studies in travel writing

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Rachel Moffat, Interview with Dervla Murphy (2009)

When I contact Dervla Murphy about the possibility of interviewing her, she invites me to her home in Lismore. She has lived in the town all her life, although in various houses. When we begin the interview my formal list of questions become part of a wider conversation about travel, as Dervla expands on my themes and introduces new ones.

I am conducting this interview in the context of my doctoral thesis on contemporary narratives of travel in Africa. Its purpose is to enquire about Dervla's experience of travelling there and to explore the processes and disciplines she undertakes in order to construct her narratives. On her first visit to Africa, in 1966-7, she trekked through Ethiopia for four months. Since then, she has made numerous visits to different African countries. I begin by asking her why she chose to travel in Africa and she explains that, initially, she had specific reasons for choosing particular countries and that a more general interest in the continent developed later. She chose Ethiopia because
at that time, unlike now, it really was a country where you could spend three months without meeting a single other foreigner and without seeing a motor road or anything that we would call a town. And of course mountains, whatever continent they are on, attract me. So I wasn't specifically thinking of Africa as a continent, I was thinking of Ethiopia in particular and its special attractions for me.
After her Ethiopian journey Murphy did not revisit Africa until the early 1980s. In the intervening period her daughter, Rachel, was born and Murphy temporarily restricted her travelling to Europe.1 In 1983 Murphy travelled to Madagascar with Rachel, now fourteen. Like Ethiopia, Madagascar was a special area, chosen by Rachel.2 Their next journey together was also in Africa, in Cameroon. This journey was suggested by friends who wrote to Murphy saying 'we think you'd specially enjoy Western Cameroon up in the mountains.' It was not until after this journey that Murphy decided she wanted 'to see much more of Africa' and 'took off to cycle down from Nairobi to Cape Town, but with a break'; Murphy cycled from Kenya to Zimbabwe (The Ukimwi Road, 1993), returning shortly afterwards to cycle through South Africa (South from the Limpopo, 1997). I ask Murphy what the attraction of Africa is for her and she suggests that 'it's more mysterious to us, to white people. There's something very profound about the African people. Their intuitive sense is extraordinary.'

Having had a family holiday in former Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) Murphy returned in early 1997, planning to trek through Kivu Province. She changed her plans as violence in that area escalated and went to Rwanda instead.3 This journey was unusual for Murphy: she was forced to abandon trekking by herself and travel in vehicles belonging to NGOs, as it was too dangerous for her to travel alone on foot.4 I do not, in fact, question Murphy about Rwanda. Inevitably, aspects of travel writing are eclipsed in Visiting Rwanda (1998) by the horror and intensity of the experiences of the survivors she witnessed attempting to reconstruct their lives.

My research analyses the way in which writers represent countries and cultures which are foreign to them and I ask Murphy if she travels with preconceptions of countries before visiting them. She explains that she might have 'expectations of beautiful landscapes', particularly of the Simēns or the Andes, but in terms of 'culture or daily life' she doesn't 'start with expectations.' Her preparation for a journey is to do a lot 'of reading [about] history' and political background, or current problems. She avoids reading travel literature as part of her research, however, on the basis that 'there doesn't seem to be any point in loading up with other peoples' impressions of a place.' Having done some research, Murphy has an idea of what to expect from a country in terms of history or politics but she also uses her journey to inform her reading. She says that she reads the same books on her return, in order to read them 'in a different way' and to compare what she now reads against her actual experience. She is able to question certain details while other facts become more prominent because she can relate them to her experience.

I move on to discuss the construction of Murphy's narratives and how far she feels that her experiences are altered or modified in the editing process. In terms of 'just describing where I am on a given day, or what's happened that day' she explains there is no change because such descriptions are 'directly copied from the diary without any rewrite.' She feels that 'the difficult bit' is to combine 'what's actually written in the diary and what's being added afterwards' in terms of background detail. Some details, however, do require selective editing and Murphy observes that this 'would depend on where I am' because it might be necessary to 'leave out meetings or conversations that might get people into trouble afterwards.' More generally, she feels that, on looking through her notes, she needs (like any author) to consider what is likely to be 'of general interest because an incident or a place, a group of people, might seem riveting at the time and then afterwards you would think, well, actually, not all that interesting to anybody except me.'

Murphy explains that her daughter, Rachel, is 'a very good editor' and 'usually reads over the typescript' before publication. In this way, Murphy can gauge how to keep her readers' interest and make adjustments accordingly. Sometimes she feels 'too close to it all', having just returned 'from the journey and spent six months, or whatever, writing [about] it.' She feels that her 'judgement isn't the best at that point.' Ideally she would like to 'put it aside for a year and come back to it', in order to gain a better perspective on the text but, of course, 'that's not how it works.'

The notes which Murphy makes along the way are of fundamental importance to the narrative. She explains that it is vital for her to write in her diary every day 'because otherwise the next day's experience would blur the day before, so no matter how tired you are, you're just putting it down, rough notes, but you've got to get it down as it was that day, that evening.' With this type of discipline in place, Murphy is confident of the accuracy of her narrative and does not feel that memory, although a process of reconstruction, has betrayed her in the short time between the experience and the recording process.

I ask her if she agrees with Colin Thubron's ideas about memory: he insists that a travel writer who is meticulous about taking notes seems more credible.5 Murphy assumes that 'all travel writers must keep a daily journal, I mean they couldn't come back at the end of a journey and remember all the details.' She describes how she guards her journal: 'I've got a special bag that I carry the journal in day and night, I sleep with it here,' at which point she hugs her arms around her chest. She says that the loss of any other item would not worry her, but her diary is 'the one thing that I would defend with my life!' Evidently, for Murphy, there could be little credibility in a travel writer whose narrative did not rely on a careful record of their journey.

I am interested in this area of narrative construction, partly because narratives can be distorted by false memory and partly because some writers, notoriously Bruce Chatwin, have reconstructed their experiences almost beyond recognition in order to make the narrative more compelling. When I ask if she ever sacrifices accuracy for the sake of her narrative, Murphy replies with a firm negative. She explains that 'what you might have to do is compress a long drawn-out experience, but not in the sense of saying something happened on one day when it was happening over three days.'

I ask if, on returning to a country, she has ever noted a discrepancy between her memories of it and the present reality. Bill Bryson, for example, remembered Lulworth as an idyllic coastal town. On revisiting it he notices 'a vast and unsightly car park, which I had quite forgotten,' and realises that his memory has been deceptively selective.6 Murphy considers that she is 'not a good person to ask' about this type of experience as she has done 'very little going back' after having published her narrative. Many of the places she has visited (she mentions Coorg, Afghanistan and Ethiopia) have altered so much that she 'would dread going back.' She rarely has an opportunity to compare her memories with reality, therefore, as the places she has travelled in may now be changed beyond her memory, or too dangerous for her to go back to check.

When Murphy started travelling her background in travel literature was what she describes as 'the sort of classics, like Freya Stark … Isabella Bird Bishop [and] Mary Kingsley.' Although travel literature does not form part of her research for a journey, she has read a number of contemporary travel authors: 'Paddy Leigh Fermor and Jan Morris, Redmond [O'Hanlon], Willie Dalrymple, I love his books [and] Colin Thubron.' These, and 'hundreds' of others, she has read 'for the good writing' or, of course, to review them. When I ask how she would compare the classics with contemporary writing, Murphy remarks that:
in a way you can't compare them because travelling itself has changed so much. It would be impossible actually for me to do a journey like the Ethiopian one or cycling to India. You couldn't repeat that experience now because the countries have changed so much. So if you think of Isabella Bird Bishop, for instance, travelling through Persia and Ladakh and all the rest of it, well, a contemporary travel writer would just have to write in such a different way anyway, apart from the stylistic changes between the generations, because the whole world has changed so much. I mean for instance now: everybody goes everywhere with their mobile phone and they're always in touch with their home ... and they can always be rescued if they get into any sort of difficulties. Whereas when we [herself and Rachel] were trekking through the Andes or I was in Ethiopia, or when we were in Cameroon, we were really genuinely out on our own – just as much as any of the older travellers were. But if you did that now people would say that you were irresponsible, that you should have the technology with you to send an SOS to be rescued if you got into trouble. To me, that would take a lot of the joy of travelling out of it, it would take the adventure out of it. If you can be, by pressing a couple of buttons, in touch with the folks back home, well, in a way, why bother leaving home?
Murphy's desire for such isolation is evident in The Ukimwi Road, where she explains that she did not tell friends or family where she planned to travel as she felt the need to detach herself from domestic issues for a time.7

The conversation moves on to styles of writing. I suggest that one contrast between older texts and those written more recently may be that cultural representation has become more sensitive, or politically correct, since the decline of formal European empires. I ask if she feels that an increasing sense of such correctness had developed in her work. She comments that she has 'never thought in those terms of being politically correct or incorrect' and I explain that I have the impression that her African narratives increasingly refer to the detrimental effects of colonialism. Murphy suggests that: 'as you get older you become more and more aware of all that baggage. Whereas the younger you are and the less experienced as a traveller you are, in a way the more exciting the travelling itself is. So you devote less consideration to the historical and political background.'

We move on to discuss developments in female travel narratives. Murphy points out that a number of women in the nineteenth century were prominent travellers, such as Stark, Bird Bishop and Kingsley. She makes allowances for the fact that she doesn't 'read that many contemporary travel books,' but she doesn't 'get the feeling that women are [now] more to the fore than they were then.' She is of the opinion that women are not travelling any less, but that they seem 'more inclined to travel with a partner' than previously. I ask Murphy if she thinks that women have a different attitude towards their personal safety than men and she replies that, 'on the whole, women travelling on their own are safer than men travelling on their own in remote areas.' She acknowledges that this is unlikely to be true of cities, particularly now, but she herself has avoided travelling through cities wherever possible and does not feel best-placed to comment. She feels that 'in the more remote areas women on their own are safer,' whereas men are likely to be regarded 'as possible … political or commercial spies. The average sort of traditionalist village or small town [is] much more inclined to be protective towards women on their own and particularly in Muslim countries, I think.'

I move on to ask how important Murphy's sense of personal identity is to her travelling and writing, specifically in terms of gender and nationality. In terms of gender she replies that it is 'just there – you're not focusing on it. It's just how you are, you're a woman, that's it.' Some of her narratives suggest that she is quite defensive about her right to travel alone, despite the fact that this is alien behaviour in many of the communities she travels through. She agrees that 'a lot of Africans had a big problem with this,' especially 'on the trip from Kenya down to Cape Town.' As far as she could tell: 'they were worried about me because after all [I was] in my 60s so why wasn't I at home looking after the grandchildren? How could my own children let me wander off on my own? What was the problem?' She emphasises that such comments were not made 'in any sort of critical way, but in a worried way': her decision to make such a journey was considered incomprehensible, being so far removed from the experience of those she met. She encountered the same attitudes in Siberia, where people worried about 'this old baboushka tottering around, what was wrong there? Why was nobody looking after me?'

Murphy has been quite adamant on these occasions that she does not need anyone to look after her and has often been dismayed by such protective reactions. Despite being more or less accustomed to such a reception, it is still an annoyance for her. She feels that: 'day by day it can get a bit irritating, even though you know it's all well-meant and so on. If something is repeated often enough it does get irritating.' Murphy speculates that the 'puzzlement' she met with in Africa
was [partly] about the whole travelling thing; [if] I'd gone along and settled, lived there for three months on my own, I think they could have taken that. But the idea of just roaming around the countryside with a bicycle and going distances that they themselves in the normal course of events would never think of travelling. That was, I suppose, confusing for them really.
On the subject of nationality, Murphy says that being Irish is very useful, 'particularly in the ex-colonial countries.' On the whole she says it's 'not something I would think of focusing on particularly,' but 'there were several cases in South Africa in the rougher sort of townships where it was very useful to make the point at the beginning that you were Irish.' Alternatively, there were other countries, 'like Laos for instance, where nobody's ever heard of Ireland.' In such places her nationality was 'irrelevant'. As she puts it: 'You might as well say you came from Iceland, or Antarctica or Brazil!'

At this point, my official list of questions runs out: I ask Dervla if there is anything she wants to add. She begins by asking me to clarify the focus of my thesis, which explores how travellers' representations of African countries have altered in the twentieth century. Part of my research investigates the way in which travellers construct their representations, which includes how they present themselves. I use the example of Ethiopia, suggesting that when Murphy travelled there, she did so differently from someone in the nineteenth century or today. Murphy asks how her journey 'would have been different' from one made in the nineteenth century and I suggest that her general outlook would have made a significant difference, if nothing else. Murphy argues that, in that case, she still was not that far removed from Isabella Bird Bishop as she doesn't think Bird Bishop's 'mindset was all that different to mine in the 1960s.'

I change tack here, and suggest that travel writing seems to have endless potential, as audiences may fluctuate but never seem to be tired of travel writing. There is a self-regenerating aspect to the genre which is worth exploring. Murphy agrees that readers do not tire of countless travel narratives but observes that the way in which people are able to travel is changing drastically. She feels sad that her 'granddaughters will never actually be able to travel in the way [she] did, and the way their mother did when she was their age, because the world has changed so quickly and mass tourism has taken over to such an extent that it just won't be possible for them to have comparable experiences as travellers if they wanted to.' I ask if she thinks there would be a greater risk to their personal safety and she replies that there 'definitely' would be, 'for various reasons.' Some of these reasons are 'political and military - there are so many landmines all over the place!' Murphy also refers to the growing number of 'small arms' and supposes that 'the whole drugs scene has taken over in so many countries.' But Murphy is still interested in introducing her grandchildren to a more traditional style of travel as far as possible. Out of the three journeys which Murphy made to Cuba between 2005 and 2007, the first (which she was planning at this time) was made with Rachel and her daughters: Rose (10), Clodagh (8) and Zea (6).8 Although an urban base was necessary for such a journey, to ensure that the girls were never completely isolated from food and transport, perhaps Murphy does want to see her granddaughters cultivate an interest in travelling in remote areas and to seek out experiences that may well be comparable to that of their mother and grandmother.

Murphy thinks it
a pity that so many youngsters go rushing around the world - the backpackers taking a year off and sort of visiting twenty countries in twelve months, or more. If only they could settle [spend] three months in four different countries and really get the feel of the place. Because on the one hand it's wonderful to see so many young travelling to all continents, but when you talk with them and realise that they actually know nothing about the countries they've been through, or the country they're in and the countries they're going to, it gets really depressing. You see it's all too easy now. Air fares get cheaper and cheaper. It seems to me it's a wasted opportunity.
I suggest that such an approach is still thought of as a good opportunity to travel and she agrees that, in its way it is 'wonderful', but reiterates that it is simply done 'too superficially'. She also feels that young people travel 'too much in a pack staying in the same sort of B & Bs or whatever lodgings they find in the guide books,' creating fairly homogenous communities. This is certainly different from Dervla and Rachel Murphy, who stayed in local homes where they could, or camped, and did what they could to mix with the local community. Murphy feels strongly that contemporary travelling arrangements distance travellers from the communities they travel through and that this degree of separation detracts from their experience accordingly.

Asked how she thinks travel writing will develop Dervla suggests that
it may come to less travelling and more settling in a place, say, for three or six months in one village or little town, something like that, maybe the trend that I've remarked on in myself of concentrating more on political and social problems - maybe that will come more to the fore. So many young people now are bothered by globalisation and the American take-over of the world. So it may be that as they travel they will, in fact, be more serious than I was at their sort of age, setting out just to travel for travel's sake and the excitement, because really there can't be that much excitement left.
She gives the example of her 'week in St. Petersburg', which 'hasn't been as done over as much as Rome or Venice or Paris' but is still well-known. Reluctant to repeat the impressions of others in the narrative which followed, in Silverland: A Winter Journey Beyond the Urals (2006)9 she 'said very little about [the city] and concentrated more on Putin because that's his birth place and his base and all the rest of it, so most of that chapter's about him.' The conversation comes to a close as we discuss the difficulties for travellers who want to do something different. Murphy asks: 'what's new? What's left to do?' She herself 'wouldn't like to be starting out now'; she feels sorry for her granddaughters and 'sad that so much of the world is spoiled now.'


Rachel Moffat interviewed Dervla Murphy on 17th August, 2005.

1. Dervla Murphy, On a Shoestring to Coorg [1976] (London: HarperCollins Publishers India, 1998), p.1.

2. Liz Hodgkinson, 'Relative Values: Travels with my Daughter', Sunday Times Magazine, 15 December 1985, p.18.

3. Dervla Murphy, Visiting Rwanda (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1998), pp.63, 73.

4. Ibid., p.126.

5. Susan Bassnett, 'Interview with Colin Thubron', Studies in Travel Writing No. 3 (1999), pp.149-171 (quotation at pp.151-152).

6. Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island (1995] (London: Black Swan, 1996), p.125.

7. Dervla Murphy, The Ukimwi Road [1993] (London: Flamingo, 1994), p.1.

8. Dervla Murphy, The Island that Dared: Journeys in Cuba (London: Eland, 2008).

9. Dervla Murphy, Silverland: A Winter's Journey Beyond the Urals (London: John Murray, 2006).



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