Full tilt: Ireland to India with a bicycle

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2010), Reviews, Volume 18

79_small_1279726750The best travel books always have a back story: the line that goes back through time, tethering the writer to the reason why they wanted to write this particular book, make this particular journey. When Dervla Murphy was a child in Lismore, Co. Waterford, she received gifts of a second-hand bicycle and an atlas for her tenth birthday. Some children might have decided to cycle to the next county. A few days later, as Murphy writes matter-of-factly in Full Tilt, ‘I decided to cycle to India’. It was to be 21 years more before Murphy finally did set out for India in 1965, with a bike she named ‘Roz’, a .25 automatic pistol and a ferocious determination to make her destination.

Eland Publishing have reissued Full tilt, the first and most popular of Murphy’s many travel books. From the perspective of a distance of 45 years, it also has the quality of social history. Even examining the list of kit that Murphy took with her is to realise how much more difficult—mentally and physically—her journey was then. There was no advantage of quick-dry, light, warm sports clothes and down sleeping-bags or lightweight bikes, not to mention mobile phone and internet access, blogs, tweets and digital camera picture uploads. She brought with her twelve biros, a ‘woollen balaclava helmet’, ‘heavy sweaters’ and ‘gabardine slacks’. In the rain, the sweaters and slacks must have weighed almost as much as the heavy bike made for a man that she pushed up and down the mountains of Eastern Europe.

You can never make the same journey twice, and Full tilt forcefully reminds us of this. Murphy’s route was through Eastern Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Afghanistan alone is now such a changed place that Murphy’s report of a bored 25-year-old American tourist looking around Kabul’s museum reads like black comedy. Wars and conflict have closed borders and minds in the intervening decades. Politics and international relations are never static, particularly in that volatile part of the world, but Murphy probably thought that she could depend upon certain things about places to remain the same in the future. These would have included the huge and ancient Buddhas in Afghanistan’s Baniyam Valley. Murphy writes of them: ‘The effect of so many centuries of weathering is not apparent, though, considering their great antiquity, the damage is very slight’. Both were dynamited to pieces some years ago by the Taliban.

Full tilt has become a travel classic, from a writer who is still travelling and writing into her eighth decade. It’s written in Murphy’s trademark spare, bare prose, in the diary format that she uses in all her books. She is a functional storyteller, and the diary format is a straightforward one that doesn’t allow for much analysis, but the power of the narrative is so compelling that it unfailingly brings the reader on.

Murphy adjusts to every challenging situation with almost preternatural calmness, whether it’s being stared down by a wolf (which she shot) in rural Yugoslavia, breaking three ribs and continuing to cycle onwards, or surviving on a handful of dried fruit after a long day’s cycle. Nothing daunts her. She herself dismisses her bravery: ‘. . . because in general the possibility of physical danger does not frighten me, courage is not required’, as she explains briskly. You can only wonder what her neighbours at home in Lismore made of this first book. They have got used to it since, as Murphy has retained Lismore as her base all her life, as she has traversed the world.

Above all, when you read Full tilt you wonder: what happened to all these people whom Murphy met along the way, once wars and revolutions broke out? What happened, for instance, to the villagers in what was then Persia, whom Murphy describes as ‘genuinely loving the Shah’? What became of the grandmother and mother who gave Murphy shelter and who publicly smoked a hookah, while other family members played music and danced? In the Revolution, women were so oppressed that if they were found wearing lipstick they had it razorbladed off by the Revolutionary Guards. Murphy has not just given us a remarkable account of a solo journey undertaken across Eastern Europe and parts of Asia in the coldest winter in 80 years but also a record of a period of history that will never be repeated.  HI

Rosita Boland is an Irish Times staff journalist. Her interview with Dervla Murphy in the Irish Times is @ http://url.ie/6fs0.
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