Dervla Murphy at 80! Living at full tilt

In 1977, in her astonishing account of a winter spent with her six year old daughter in the sub-zero Indus Valley in Baltistan, Dervla Murphy declared that she had ‘no head for politics’.  In ‘A Month By the Sea: Encounters in Gaza’, her no less astonishing new book, it is abundantly clear that much has changed on that front in the ensuing 35 years, and readers of Dervla’s recent books may rather suspect that her claim made in Baltistan may well have been a case of modesty over accuracy.

‘A Month by the Sea’ - the eagerly awaited first of two books to be published on her time in Israel and Palestine recalls the month Dervla spent in Gaza during the summer of 2011, and paints a pen portrait of day to day life for the residents of Gaza, as they navigate ordinary lives in uniquely un-ordinary geopolitical surroundings. 

 Empathetic and honest,  ‘A Month by the Sea’ makes a great impact, and owes its success in this to the way in which Dervla has combined her classic travel narrative, focusing characteristically on the day to day lives and stories of the people she encounters, with her frank and meticulously researched political writing.  This hybrid approach has produced a book in which complex political situations are elucidated, and the impacts of those situations on the ordinary people of Gaza are starkly illuminated through heartfelt portraits of the people she meets and the friends she makes, too intimate and raw to be classed as mere case studies.  
Originally intended to form two chapters in one book about the region, the account quickly grew into a book of its own, and in terms of the contribution the book makes to popular understanding of the complexities of life on the blockaded Gaza strip, it is easy both to see why Dervla Murphy was unable or unwilling to curtail her report, and to understand that this bold, empathetic and unapologetically human book is a valuable piece which deserves a wide readership.
Coming fifty years after Dervla Murphy embarked on the bicycle journey from Ireland to India which would be recounted in her classic ‘Full Tilt’, ‘A Month by the Sea’ was released in February 2013 by Eland, and FullTilting spoke to Dervla Murphy about how she felt about the book’s publication, and asked her what it was like to look back over five decades of sharing her experiences of the world with her readers.

FT: Are you excited about the new book? How do you feel now the journeying is finished and it’s at publication?

Well I suppose I’m about three quarters of the way through the much more difficult, longer book, so I’m not really thinking about Gaza and its coming out next month! I’m completely focused on getting the other one finished!

When you went out originally it was with the intention of writing the one book with a couple of chapters on Gaza, but it’s grown into a book of its own. Was that a natural process or was it important to you that it developed that way?

DM: When I came back from Gaza I said to myself ‘Now, while the material is all so fresh in my mind I’ll do these two chapters and then finish the other one and tack them on at the end’ And then, blow me down, didn’t the two grow into nine! My publishers, Eland, said this was a book on its own.

Was it important to you that the stories of the people you met were given that full coverage in a book of their own?  Were you happy that it grew?

DM: Yes – I realised that Gaza is obviously sharing the handicaps of most of the Palestinians on the West Bank and in the Occupied Territories but their situation, as you know, is quite distinct – worse- than the others, and I did feel that it deserved attention on its own, rather than be merged in with the rest.

Reading the book, it feels to the reader as though your motivation for writing this one was  different to some of your other books – that it’s perhaps more overtly activist – is that something you’d agree with?

DM: Oh yes, you’re absolutely right.

FT: And presumably you’re trying to raise awareness rather than just report?

DM: You know, I was really amazed to find that so many of my friends, normally, well informed people, were so ignorant of the Palestinian situation.  There are hundreds, probably thousands of really good books about the situation, and there’s no reason why people shouldn’t read them, but somehow they seem not to.  And it was a Palestinian friend of mine, when I was at the end of my second visit, before I went back for the third time – I said to him ‘Is there any point [in writing my book]? I’ve spent four months here now and I’ve lived right in the middle of it all, but I actually have nothing new to say that hasn’t been said already, probably better than I could say it, and it’s out there in excellent books.’ And he said ‘But there’s a chance that if you write it, people who read your travel books, your other books, will read it, though they might not buy a book just because it was about Palestine’, and that is actually what made me decide to write it.

FT:  Sometimes in the media, the effects of war on ordinary people can almost become normalised, yet what appealed to me in your book was the way that you were talking about real people that you’d met, that you knew, that you cared about – so in that way they got names, they got backgrounds, and they were not just a statistic on a page.  Was it important to you to tell their stories as individuals?

Yes.  There’s no doubt that the mainstream media is very, very ambivalent in their coverage of the whole Palestine-Israel thing.  I was given an absolutely fascinating essay by a psychiatrist called Martin Kemp and he has been out looking at the whole situation there from his own perspective – and I’ve carefully read over 200 books -  but this one essay, to me, is more useful to explain the appalling difficulties – the whole political situation, why is it so?

FT: You mention at various points in your book that the situation in Gaza is very much a political rather than a humanitarian crisis, and the people you meet are very clear about that.  Could you say any more about that distinction in terms of how it affects the way the people in Gaza mobilise themselves?

DM: Well of course they can’t really mobilise themselves at the moment – it’s an unbelievable situation actually when you think of it – they cannot leave.

FT: Indeed your own description of the difficulties you had in trying to leave Gaza yourself seemed perhaps to give an insight into the frustrations, just for those 24 hours, of the people there?

Exactly – and that is their way of life.  But I think that distinction [between political and humanitarian] is so important.  I get various appeals now from medical and humanitarian groups, generally, and I do contribute but I’m beginning to wonder if there’s any point.  Because this is not what they are asking for – they’re not asking for free food or free medicine – they’re asking for freedom.

FT: And that I suppose is the tragedy of the situation.  I don’t know if you’ve seen in the news recently, but Oxfam have begun to say that traditional aid to Africa, for example, in terms of ordinary people giving money in response to ‘famine appeals’, for example, is not always the right approach, and there’s a general feeling that certainly ‘pitying’ giving is not always right because it deprives people in some ways of their equality, and their dignity.

That’s right, I saw that and I think in some of my books, the African ones, I think I have mentioned that – we can actually do much more harm than good by indiscriminate humanitarian aid.  But what they really need is for the capitalist West to get off their backs and let them make their own living, off their own land.

FT: You make a lot of reference in the book, which is very heartening, to ‘samoud’ – the positivity of the Gazans.
Oh yes it’s extraordinary!

Was that surprising to you, that people could retain such positivity?

Well, I mean I’d been living with it for months on the West Bank, so I was familiar with it.  What did astound me was that even in the conditions of life in Gaza, that it could survive there.

FT: Do you think it’s important to the survival, then, of the Gazan people, in terms of their mental health?

DM: Oh absolutely yes.

FT: Your books have become increasingly political over the last couple of decades.   Did you ever consider that you might go into politics yourself?

DM: Oh God no! I wouldn’t want to be mixing with that lot!

FT:  You are famously not a fan of mobile technology or the internet, but there are little hints in the new book that you had a mobile phone, and would send some emails.  Are your views changing at all, or was it simply the necessity of the situation?

DM: Oh no, that was just in Gaza, I had absolutely no choice.  I’ve never used a mobile phone since!  I mean, I can appreciate of course how useful a mobile phone can be, and in fact I had one too on the West Bank because there are no landlines,  but if I were to use one habitually, and have my mobile number all over the place, I would hate the feeling that I was all the time accessible.

FT: What about blogs?  Is posting pictures and diary updates from your travels something you might do now if you were just starting out?

DM: Definitely not! In the long book I’m writing, I remark that when I got to Jaffa I was staying in a very cheap backpackers’ hostel, but with all different age groups –I wasn’t the only oldie, there were quite a few other white hairs, but otherwise it was the normal backpackers crowd.  It was a lovely old 18th Century building, quite close to the shore, with a huge common room, and in the old days, before all this technology, everybody in the evening would have been talking to one everybody and exchanging experiences, addresses, advice, but now instead of that they were lined up on their computers, communicating with people at home, instead of being with their fellow travellers.  Even though these new methods of communication are supposed to widen their world, it seems to me as though they’re narrowing their world –speaking to friends and relatives through their computers instead of speaking to people who are physically present.

FT:  If you were thirty something and starting out on your travels today, what sort of things do you think you might be doing?  What kind of journeys might you be taking?

DM: Gosh it would be much more difficult wouldn’t it, from my point of view?  Because if you think of my favourite places, when I was travelling through them, they were free of motor roads.  Not the Full Tilt trip, but the mountain journeys, Peru and so on, you could get away so easily from the motor roads.

FT: And I suppose that’s almost impossible now?

DM: Yes

FT: For me, and I am sure many people, the appeal of reading about your journeys is that you have an ability to make remote places and lives seem very familiar.  Have you intentionally focused on the ‘day to day’ in your writing?

DM: Well I suppose I have, because the books are based on the journals that I kept every evening, so that naturally follows, if those are the basis, the framework for a book.
FT: Is there any sense that you were intentionally trying to convey equality between people by highlighting similarities, no matter how remote, or do you think that’s an unintentional outcome?

DM: I think unintentional.

FT: And as well as describing the people you meet, it seems as though the physical environments and the landscapes have been at least as significant and interesting to you?

DM: Absolutely, very much so yes.

FT: You have written as well that your own home town Lismore and the River Blackwater are clearly of massive significance to you – do you think nowadays that the notion of a ‘place of origin’ is becoming less important to people as families disperse?

DM: I expect so.  I think there are probably very few people now actually, in the younger generations, who are fortunate enough to be able to keep a base where they were born and feel absolutely rooted there.  So I think I’m very, very lucky, and I’m grateful for the good fortune.  But I suppose in a world where people do move around so much, the younger generation aren’t going to miss what they’ve never had – it’s not going to be important to them to be rooted in any particular place.

FT: Coming back to travelling, something which is very popular now is organised homestays – what do you make of them?

DM: I think they’re a really good idea.

FT: They seem to give a version of what you were able to experience but there must be the question of whether the transactional aspect devalues them?

DM: That’s inevitable, but I agree that the positives outweigh the negatives.  The places where I went, at the time when I went, there was really just me, or maybe me and Rachel, and people were so generously hospitable, but you couldn’t expect that to be maintained when there are streams of people passing through a place.

FT: It’s fifty years now, not since 'Full Tilt' was published, but since you set off on that journey – how does that feel?

DM:  Well until you reminded me I’d forgotten all about it!

FT: Do you feel like you’ve changed as a person since then?  Or in what ways are you the same?

DM: I would say essentially, probably, I’m the same.  Obviously over fifty years everybody changes, but I don’t think that I’ve fundamentally changed as a personality.  I’ve become much more activist, though, over the last couple of decades, and the books have changed, so in that sense I’ve changed – taking more interest in social problems, and also getting more and more angry about the damage that’s done.  Especially when I hear people talk about corruption in Africa – when you think of how the various imperial powers left Africa, they left having already made corrupt deals and arrangements with the rulers in most cases, so that even though colonialists were withdrawing they were still able to profit from the countries, in collusion with the leaders, and now we hear those leaders or their successors condemned for being corrupt.  That corruption in Africa was set up by us.

FT: Looking back over your fifty years, there must be some experiences which really stand out to you as defining moments along your personal journey?  Any places you go back to in your mind?
DM: I suppose the Andes, and the Simien mountains, and the Karakoram.  Lots in other words.

FT: And was there ever any moment during the course of your life or your travels where you thought ‘no more, enough, I’m hanging up my backpack’?

DM: Never.

FT: What about future travels? Any plans?

DM: At 81 you can’t be making long term plans! But I always try while I’m still writing a book not to think about the next travels, it’d be too distracting.

FT:  Do your granddaughters have ambitions to travel or write?

DM: They seem to be more on the musical side, very keen on music and practising.  I’m sure they would like to travel but I don’t know, there are so few places left where they could go and have the sort of remote experience that I had. 
It is, I’m afraid, not possible.

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