True characters


Dervla Murphy, writer

My parents were. . . originally from Dublin. My father was from Rathmines and my mother was from Rathgar, practically neighbours. He was the Waterford county librarian and moved down to Lismore when he was appointed to the position. I left school at the age of 14 and looked after my mother for 16 years, as she suffered badly with rheumatoid Arthritis.

I wouldn’t want to go back to . . .some of my favourite destinations like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Peru. A lot of these places have been affected by political developments and wars. These are very different to when I started travelling 50 years ago.

My daily routine . . .starts at five. I have a big breakfast and, depending on the season, I take the dogs out. In the summer I swim in the river. I spend the day writing. I go to bed early, about 9.30pm or so. I don’t pace myself to have a set word count. When I’m between books, I love to have friends to stay in my home. That, for me, is a holiday.

My daughter Rachel .. . was born in 1968. I was unmarried but it wasn’t a problem. In the animal kingdom if a creature shows fear it will be attacked and I wasn’t afraid. I had written four books at that stage. I didn’t travel outside Europe for her first five years, I didn’t think it fair. So I wrote reviews for The Irish Times and my biography of the early years. Rachel came with me on a lot of my journeys and that was just wonderful. She lives in Italy now with her husband and three children.

The scariest moment of my travels was .. . when Shiftas robbed me in Ethiopia and were obviously considering whether to murder me or not. It was the only time I was that afraid. They took everything and left me behind.

The latest book . . .is not a travel book, it is more political and about social problems. It deals with the Palestinian issue. People are vaguely aware of what goes on but are not familiar with the details. A friend of mine said that because a number of people around the world read my books there was a greater chance of them reading it and highlighting awareness about the situation.

I feel sad . . .that travel writers nowadays do not have the same remoteness in where they visit. It is difficult to get completely away from cities and motor roads. When I visited years ago, the local people lived the same way as their ancestors 500 years previous. The pace of change in the world is so rapid that they will never have that opportunity. This was very evident the time I was in Laos.

I like solitude .. . I like to travel alone and to live alone. I knew from when I was quite small that I would never get married, I never wanted to be tied to anyone. I think there are very few people out there that need to be alone as much as I do. I enjoy other people’s company a lot, but only when I have organised it.

My advice to travel writers is .. . not to visit too many countries in a short amount of time. Instead, concentrate and give more time. I think doing a lot of background reading is also important, in order to understand what you are seeing. Leave behind the mobile phones and the laptops. I’ve noticed that when travellers go to a foreign country the first thing they do is plug in a laptop and talk to their boyfriend or parents. They seem so dependent, as a generation, on all of this stuff. I wonder, can they survive at all without these links?

My favourite travel writers are . . .Freya Stark, Colin Thubron, Redmond O’Hanlon. Most of my reading is background research for my writing, so there is not very much time left for reading for fun.

The key to my research . . .is ordinary people. When I was in Gaza this year I found the conditions are unbelievable – 27 miles by eight miles wide of land to accommodate 1.5 million people. It is an open-air prison. These people have no freedom, no work, no possibility of setting up industry because they are not allowed to export. At least 60 percent are refugees.

I have never . . .thought beyond the book that I am working on at present, because I don’t want to be distracting myself with thoughts of the next book. Don’t look too far ahead, especially when you’re 80!

In conversation with LIZ MURPHY