to transport the mini-basket to the State Quarantine Kennels ten miles away and to my fury I was refused permission to accompany Tashi through the alien cold wetness of an Irish winter night.
Next morning I found that the kennels were exceptionally well run and during her six months’ isolation Tashi remained in perfect condition and grew a little more. Although my regular fortnightly visits delighted her she accepted my departures with composure – and at last came the day when she departed too, into breezy green fields and bright June sunshine. The joy she then showed at racing free can have been no greater than my own on seeing that little black body again unfurling its ridiculous brown tail in the wind.
Tashi was aged three and a half when Rinchen Dolma Taring came to stay with me in Ireland while writing her autobiography. (Daughter of Tibet: Kohn Murray, 1970; Wisdom Publications, London, 1986.) His holiness the Dalai Lama had given Amala four months leave from her job as Director of Mussoorie Children’s Homes. Time being so limited, we lived in isolation, working twelve hours a day with only one day off in February 1969, to celebrate Losar, the Tibetan New Year.
My role was not to ghost Amala’s book but to give editorial advice – a much slower process – and I soon realised that a Buddhist’s autobiography is a contradiction in terms if the writer is as ‘advanced’ as Amala. Her spiritual training had encouraged the obliteration of the Self and conventional autobiography requires a certain concentration on that entity. I recall our standing in the kitchen, beside a round table, and my laying a finger on its centre while saying, ‘You’re supposed to be here, in relation to this book. Everything else must derive its importance from being linked to you.’ Amala chuckled, dismissed this primitive notion and went on to write an idiosyncratic volume of layered social and political history with her family, rather than herself, at its centre.
Amala’s father, Tsarong Shap-pe Wangchuk Gyalp, was descended from a famous physician, Yuthok Yonten Gonpo, who, during the reign of King Trinsong Detsen (AD 755-7), studied Sanskrit medicine at Nalanda University in India. Yonten Gonpo’s block print biography of 149 leaves, containing some of his drawings and diagrams, was destroyed when the Red Guard attacked Lhasa’s Government Medical College. Tsarong Shap-pe married Yangchen Dolma – descended from the Tenth Dalai Lama’s family – and Amala was their ninth surviving child. In 1886 her paternal grandfather, Tsi-pon Tsaron, had been despatched to the Tibetan-Sikkimese border by the Dalai Lama to negotiate its demarcation with representatives of the Raj.
By 1903 the Raj was feeling extra-twitchy about a Russian take-over of Tibet and the Younghusband Mission set off to put British relations with that country ‘on a proper basis’. This alarmed the Abbots of Lhasa’s three great monasteries who regarded all outsiders as enemies of Buddhism. They urged the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to instruct Amala’s father, the senior lay Cabinet Minister, and his monk equivalent, to hasten to the Sikkimese border (a three weeks’ ride) and persuade the British to come no further. As a result, the Younghusband Mission became the infamous Younghusband Expedition which on its way to Lhasa in 1904 slaughtered some 500 Tibetan soldiers armed only with obsolete weapons.
Later that year, Tsarong was one of the four Shap-pes [lay cabinet ministers] who signed a Convention with Britain – forbidding Tibet to have relations with any other foreign power. In 1912, when Amala was a toddler, her father and eldest brother – then a twenty-five-year-old junior Government servant – were murdered on the steps of the Potala. Some said Tsarong Shap-pe had made enemies by signing the Convention without consulting the Dalai Lama’s government. Others believed that he and his son were distrusted for ‘liking foreigners too much’ and introducing to the country novelties of ill-omen. When government business took Tsarong to India in 1907 he returned with sensational inventions – sewing machines and cameras.
Amala wrote and talked with honesty, tolerance and humour, describing a society that genuinely cultivated non-violence yet could be very bloody indeed. As the weeks passed I felt as though I had left Ireland, mentally and emotionally, and was living in a world that had survived, almost untouched by Outside, for more than a millennium – and had then been shattered forever a mere decade before Amala sat in my home distilling its essence on paper in her neat, firm handwriting.
Just as the Tibetan language, in 1950, lacked the vocabulary to deal with a mechanized, industrialised, scientific era, so we lack the vocabulary to deal with Old Tibet. In that context, such words as feudalism, serfdom, autonomy, education – even religion – have a misleading resonance; the Lord Buddha is not, conceptually, the ‘equivalent’ of the Jewish/Christian/Muslim ‘God’. And of course ‘feudalism’ insults the complexity of Tibet’s social organization.
Most Westerners are ill-equipped to comprehend a country in which all legal, social and political systems and institutions were based on the Buddhist dharma which had long ago been modified and adapted to produce that singular phenomenon known as Tibetan Buddhism. Although the pre-Communist way of life was not, as some like to imagine, ‘deeply spiritual’ – in the sense of being guided by devout, mystical scholar-priests – it was genuinely permeated by abstract spiritual values. Few lamas were ‘hypocritical parasites’ living off the labour of ‘cowed serfs’; only a small minority entered the monasteries for no other motive than to enjoy a life of ease.
Tibet’s nobility was based mainly in Lhasa where each of the 200 or so families had to provide one layman to serve as a government official alongside a monk colleague – the two having equal status and responsibility. In theory, families lacking a male to fulfil this duty forfeited their land, all of which was leased from the state. There was however an escape clause. With His Holiness’s permission, a son-in-law could change his forenames, take his wife’s family name and save the day. After the assassination of Amala’s father and brother, a peasant named Chensal Namgag – a favourite of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama – married one of her older sisters and was ennobled. Subsequently he married another sister and in 1928 he married Amala and fathered her first child. (Most Tibetan marriages were monogamous but polygamy and polyandry were equally acceptable though the latter was more common.) In 1929 Jigme Sumtsen Wang-po, Prince of Taring, arrived on the scene: a politically desirable second husband for Amala. Chensal Namgung helped to arrange the marriage of this third wife to her handsome young prince. When my daughter and I stayed with the Tarings in Mussoorie in 1974 they were still very obviously in love.
The upward mobility of Chensal Namgang – son of a small-holder and arrow-maker – was not unusual. Old Tibet was free of European-style class barriers. Rich and poor visited each other’s homes and formed friendships if personally inclined to do so. A monk from the humblest background, if suitably gifted, could rise high in his monastery’s hierarchy. The families of Dalai Lamas were automatically ennobled; only two of the fourteen came from the hereditary nobility. The same schools served the children of nobles, traders, craftsmen and peasants; an erring young noble might find him or herself being chastised by a peasant prefect. Family servants gave heeded advice about who should marry whom, and other important matters. Each craft – artists, goldsmiths, moulders, masons, boot-makers, tailors, carpenters, weavers, dyers – had its own respected guild. Many craftsmen were richer than some senior noble officials and the guild leaders were always seated above the younger nobles at official Palace occassions.
Even more remarkable was Tibet’s cultural history as outlined by Amala – the Buddhist-powered evolution of a pacifist state. Long ago, Tibet’s warriors were renowned: brave and ferocious. The Chinese recorded nineteen serious Tibet versus China conflicts between AD 634 and 849 and the Tibetans were almost always the aggressors. At one stage Tibet’s army crossed the River Oxus, invaded Samarkand and prompted Harun Al-Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad, to ally himself with the Chinese.
Buddhism began to put down deep roots after the death in 842 of the anti-Buddhist Kind Lang Dharma. In 1249, when the Sakya Pandita came to power, it was unthinkable that anyone could rule Tibet without the support of a Buddhist sect. The change from militarism to a society influenced by non-violent principles was gradual and sometimes faltering yet there was no fudging on a par with Christianity’s conveniently elastic ‘just war’. However, Tibet was riven for centuries by sectarian rivalries and inter-monastery jealousies, occasionally leading to brief battles. But those lamentable aberrations were recognised as such at the time; physical violence was no longer taken for granted as a legitimate means of settling disputes. And since the mid-seventeenth century the institution of the Dalai Lama had brought To Tibet an extraordinary degree of social stability, described by the Chinese invaders as ‘stagnation’.
Some of Amala’s recollections made me wish that I, too, had been born in Tibet in 1910. I would have happily settled for incarnation as a lady’s maid if that job required me to ride for twelve days to a country estate, crossing a landscape of incomparable beauty where human beings were scarce and animals plentiful: bears, wolves, bighorn sheep, musk deer, wild yak. On every side roamed huge herds of chiru [a Tibetan antelope], gazelles and wild asses; by the many lakes dwelt an abundance of birds. It delighted Amala that most creatures showed no fear of approaching caravans. Hugh Richardson, a British Trade Consul who lived in Lhasa during the 1940s and was a close friend of the Tsarongs, noted: ‘The majority of people make efforts to live as much as possible with nature, not against it’. Because the Chinese live otherwise Tibet’s wildlife is by now on the verge of extinction.
To spend four months in the company of only one person, collaborating in the intrinsically intimate task of memoir-writing, is a rare experience. (I’m not counting the non-verbal members of the household, Tashi and my new-born daughter.) By some mysterious process of osmosis that time of close companionship with Amala changed me – not in any obvious way, but inwardly and permanently. Yet I was never tempted to ‘become a Buddhist’. There is a theory – I forget, if I ever knew, who first articulated it – that the Tibetan diaspora, though so heartbreaking for so many, must benefit the rest of the world. I can easily believe that the majority of Tibetan exiles, living out of the limelight and perhaps no longer readily identifiable as Tibetans, are continually enriching the various communities amongst whom they have settled.
On the sad day of Amala’s departure, Tashi accompanied us to Cork airport. Her tail dropped as her compatriot disappeared. They had become mutually devoted.
DESERT ISLAND DISCS - 1993
Dervla was Sue Lawley's castaway back in January 1993. You can listen to the programme via the BBC archive here:Desert Island Discs
'Most people in the world are helpful and trustworthy'
The Independent, March 2012
One of the best parts of a journey is the preparation I love reading up on the political and social problems of a place, and then re-reading some of those same books when I come back: sometimes you won't agree with the picture presented; other times, as when I went to Siberia, I've found it exactly as I was told it would be. I don't read travel books, though; I'm not keen on them.
I regret that the old Tibet was not there for me to travel through By the time you could go in as a tourist it had been so wrecked by the Chinese that I didn't want to go; the whole culture had been fractured by the Chinese invasion.
Most people in the world are helpful and trustworthy – based on my own experiences of human nature when travelling in fairly remote places; though I'm not suggesting that would always apply in a city of 15 million people.
Nothing dared, nothing gained It's one of my life philosophies. That's why I get so irritated by the health and safety regulations you see now. I don't know how people live with it. And who are these maniacs imposing them on us? What sort of lives do they lead?
Travel hasn't changed me When I return [after a trip abroad], I resume my Irish home life. I have one cat and three dogs, so I get quite a welcome. Where I live, in West Waterford, is a beautiful corner of Ireland and I'm very happy here.
My worst habit is never cleaning the house Last time my daughter was here she was quite horrified; there are cobwebs that are yards long and inches thick.
Having my bicycle stolen in South Africa was like losing a friend That probably sounds absurd, but I'd covered a lot of distance from Nairobi down to the Cape and up again [while researching for her book South from the Limpopo]. When you travel that far, you form relations with it.
I'll miss smoking my Café Crème cigars I loved the flavour but I'm having to give them up in old age as I've a tendency towards bronchitis. I still drink a lot of beer, though.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 YEARS (The Telegraph, July 2010)
Hugh Thomson, a contender for the £2,500 Dolman prize, discusses the art of travel writing with Dervla Murphy, shortlisted last year .
Dervla Murphy rarely gives interviews. She is one of our most senior and prolific travel writers – more than 20 books in a half-a-century career – but she is extremely publicity-shy, from an age before blog and spin were part of a writer’s toolkit. She’s not a J.D. Salinger – there’s the odd public sighting or visit to an Irish bar – but this was her first interview for many years.
We were meeting at the Royal Geographical Society, a place where “a drink” usually means a sherry in the director’s office, and to fortify herself for the ordeal Dervla sent out for some Guinness and managed two pints before lunch. In the flesh, she’s cheery, engaging and with a determined gleam to her eye. She never looks back – or rereads any of her books once dispatched to her publishers, even now when many of the early ones are being reissued to mark her approaching 80th birthday. But any worries I had about her diffidence were quickly blown away. Once she gets talking, she has the boldness, as they say in Ireland, of the very shy.
As a writer, she started late. Born to a staunchly Republican family of modest means in Lismore, Co Waterford, where she still lives, she cared for her ageing parents until she was 30. Desperate to travel abroad, “like an elastic stretched to breaking point”, when finally able to leave Ireland she catapulted off at full tilt to India on a bicycle.
Before going, she practised firing a new .25 automatic pistol in the remote mountains around Lismore. Then she stripped the gears off her trusty bike, Rocinante, so that there was less to go wrong, although that can’t have made crossing the Afghan passes any easier. “You never want your travelling to be too easy,” she admonishes me – but even by her own arduous standards that first journey was extraordinary. With just one change of underwear and her .25, she set off to Istanbul and beyond in the formidable winter of 1963. The mountain passes were frozen. At one point in Bulgaria, she was attacked by wolves and had to shoot them. The gun came in handy again later for a warning shot when a Kurd tried to assault her in Azerbaijan.
Letters detailing her adventures were posted back to Irish friends in instalments, but she never expected to publish the account. When she reached Delhi, Penelope Betjeman passed her cycling down a street and was intrigued by this apparition of an Irish woman who had just travelled solo thousands of miles overland. “Penelope invited me back to her hotel room to eat tinned peaches straight out of the can, as she had no plates.”
The poet’s wife introduced her to the publishers John Murray. It was the start of a professional relationship that has lasted half a century; Dervla was just going, after our interview, to visit the nonagenarian Diana Murray.
Since that first book, Full Tilt, Murray has brought out many more that have seen Dervla travelling to Africa, Laos and just about every point of the compass. After her daughter Rachel was born, out of wedlock – no easy matter in Sixties Ireland – she defied convention further by insisting on taking her with her wherever she went. “People would say to me: 'What do you think you’re doing taking a defenceless girl to the wilds of the Andes?’”
The visit to Peru with Rachel was, in her words, a turning point. Up until then she had enjoyed the sheer liberation and excitement of travel. But the miseries endured by the Andean Indians made her more conscious of how tough conditions were in places such as the slums of Lima, with its rampant TB and cholera.
She was not exactly politicised – Dervla has never given allegiance to any particular party or, for that matter, country, seeing herself as a citizen of the world – but she came to feel that it was the duty of writers to enter into the lives of those they portray – “to sleep on their floors”, as she puts it. Her upbringing in rural Ireland helped her, she feels, to accept considerable deprivations when abroad. “When people come to stay with me in Lismore, they think they’ve landed in the Gulag! There was no spare cash when I was a child – and I’ve no television or modern conveniences now.” Her entire six-month journey to India cost her £64 7s 10d.
On that first journey through Afghanistan on her bike, she was appalled to meet foreigners who had never talked to an Afghan, let alone entered the home of one: “All they had done was photograph them.” In Full Tilt, she describes a 25-year-old American she sees as typical of those she met along the route: “For them, travel is more a going away from rather than going toward, and they seem empty and unhappy and bewildered and pathetically anxious for companionship, yet are afraid to commit themselves to any ideal or cause or other individual.”
Partly out of disdain for the consumerism of modern life, she has been drawn in recent years to countries that are at odds with the rest of the world: to Russia, where she rode the Siberian railways (then 70, she had originally planned to cycle, but damaged her ankle in a fall); to Cuba, with her daughter and three granddaughters.
Re-read now, her books still seem, just like her first one, letters home. What comes across most strongly is her consistent honesty – she is the most reliable of narrators. She comments on how her generation of travel writers were sometimes seen as stick-in-the-muds for accuracy by the younger ones that followed, who might embroider their accounts into more literary creations. Dervla at her best is a master of straight reportage: she has the ability to get under the skin of a country and to listen well. In Russia, she gained confidences as a grandmotherly babushka that others might not have – “so there are at least a few advantages to getting old!”
One of the books she is proudest of is her autobiography, Wheels Within Wheels, written at a time when she could not travel because of Rachel’s school commitments but couldn’t bear to give up writing. “I wrote it for Rachel, really, as I had a strange childhood that I wanted her to understand. I never expected it to be published – and I couldn’t have written it if I’d thought it would be. But years later Jock Murray was rooting around and came across the old manuscript, and, in the way that publishers do, persuaded me we should put it out.”
She never accepts the commission for a book before making the journey, waiting to discover first whether she will find anything interesting to say. She likes reporting inconvenient truths. In Cuba, she was struck by how under-reported Cuban aid to Haiti has been – or how, after Hurricane Katrina, the Cubans generously offered to send medical teams to New Orleans and the country that had been blockading them. “We may have more materially, but we’re not as happy as the Cubans.” Likewise, she argues that women enjoyed far greater freedom under Soviet rule in Afghanistan or under Saddam in Iraq than they do under the current regimes.
Wilfred Thesiger famously crossed a desert just for the pleasure of a cold glass of water at the other side. Dervla would doubtless do the same for a bottle of the finest beer. She can still remember the pleasure of drinking the Ethiopian home-fermented talla, poured from large, cool earthenware jars; and while she was crossing the mine-infested landscape of Laos, it was often the thought of a beerlao at the next town that kept her going.
She has been lucky enough to travel in some wonderful parts of the world before disaster befell them: she was in pre-famine Ethiopia, Afghanistan before the wars of the late 20th century, Peru before the Shining Path. She also went to Rwanda after the genocide and Romania after Ceausescu to report on human nature at its worst. I ask Dervla whether she feels elegiac for the planet. “Well let’s face it, it’s hard to feel optimistic.” And she raises a glass.
SECOND THOUGHTS (The Independent, 11th February 1988)
Dervla Murphy on the demands of tact and truth-telling in travel books like 'The Waiting Land'
All travel writers have their small ethical problems, mainly to do with kind people met en route. If those new friends – or their circle – are likely to read your book, it is allowable to use them, no matter how heavily disguised, as amusing raw material? In my views, it is not allowable; yet being over-scrupulous can also cause offence. An idiosyncratic Australian couple, who many years ago entertained me lavishly in a far-flung place, telephoned from Sydney a week after the publication of the relevant volume. “I suppose” said he, “ you just forgot us?” “I suppose”, said she, “you thought we were too boring to be given a mention?”
Both were wrong. That family was peculiarly unforgettable. I could have written a hilarious chapter about their wildly eccentric ménage a trois – not to mention their psychotic children, rebellious servants and wittily critical non European neighbours. Then what would they have said on the phone from Sydney?
My time in Nepal, however, provided me with a genuine ethical problem of serious proportions. I had gone there to work in a Tibetan refugee camp as a volunteer sponsored by an international agency. Before leaving London I had had to sign a statement promising not to use information gained in the course of my work as raw material for writing or broadcasting. That seemed a mere formality. I was then young(ish) and innocent (very) and couldn’t imagine how one might gain access to ‘sensitive material’ while working in a remote, at that date, Himalayan valley.
Weeks and months passed. Funds that should have been coming to me didn’t come. My letters on the subject were intercepted. I investigated. Gradually, I found out certain things that, if used as raw material for writing or broadcasting, would have caused a minor but noisome international scandal. I wrote more letters and made sure that those were not intercepted. My visa was abruptly cancelled. I flew home, full of Inner Conflict.
To tell or not to tell? Nowadays, it seems, everyone tells all. Yawn-making books of astounding illiteracy earn millions because Mr Wrong (is that right?) thinks it doesn’t matter what you’ve signed. But I was brought up old-fashioned. And to compound my ingrained inhibitions there were personal considerations. I had been chosen for the Nepal job by a man of flawless integrity who would suffer the consequences should I produce the best-seller that was tucked away in my Nepal journal. So, instead, I produced The Waiting Land, a light-hearted account of an experience that had not been light-hearted.
In retrospect, I believe I made the wrong decision. I am not proud of having been a timid accessory to embezzlement. All over the world many nasty rackets flourish, unhindered, because many nicely-brought-up people feel obliged to keep promises they should never have been required to make in the first place. Twenty years ago, misplaced loyalty muzzled me. It wouldn’t now. Some organisations, agencies and institutions deserve not loyalty but exposure. They are not hampered by any quaint notions about honour and decency. But they know how to abuse other people’s quaintness for their own purposes. The Independent, 11th February 1988
AROUND THE WORLD ON A BIKE (The AGE Magazine, November 2006)
After a series of accidents foiled her first attempt, silver-haired adventurer and consummate travel writer Dervla Murphy returned to Russia to travel through the Siberian Urals on a bike. CLOVER STROUD met a woman undaunted.
That Dervla Murphy packed a pistol on her first major journey cycling from Ireland to India provides some indication of how lengthy and colourful her career as a travel writer has been. Now 75, and with a lifetime of travel behind her, she made that first long trip when she was 32, cycling through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and over the Himalayas into Pakistan, writing letters home to four friends as she went, which provided the content for her first book, Full Tilt. ‘In those days getting hold of a gun was simple. I went to the local gardai, got a licence and went to a gun shop, where I bought a small .25’, she remembers. Luckily the pistol was only ever used against wild animals, but came in handy during the bitterly cold winter of 1962-63. ‘There were wolves on the streets in Belgrade that year, hunting together because it was so cold. But travelling with a pistol seemed very innocent then: it was in the days before terrorism took over the world, although later I did decide that it was probably safer to travel without one, so I sold it in Afghanistan.’
Such statements are characteristic of Murphy, one of the most prolific and best-loved travel writers of the last century, a woman The New York Times described as having ‘an indomitable will … and almost Monty Python-like stiff upper lip’. Certainly her most recent trip to Siberia by bike reveals all of her extraordinary determination and daring, while her first trip there, in the summer of 2002 when she was 70, was fraught with mishaps. She had hoped to combine a 2,300 mile journey on the Baikal-Amur Mainline train from Moscow into the Russian Far East with a 1,300 mile trip up the Lena river, as well as a huge amount of bicycling on a paddle steamer through the vast emptiness of Siberia before taking the train back to Moscow from Vladivostok. But during the early part of her journey through the Urals she damaged the cartilage in her knee when she slipped on the floor of a train. Nursing a wound that might have sent someone 40 years her junior straight back to Ireland, she was not discouraged, sufficient to get her back on her bike for her travels. Disaster struck again when she injured her ankle falling through some rotten planks in a latrine, further injuring her knee, and calling a halt to any sort of bike trip. Still, she finished the trip by train and paddle-boat, and published Through Siberia by Accident.
She later returned to Siberia to complete the original trip and the resulting new offering is Silverland, an account of this winter journey by bike beyond the Urals. Her writing is characterised by her idiosyncratic voice as she encounters adventures in the lives of the Siberian people. Murphy is adept at getting under the skin of a nation, rarely happier than when eating local food and drinking beer in the kitchens of the people she meets en route. She is honest and determined, but never sentimental about the sometimes desperate situations she experiences and the lives she touches.
The circumstances of these two trips to Siberia are also important as they illustrate Murphy’s extraordinary tenacity and resourcefulness as a traveller and writer. She was born and brought up in Lismore, by parents she describes as ‘Dublin bourgeoisie’. Her father was the librarian for Waterford library, and her parents encouraged her early ambition to travel. ‘I could take you to the exact spot on the road in Lismore where, when I was just ten years old, I first decided I wanted to cycle to India,’ she says.
In the deeply conventional Ireland of the 1930s and 1940s, Murphy was lucky to have parents who were essentially unperturbed by their daughter’s notions, as travel was not something that they had grown up with. ‘Travel writing seemed like a normal career to attempt, but I have no idea where that desire really came from, as my parents had never been outside Europe. My mother was the first to suggest going off on my bike when I was 18, and in those days there were not many mothers who would encourage that, especially in Ireland.’
But her career as a travel writer was stalled when, at 14, she was called home from the Ursuline Convent where she was educated, to nurse her invalid mother. She would carry on looking after her until her mother’s death when Murphy was 31. ‘It was rather difficult, but I was lucky to have a mother who encourage my desire to travel on a bike at all. I didn’t do any longer trips until I was into my thirties, but when I was looking after my mother I would go off for a month to bike around the continent in the summer. However, my mother was totally dependent on me, so I could never go away for very long.’
Funding her early trips by writing articles for local Irish journals, she also tried her hand at writing novels, but realised quite quickly that her real talent lay in travel writing. Certainly, her writing is characterised by an intense and authentic connection with normal people. She likes to get right into people’s sitting rooms, into their lives and really to understand what drives their emotional and intellectual lives – extraordinary considering that frequently she does not speak the language. In Siberia, unable to speak Russian, she relied on a small dictionary and a creative use of sign language to communicate with the people she met. The fact that she was a lone grandmother travelling by bicycle in a part of the world where foreign guests, let along those travelling by such an eccentric form of transport, are almost unheard of, meant that she attracted a great deal of interest from the local people.
‘For me, travelling on foot or by bike is really the only way to get to know a country and its people. And I like to be close to the elements. You are able to use all your senses in a way you cannot in a motor vehicle, which I really have no interest in, although I love train travel, especially in a slow train,’ she says laughing as she adds, ‘I went on the Eurostar once, and that was enough.’
After her mother’s death, Murphy struck out around the world on her own, and in her early thirties, travelled through and wrote about India, Tibet and Ethiopia. But in 1968, at the age of 37, she had a daughter, Rachel, by Terence de Vere White, then literary editor of The Irish Times. ‘Of course, it was fairly scandalous at the time, and although it was the 1960s and things were on the turn in England, they certainly were not in Ireland,’ she remembers. ‘And if I had been vulnerable to it there would have been a lot of disapproval expressed, I’m sure, but I really did not give a damn about what anyone else thought, so the tremors soon died away.’ She was also fortunate that she was then well-established as a travel writer and owned her own house, so was wholly capable of raising Rachel on her own.
Realising that a young child needs the stability of a home, Murphy temporarily stopped travelling and earned her living as a book reviewer, but when Rachel was five she packed her bags again, and with her young daughter in tow, went to Southern India, the first of many trips they would take together, including journeys through Peru, Mexico, Russia and Cameroon. Now married and with three daughters of her own, Rachel, who lives in Italy, has clearly inherited her mother’s wanderlust. Last year the two of them took Rachel’s young daughters to Cuba for a month, after which Murphy returned to complete a journey there along. ‘Rachel and I were talking about the trips we did together when we were camping in a forest with the girls in Cuba,’ says Murphy, ‘the world is changing at such an extraordinary rate now, and Rachel was very lucky indeed to experience the tail end of the proper old-fashioned travel, when you really did feel as if you were walking through undiscovered country. We trekked in the Andes together when they were practically empty, but it would be very different now because of mass tourism.’
As she has matured, Murphy’s writing has become increasingly political, and she broaches controversial tropics such as the effects of mass tourism on the world and the role of NATO or nuclear power, an approach which has attracted some criticism from those who feel that her role as a travel writer should be to record what she sees rather than judge it. Her writing moved away from straight travel writing in the early 1980s, when she followed her book on nuclear power, Race to the Finish?, with a book about Northern Ireland and race relations in Bradford and Birmingham, Tales from Two Cities.
Later she went to Rwanda two years after the mass genocide, publishing Visiting Rwanda, and was in Romania two weeks after Ceausescu fell, when she wrote Transylvania and Beyond, among the 20 titles that she has published over the course of her life. ‘But it’s getting harder and harder to find places to visit where you are not going to bump into flocks of teenagers, travelling in packs and collecting stamps in their passports.’ She admits to a desire to go to North Korea, and is scathing about her critics. ‘Of course my writing has changed; you do not go on writing in the same vein at 70 as you did at 35. Your interests and perspective change a great deal, because I really did not just want to go on telling the story of my journeys. I became more interested in the bigger picture about how people were functioning after a major event, which is where the inspiration for my writing in Rwanda, South Africa and Romania came from. There are a lot of things to be criticised in my writing, but being too politically involved is not one of them,’ she says firmly.
Living alone in Lismore, planning another daring foreign trip, Murphy is something of an anomaly in the 21st century. She rarely gives interviews, does not accept advances for her books, washes her clothes by hand and certainly does not subscribe to email. She is a master at travelling light, packing in her panniers the bare essentials of a sleeping bag, tent, sponge bag, maps and, of course, her notebook. She travels alone, and is not afraid of bedding down in a forest at night. She has rarely been afraid on her travels, but does admit to the idea that a land and a place can keep an imprint of the suffering that has gone on there before. In Siberia she felt something of the horrors of the Gulag lingering within the environment, despite the extraordinary hospitality and kindness that she received from the people there. ‘I am never afraid of travel but I have been a bit creeped by certain landscapes at times. When I was pregnant I was trekking along in eastern Turkey and camped in a huge valley that gave me terrible goose pimples. I didn’t feel at all comfortable there, even though I knew nothing about the history, but I later found out that it had been the scene of a major Armenian massacre.’
Despite the odd hairy moment, she remains, in her seventies, undaunted. Her only problem as a traveller is that there is very little left of the undiscovered world she has not already discovered. ‘I don’t think that my sort of career is possible for the coming generation,’ she says. ‘Real travel is so difficult to do now. So many countries have been ruined by mass tourism or war. Terrorism too has changed the way that you can travel. But I think that to a certain extent, we have become hysterical about our own safety. Perhaps big cities are more dangerous than they used to be, but once you get out into the wide open spaces, I think that you are as safe as you have ever been.’ And it is in those wide spaces, the wind behind her and her panniers strapped onto her bike heading off into the unknown for another adventure, that Murphy feels most at home. Long may she cycle.
The AGE Magazine, November 2006