The legendary Dervla Murphy

Traveling Around on Bicycle

Dervla Murphy, now aged 83, is a legend. Travel writer extraordinaire and author of over twenty books, I first encountered her in the 1960s in the pages of Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle –  her autobiographical account of riding her bicycle – Roz –  from Ireland to India in the days when it was still possible for a single woman to travel unchallenged and unharmed across Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  

In our family Full Tilt had a special place because it was one of the many travel books which my mother chose to read to a group of severely disabled women living in a nearby nursing home during weekly reading sessions to brighten their geographical horizons. Part of the ritual was putting stars on a map following Dervla Murphy’s itinerary as she travelled from her home in Ireland to places they could only ever visit in their dreams. Then there was Tibetan Foothold – the Waiting Land: a Spell in Nepal and In Ethiopia with a Mule and so many other books I lost count.   After the fall of the Soviet Union,  I  caught up with Dervla Murphy  again in Transylvannia and Beyond, her forthright description of travelling in post Ceausescu’s Roumania in the 1990s.   

So it was  good to know a lifetime later that  after yet more adventures which included Visiting Rwanda, One Foot in Laos and Through Siberia by Accident,      she had not abandoned living at grass roots level, her presence at Bradford’s first Literature Festival in the summer being a reminder of another powerful book Tales from Two Cities: Travels of Another Sort describing race relations between the Asian, Afro-Caribbean and white communities in  Bradford and Birmingham in the 1980s.  She has also not lost her courage, the setting for her latest narrative  being probably her most political: Between Two Rivers. Israel and Palestine which follows on from her 2013 book, A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza.

Instead of following her experiences in print, for the first time, I found myself in Bradford listening to her speaking in person  as a contributor to   a full programme of events which included   varied  topics ranging from   ‘The Last King of Ethiopia – Emperor Haile Selassie’ – and –  the reason for my presence – the dispute between India and Pakistan over the former princely state of Jammu and  Kashmir.  

Describing her experiences verbally, Dervla Murphy exhibits the same penetrating powers of observation which characterise her   works in print, as well as  her humanity and dry Irish sense of humour. By any one’s standards of adventure travel, going to live among the Palestinian refugees of Balata Camp, near the city of Nablus, must rate high on the list of  emotional and physical challenges, low on that of comfort. Demarcated in 1950 over half a square mile to accommodate  6,000 people,  the number  now living there is at least 26,000. But having grown up poor, Murphy has never paid any attention to creature comforts famously stating that ‘physical comfort and material possessions should never be confused with success, achievement and security’.

And with her customary skill, her verbal description of her experiences was both funny and sensitive. Taking a taxi  to Nablus for an early recce, before taking up residence in Balata,  she described her response to the advice of her Palestinian taxi driver. ‘You better not go anywhere near Balata they are very dangerous, they would kill a foreigner,’  and ‘so naturally’, she said, ‘you pay no attention to that sort of advice.’

When finally she began her sojourn in Balata, she had to accept certain strictures: her room was on the ground floor ‘so as a woman living on my own in this ground floor room, I couldn’t ask any male to come and talk to me which was the obvious thing to do –  so we  could talk in confidence – because that would be considered  indecent even though I was nearly 80!’ As a result ‘on the whole it meant that I was exceptionally dependent on information from women rather than men.’

As usual she did not shirk from exposing herself to both sides of the political debate, in a never ending attempt both to gain and to promote greater understanding between the two  hostile communities.

One daily activity she witnessed,  which seemed to typify the growing chasm  between the daily lives of  Israelis and Palestinians,  was the constant humiliation to which  the Palestinians are subjected   at the numerous checkpoints they have to pass through. ‘Women who start work at 8 a.m. have to get up at 4 a.m. even though their work was less than a 50 minute drive away.’  What also shocked her was the amusement the Israeli guards seemed to derive from the inevitable delay they caused the Palestinians, scattering their possessions on the ground and laughing as they grovelled in the dirt to pick them up.

Yet when she repeated the stories she had witnessed to ordinary Israelis, they found it hard to believe that such  incidents could happen, the usual refrain being ‘our kids aren’t like that’. ‘The really sad thing about them’ Murphy found ‘which would be the majority, is that they just didn’t allow themselves to realise what had been done to the Palestinians.’   

Having read so many thousands of Dervla Murphy’s words over the past thirty years, hearing her talk about her work, like listening to a poet read his or her own poetry, was an exceptional privilege. Unlike so many for whom fame has sometimes  led to self-absorption, when I went to introduce myself,   she skilfully turned the conversation around to ask me  about  my writing on Kashmir.  My parting comment was slightly provocative. ‘Perhaps, for your next book you could write, as you have done about Israel/ Palestine, about India/Pakistan and Kashmir?’  As she responded smiling, I noticed a twinkle in her eye which seemed to indicate: ‘You never know, I just might.’ 

Victoria Schofield met Dervla Murphy at the UK Bradford Literature Festival.

Schofield is the author of Kashmir in the Crossfire (1996), Kashmir in Conflict (1999, 2003, 2010) and Afghan Frontier: at the Crossroads of Conflict (2003 & 2010).

When I went to introduce myself,   she skilfully turned the conversation around to ask me  about  my writing on Kashmir.  My parting comment was slightly provocative. ‘Perhaps, for your next book you could write, as you have done about Israel/ Palestine, about India/Pakistan and Kashmir?’  As she responded smiling, I noticed a twinkle in her eye which seemed to indicate: ‘You never know, I just might.’ 

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