Monday, 1 December 2008

Full Tilt – Ireland To India With a Bicycle, Dervla Murphy (1965)


The Reprint Society 238pp

An account of a cycle journey made in the first half of 1963 covering precisely the journey described in the title, by an Irish woman in her early 30s. Most of the book concentrates on the portion of her ride that took her through Afghanistan and Pakistan where she made some truly remarkable rides, including cycling the length of the Khyber Pass and a hair-raising journey through the Babusar Pass.

How fabulous it must have been to have been so brave, determined and carefree as was Murphy to make such an epic journey. At nearly every stage of her progress wise heads tried to persuade her of the foolishness of her ambitions. And time and again she ignored them. Quite possibly much of what she did was rash – but it is justified by the testimony that she was able to bear.

The early stages of her journey pass in something of a blur – so much so that readers might be persuaded that the book is not for them. She actually sets off from Dunkirk and in less than a page has reached the Yugoslav border – despite cycling through one of the worst winters Europe has ever recorded. Indeed, the only matters of incident before the Persian border are those that involve her automatic pistol.

Within a few days she had used it to shoot dead a Croatian wolf as it made to attack her, shot it over the head of an amorous Kurd whose advances she thought would not be slowed by mere exhortation and narrowly resisted plugging a Turkish policeman, whose amour was doused with a knee to the nether regions instead. The pistol makes no further appearance – possibly because she admits to having packed just four rounds of ammunition.

It is well worth hanging in till Tehran, because that is where her narrative takes off.
For the most part, the book is culled from letters she sent home to friends as she rode. Entries frequently end with fatigue forcing her to sign off. She is enviably lucky with the people she meets along the way, who offer her extraordinary kindness – senior army officers, a Pakistani Prince and endless diplomats put her up and help her along their way.

The section of this book that make it really worth reading are those that cover her wanderings across Afghanistan and Pakistan. By this time she has become ‘Afghanatical’, and her sympathies are clearly with the people among whom she lives. She writes, almost obsessively about the food she eats, for example. Here she is in Galapur on 6 June: “The food situation here is very grim – an acute scarcity of flour and no tea, sugar or sale left after the winter. Most people are living on goats’ milk, eggs and mulberries – not my favourite when served simultaneously, but this evening I was too starved to fuss.”

Murphy's greatest quality is that while sharing the living conditions of those among whom she lives, and acutely recounting some of the minutiae of life in the region, she is never so arrogant as to lose sight of her essentially alien quality in relation to those around her.

Indeed, despite the privations, she worries increasingly about ‘modernisation’ in this part of the world. In Kabul she writes: “I feel have been privileged to see Man at his best – still in possession of the sort of liberty and dignity that we (in the west) have exchanged for ‘progress’.” She even worries about the western enthusiasm for easily moving around the world: “Progress has deprived (the western travelling public) of the incentive to live fully”.

Despite this, Full Tilt was to be the first of a great many travel books from this author - some by bicycle, others on foot. Indeed, her latest offering The Island That Dared (at the time of writing she has just turned 77), about a recent journey in Cuba, was published earlier this year. There is an interview with her about that book here.

PS December 2008

1 comment:

balancedview said...

Thanks for this. I remember reading "Full Tilt" - ooooooh, must be 16 years ago or more! Nice to know it's still gaining readers. I wasn't aware of Dervla's book on Cuba. I was there ten years ago and have missed it ever since...I'll seek out the book.