Expedition finished...writing like a beaver






Quite possibly the best cycling book I've read.

Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy

I had an idea this morning. I was trying to put off doing my tax return (it needs to be done early as I won't be around to do it later, for obvious reasons). So instead of chasing up tax-deductibles and payslips I slipped back into a book I haven't been able to put down all week. Then I thought I could put a review up here to tell you all about it.

Ah, you want to know what it is? It's called 'Full Tilt', by Dervla Murphy. I don't know whether to call her Dervla or Ms Murphy, but I'm sure Dervla would do. She's an Irish woman who cycled from Dublin to Delhi in the 1960s on a single-speed bike, called Roz. She decided to cycle there when she was 10; after turning 30 she decided it was time for action. She has a very strong vigour for adventure, and a correspondingly sharp eye for cultural observation. I'm surprised she isn't more well known. By page 20 she has already fired her pistol four times (once into the ceiling to ward off a would-be nighttime suitor in a barracks in Bulgaria; twice in an attack by wolves in a forest, and once to scare off three shepherds-come-amatuer-thieves).

Her writing is absolutely fascinating. She writes so simply and without pretension that you can't help just reading one more day's account. The book is in fact a collation of her diaries, written for friends back home. She has the natural hand of a writer, scribing beautifully about the people she meets, the landscapes and her thoughts on both. You can't help be mesmerised by the incredible hospitality of her time in Afghanistan, or the heat of Pakistan which she endures by regularly quaffing pints of sour mango juice and salt, or the continually astute conclusions from her observations as rather resilient traveller. You won't hear any whinging in this book.

What is so remarkable is that she is a) female in a very conservative time and places, b) a very strong personality, and c) an excellent writer. She reminds me of my friend Vicky (tellingly, Vicky is also of Irish heritage).

Being female, despite the occasional need to fire pistols into the ceiling, becomes an advantage for Dervla, I think. Because she's female she doesn't have that tiresome need that male adventurers have to honk on about the feats they've accomplished. Reading Full Tilt my eyes goggle at the hardship she endures, but rather than dwell on how amazing that is Dervla persistently writes about the little things in each day that she instinctively knows are likely to be interesting to her readers back home. Even in the introduction she explains that the book is an unadulterated collection of diaries, and that she had resisted the temptation to embellish the text with facts she subsequently learnt. So what is so captivating about her book is that is gives an astonishing day by day picture of a life experienced on the ground in countries that remain relatively untrodden today.

There is some sadness too. Because Dervla gives such a vivid idea of what life is like in, say, Afghanistan at the time of the USSR vs USA control tussle (including describing the now infamous Bhuddist statues at Bamian), the knowledge of today becomes all the more chilling when you know for certain that the very same places are witness to considerable suffering today. But then, that would have to be the downside of any real knowledge of the world.

It is a strength that she hasn't added to the diaries or reworked them into a 'proper book'. Facts and figures as she could have added can be looked up in any geography of history book. As it is, she has quite a knowledge of the areas she passes through, and her day by day tidbits of information are far more interesting and digestible than many travelogues today.

I really couldn't recommend this book more - it's funny, it's astonishing, it's sometimes a little saddening. It's fantastic to at last read a woman's account of a physically gruelling journey, and it's amazing to encounter quite a remarkable personality.

Full Tilt, by Dervla Murphy, and a host of her other books, is available from Amazon.


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