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Saturday 21 February 2015

Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy

When I was first branching out into reading more non-fiction, I thought it would be good to read some travel writing. I’d enjoyed the nature books so much, that travel seemed like a natural next step. I remember browsing the shelves at Waterstones and seeing lots of titles that looked fascinating, including those by Sibylle Bedford and Freya Stark who I suspect I will be investigating at some point in the future. In the end it was Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy that most caught my imagination, combining my dual loves of travel and bicycles (though my own bicycle is feeling a little neglected these days).

Full Tilt represents the diary that Dervla Murphy kept when she undertook a journey from Ireland to India by bicycle. Well, not exactly by bicycle; there’s a reason why this book is titled Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle as much of the time Murphy isn’t able to cycle: either due to the quality of the roads or weather conditions. At the time, Murphy was a mere 32 years old and she travelled alone. The year was 1963, and the journey was one she had envisaged since the age of ten when, as she explains, she received both a bicycle and an atlas as a birthday present. This journey was something of a lifelong dream, and it is a credit to Murphy’s self-will that it was a dream she was determined to fulfil.

This whole book is a testament to Murphy’s self-determination, her spirit and openness, her willingness to push herself to the absolute limits. By the time I was around a third of the way through the book, Murphy was my heroine. She is an amazing woman, the kind of woman whose feats should be known to all, a role model whose name should fall off the lips along with the other great explorers, distinguished by the fact that she didn’t fail. I’m gibbering, I know, but if there was ever an example of fearlessness, she is definitely it. In the course of her journey she suffers multiple vehicle accidents, is attacked by wolves as she describes with aplomb here (note: Roz is the name of her bicycle):

“It was soon after 6pm when, leaving Roz on the truck, I set off along a convenient cart-track through the trees, where the snow had been packed down by sleighs collecting fire-wood. It was some fifteen minutes later when a heavy weight hurled itself at me without warning.

I stumbled, dropping the torch that I had been carrying, then recovered my balance, and found one animal hanging by its teeth from the left shoulder of my wind-cheater, another worrying at the trousers around my right ankle, and a third standing about two yards away, looking on, only its eyes visible in the starlight.

Ironically enough, I had always thought that there was something faintly comical in the idea of being devoured by wolves. It had seemed the sort of thing that doesn’t really happen…So now, as I braced my body against the hanging weight, slipped off my glove, pulled my .25 out of my pocket, flicked up the safety catch and shot the first animal through the skull, I was possessed by the curious conviction that none of this was true, while at the same time all my actions were governed by sheer panic.”

In addition she suffers numerous rape attempts (which she dispatches with similar aplomb, if not loss of life), several broken ribs on being struck accidentally by the butt of a gun, is stung by a scorpion followed, the very next day, by hornets, near-fatal sunstroke, almost drowning and near starvation. It is astonishing that she lived to share the tale of her journey, but her strength of character and extraordinary determination carried her through. And yes, I am gibbering again.

Murphy herself is at pains to point out how ordinary she is, perhaps to stave off the kind of heroine-worship I’m falling into here. As she explains in the beginning:

“This is perhaps the moment to contradict the popular fallacy that a solitary woman who undertakes this sort of journey must be ‘very courageous’. Epictetus put it in a nutshell when he said, ‘For it is not death or hardship that is a fearful thing, but the fear of death and hardship.’ And because in general the possibility of physical danger does not frighten me, courage is not required; when a man tries to rob or assault me or when I find myself, as darkness is falling, utterly exhausted and waist-deep in snow half-way up a mountain pass, then I am afraid – but in such circumstances it is the instinct of self-preservation, rather than courage, that takes over.’

I think she is too modest. I think she is both a courageous and fearless woman, and we could all learn a lot from her. Perhaps Murphy, here, reflects a more altruistic society in which it was not considered ‘strange’ for women to pursue their dreams, to take risks and seek adventure. Perhaps the fact that she has to mention it is proof that we’re not there yet.

There, I’ve gibbered enough. Now to her journey. We join Murphy as she enters Europe and quickly she covers the period during which she cycles through Yugoslavia and Bulgaria and into Turkey. Much of this early part of the journey is covered in quite superficial detail (wolves excepted) though the journey was doubtless eventful and more difficult than anticipated. Problems with roads and difficult weather conditions meant that much of the time she was unable to cycle, but instead travelled by bus or by truck.

The story really starts as she enters Afghanistan, a country for which she develops a real and palpable fondness. Everywhere she goes she discovers spectacular landscapes, as she describes here:

“We left Kabul at 7am in perfect cycling weather with a brilliant, warm sun, a cool breeze behind u and the air crisp and clear. Beyond a doubt today’s run up the Ghorband valley was the most wonderful cycle-ride of my life. Surely this must have been the Garden of Eden – it’s so beautiful that I was too excited to eat the lunch my hostess had packed for me and spent the day in a sort of enchanted trance. High hills look down on paddy-fields and vivid patches of young wheat and neat vineyards; on orchards of apricot, peach, almond, apple and cherry trees smothered in blossom, and on woods of willows, ash, birch and sinjit, their new leaves shivering and glistening in the wind and sun. Lean, alert youths, their clothes all rags and their bearing all pride, guard herds of cattle and nervous, handsome horses and donkeys with woolly, delicately tripping foals, and fat-tailed sheep with hundreds of bouncing lambs, and long-haired goats whose kids are among the most delightful of young animals.”

Of the people she has much to say of their kindness, of their desperate poverty, of their culture, their manners and their intelligence, not to mention their smell! It is apparent that the Afghan people won her over with their sharing and considerate nature. She discovers a similar fondness both for the land and the people of Pakistan, and a somewhat more reserved feeling about India, though the roads, apparently, were much improved.

In a time where all you hear about Afghanistan are references to the Taliban and terrorism (or drugs), and when the Muslim religion is under such intense criticism and pressure, this book is a real antidote to the constant negative press. Murphy has much to say of the joint stresses caused to Afghanistan by the presence of Western powers and Communist Russia, much positive commentary on the Muslims she encounters, their sobriety, kindness, generosity and politeness. She has much to say about the impact of the religion on the territory, as well as the status of women in that society. Some of what she says is quite surprising (even to herself) yet always considered. That she came to love both Afghanistan and Pakistan, despite the privations of her journey, is apparent in all the wonderful things she has to say about those countries. It is a fascinating insight into a land and a time when globalisation had done, perhaps, slightly less damage.

Full Tilt is a humorous, soulful and inspiring read. Murphy herself embodies a kind of openness which is rarely encountered, and a kind of determination that ensures that all her experiences, even the difficult ones, are positive. There is no mawkishness here, no self-pity. She endures, and she thrives in her endurance. I thoroughly enjoyed this travel diary, and am eager to read some more. I hear that Murphy still travels with her bicycle (a new one, I suspect) even though she is now in her seventies. What a heroine! I’m so glad she was able to undertake this journey and, more so, share it with the rest of us. A name I will be promoting with tedious regularity (and I hear she has a new book out this year. I can’t wait!). As a double-positive, it may have inspired me to get back on my bike!

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