Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy

Dervla Murphy was born in County Waterford, Ireland. In a Book Beginnings post I wrote about how when she was ten she decided she wanted to cycle to India. And that is what she did 21 years later.

Full Tilt: Dunkirk to Delhi on a Bicycle, first published in 1965  is an account of her journey in 1963, which took her through Europe, Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, over the Himalayas to Pakistan and into India. She travelled on her own, with a revolver in her saddle bag. I’m full of admiration for her courage and determination.

Reading this book made me wonder about the countries she cycled through and how they’ve changed since the early 1960s. It would certainly be a different experience if anyone tried to do the same these days! T

Here are a few quotes to give a taste of the book:

The border between Persia and Afghanistan

The only indication of the Persian-Afghan frontier is a seven-foot stone pillar, conspicuous from far across the desert, which lucidly announces ‘Afghanistan’.  Here I stopped to photograph Roz [her bicycle]. Three miles further on a long branch served as Customs barrier and beside it lay a very young soldier in a very ragged uniform, sound asleep with one hand on his rifle. I quietly raised the barrier for myself and continued towards the Customs and Passport Office two hundred yards ahead.

There, no one took the slightest notice of either my kit or my passport, no uniformed officials appeared and no series of dingy, uncomfortable offices had to be visited. (page 47)

The concept of time:

… people here have no concept of time as we understand it. The majority wear watches as ornaments and I was diverted to discover that they can’t read the time and don’t see why they should learn! Yesterday is over, today is something to be enjoyed without fuss, and tomorrow – well, it’s sinful to plan anything for the future because that’s Allah’s department and humans have no business to meddle with it. (page 58)

Dervla Murphy loved the Afghan way of life and deplored the modernisation of countries:

The more I see of life in these ‘undeveloped countries’ and of the methods adopted to ‘improve’ them, the more depressed I become. It seems criminal that the backwardness of a country like Afghanistan should be used as an excuse for America and Russia to have a tug-of-war for possession. (page 69)

Her thoughts on the attitude of Westerners:

… what an artificial life is led by the foreign colonies in these Asian cities! The sense of their isolation from the world around them is quite stifling. At a dinner party tonight I met a European couple who have been in Kabul for eighteen months without once entering the home of an ordinary Afghan – and they are not exceptions. The attitude is that the ‘natives’ are people to be observed from  a discreet distance and photographed as often as possible, but not lived among. The result is boredom and an obsessional longing for home leave, (page 101)

This was not her attitude as she stayed with local people wherever she could, accepting their food and lodgings which was given freely – they would not let her pay for anything and would have been offended if she had insisted.

Her essentials for a five-month trip – she needed less than I would want!

… the further you travel the less you find you need and I see no sense in frolicking around the Himalayas with a load of inessentials. So, I’m down to two pens, writing paper, Blake’s poems, map, passport, compass, comb, toothbrush, one spare pare of nylon pants and nylon shirt – and there’s plenty of room left over for food as required from day to day. It’s a good life that teaches you how little you need to be healthy and happy, if not particularly clean! (page 105)

Her views on ‘Progress’:

The more I see of unmechanized places and people the more convinced  I become that machines have done incalculable damage by unbalancing the relationship between Man and Nature.

people now use less than half their potential forces because ‘Progress’ has deprived them of the incentive to live fully. (page 149)

… I don’t know what the end result of all this ‘progress’ will be – something pretty dire, I should think. We remain part of Nature, however startling our scientific advances, and the more successfully we forget or ignore this fact, the less we can be proud of being men. (pages 149 – 150)

I enjoyed Full Tilt, as much for her descriptions of the places she visited as for her thoughts along the way. I’m not sure that I would find her easy company though!

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