Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Improbable Journeys: Reading Dervla Murphy's Full Tilt

Since my move to Ireland, more than a few people have told me that my stories, photos, and whatever glimpses of my living circumstances that my writing offers, come across as fantastically improbable. The landscapes are overly dramatic; the weather conditions impossibly dismal; the locations unrealistically remote; the colours overly saturated; the stone cottages too stone-cottagey! Even meeting people here has been marked with a fatalism normally reserved for fairy tales. Love at first sight. Friendship at first meeting. There are too many coincidences. Too many things and people manifesting at pivotal moments, as if out of thin air.

And there isn't much I can say in retort, because really I agree. If someone had told me 3 years ago that I would be living in the location and manner in which I now actually do, I would not have believed it. It has been an improbable journey. But then I am used to those. And perhaps that is why I accept fantastical stories of others with the nonchalance of one who knows all too well that truth can be stranger than fiction.

So I thought of myself at least, until I picked up the hardcover book that a friend (most improbably acquired, of course) brought to my house one evening. It was a book that others had recommended. And now that it sat on my kitchen table, its aged green dust jacket facing me fetchingly, it hardly seemed possible not to read it.

As is nearly always the case with travel writing, I expected to be eased into the story. But Dervla Murphy's fabled Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle felt like being grabbed by the lapels. Within the first handful of pages, the author was cycling over icy mountain roads in a blizzard, entering Eastern Europe illicitly, chasing down a gang of geriatric bike thieves, and defending herself against not one but two attempts at rape - with the aid of a handgun, which she had managed to carry, concealed, all the way from her native Ireland.

Granted, this was 1965. And so continually I remind myself that some aspects of the author's journey that would be actually impossible today were at least somewhat more plausible at that time. Even so, as one dramatic border crossing, disastrous encounter, magnanimous stranger, violent skirmish, and stroke of good fortune followed another - all recounted in a tone that I can only describe as energetically matter-of-fact - my own ability to accept the fantastical, uncanny and improbable, was being duly tested!

This is not to say that I don't believe Dervla Murphy's story. Her unsentimental manner of recounting events, even the very fact that she makes the distinction of traveling "with a" bicycle rather than by bicycle (at times various misfortunes prevented her from cycling, and so significant chunks of the journey were done by means of motorised transport), leaves no doubt in my mind that she is committed to documenting fact. It is not her fault that fact just happens to be dense with action-packed misadventure!

Then again, maybe it is her fault just a teeny tiny bit... For instance, she did choose to set off on her bicycling tour during one of the worst blizzards in European history, which was what set the tone of the entire trip. And of course she admits this freely. Throughout her travels, the author makes questionable choices boldly, then accepts responsibility fully when things go awry - rather than blaming circumstances, other people, or "bad luck." It is a trait in the author (who keeps much of her personality concealed in this autobiograpical account) that I find quite admirable.

I am writing about this book even though I have not yet finished it, because in honesty I am not entirely sure that I will finish it. It is a tremendous, exciting book. But parts of it remind me of things and places in my own past that I am not ready to revisit yet. Other parts drain my mental capacity for the action/adventure genre. {Edited to add: I did read the entire book after all; it was well worth it.}

But my personal peculiarities aside, I believe that many - possibly most - of my readers would enjoy Full Tilt, and for that reason I bring it to your attention. It is solitary bicycle touring at its most romantic - without being romanticised. And, improbable adventures aside, one thing it communicates is quite realistic indeed: that a cycling trip can be both a failure and a success. And spectacularly so.

25 comments:

  1. I hope it's really as great as it sounds, I just ordered it online based on your description. Apparently she also wrote an account of crossing Ethiopia on a Mule. Sounds like a fairly inspirational person.

    I suspect you're going to bump into her any day now so could you get her autograph for me and I'll buy you both a beer...

    Spindizzy

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    1. Or "with" a mule, as the case may be.

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    2. Yeah, that sounds better...

      Spin

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  2. I found this book in the library several years ago, and LOVED it. I was in awe of the author's determination and confidence in herself no matter what happened, and it was fascinating how she handled challenges and cultural differences on her journey. Her love for cycling and people just radiated off the page. I've read several of her other books since then, as well as her autobiography, and although I liked this book the best, the one where she travels through the Andes on a donkey (!) with her daughter (!!) is also very good.

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  3. It's one of my most favorite cycling accounts by far of a gutsy cycle tourist. My copy has been on my shelf for 20 years.

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  4. I just read a bit more about her on Wikipedia, she named her Bike Rozinante after Don Quixote's horse, which happens to be the name I painted on the top-tube of my Seven. I'm taking this for a sign that I need to take off for India.

    Spindizzy

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    1. Wait till winter sets in though, to make it epic.

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    2. Do not want to read about "Snow Tires" being found in the Everest cave next to Green Boots.

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    3. Given that Rocinante is a play on the Spanish word for "nag," I would hope that Seven was pretty ratty looking, but it's hard to make a Seven look ratty. You don't mention the type or condition of the protagonist's bike. My pedantic instincts would insist the name be reserved for a sorry-looking beater. Maybe by the end of the journey the name fits, if not at its outset.

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    4. I call my MTB Rocinante. I figure that it makes sense given that Rocinante and Don Q were both over the hill, out of shape and on a quest that was beyond them. So it suits me too.

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  5. I just read the first chapter after downloading the ebook from my local library, and I'm hooked. She has an amazing adventurous spirit at such a young age and seems be totally unflappable. But for the life of me, I can't understand why she decided to begin such a journey in January.

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  6. I met her a few years ago here in London, after a talk she gave. She is in her 80s and still taking improbable journeys and makes boldly making questionable choices. But she comes across as totally sane, reasonable, wise even... yet nonetheless "mad", to do what she does. Not unlike Michael Palin.

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    1. I have a few friends who are in archaeology-related fields, often traveling and living in Central Asia. Their temperaments and manner of looking at things are similar to what is reflected in DM's writing. I suspect it helps to be equipped with a "sane, reasonable" type of madness in those circumstances!

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  7. I read most of this about 20 years ago (can't recall if I finished it) , and I think it might be one of the causes of my hoarding of miscellaneous screws and bicycle oddments in case of the need for impromptu repairs.

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  8. I've read Dervla Murphy's "A Place Apart" about her travels in an divided and violent tribal society. No, not the Middle East or Africa but Northern Ireland in the 1970s!

    While things have moved on in some respects since then, there are plenty of echoes of those times that still remain.

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  9. Women traveling the world by bicycle make for good marketing copy. It is a credit to the author she did not turn her trip into a promotional scheme for a product willing to sponsor her as so many others have done, but did it on her own.

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    1. Aside from Annie Londonderry, which women do you mean?

      The author does not describe how she financed her trip. For all we know she could have gotten an advance from a publisher, or a travel grant, or a writer's grant. Not that it matters.

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  10. After reading your comments, I purchased a copy for my eldest daughter, who is leaving for a solo, trans-European tour in January. Although she won't be travelling by bike, I'm sure she will love reading about another plucky woman on a solo adventure.

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  11. Reminds me of another "improbable" travelogue, Stevenson's Adventures with a Donkey.

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    1. What happened in Tijuana stays in Tijuana, that's all I can say.

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    2. It takes place in Spain, so swap tequila for jerez, but yeah, the mind reels.

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  12. Never really got into this after having tried a few times. I do like Josie Dew, although her Japan books could have been edited down a bit. I read Anne Mustoe's Bike Ride, but didn't feel like reading any of her others.

    Online I like the crazyguyonabike.com journals of Jin Jeong and Helena Rodnight

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  13. I count myself lucky to have run across this title in a short list of "best of" cycling books many years ago (maybe 15 yrs). I was lucky again to find a 1965 edition (first edition?) on Amazon - an "ex-libris" copy from a Kentucky library (is that the correct term for a old library book kicked of of the collection for not having been checked out in a long time? - The latest stamp was early-70's.) It remains at the top of all my cycling reading and have revisited it a few times - something I rarely do. What a lady!

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  14. I acquired this book at a cycle jumble a few years ago. Paid £5 then saw an ex library copy for £2 never mind. I picked it up as another female blogger (can't remember who) recommended it. Enjoyed the read as I enjoy any story of travel by bike. I'm in awe of people who can fill their panniers and take off 'around the world'. Maybe I love my home comforts too much :-(

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