Book review – Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, by Dervla Murphy

In 1963, Europe had one of the coldest winters, and 1963, during winter, was when Dervla Murphy set off to cycle from her native Ireland to faraway India. Along the way, she kept a diary, and this book is the result of that diary.

The world was a totally different place in 1963, as you’d expect, and this book is a product of its time – you will notice it in the language, as well as the place names. However, it’s also utterly timeless. Sure, borders have been redrawn and countries have changed names, and wars were started and ended since then, but Murphy’s insights remain acutely accurate to this day.

She is, beyond any shadow of a doubt, an exceptional and extremely resilient human being. The usual blurbs will tell you about how Murphy had to use the .25 revolver she carried with her to defend against a pack of wolves that attacked her. As amazing as that tale might be, that’s almost an inconsequential detail.

Murphy travelled light, and for substantial portions of her journey, basically only had the clothes she was riding in. She had no sleeping bag, no blanket, and she slept on the ground very often. In most cases, she had exceptional hospitality extended to her, even if that meant that she ended up getting lice, sleeping in a room of apparently exceedingly filthy children.

She speaks of Persia, which you better know as Iran today, and she absolutely fell in love with Afghanistan, to the point that she considered staying there. Yes, the same Afghanistan that’s in the news so much these days, and through her words, you will be introduced to an entirely different country.

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Murphy also fell in love with Pakistan, but the tale of her crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan is a bit special: washed away bridges over torrential rivers she had to cross, with thick snow all around, amongst other things.

Something which struck me, both when reading this book, as well as that of her countryman, John Devoy, is that arguably travelling on an Irish passport is probably the best. After all, Ireland doesn’t have a history of invading other nations, enslaving people, and doesn’t go around starting wars. Aside from a minority of racists, everyone likes the Irish.

Murphy’s insight into people is astonishing, and the reason I look forward to reading more of her books. This is a paragraph from the book:

“Today I met a twenty-five-year-old American boy in the Museum who was typical of a certain category of youngster – European, Commonwealth and American – I’ve met along the route. To them, travel is more a going away from rather than a going towards, and they seem empty and unhappy and bewildered and pathetically anxious for companionship, yet are afraid to commit themselves to any ideal or cause or another individual.”

I dare you to read this book and not feel inspired, and amazed by Murphy and I have no doubt that you will enjoy reading this book as much as I did. In fact, I cannot praise this book enough. Get yourself a copy – you won’t regret it. My copy now has a special place in my growing library, and I’m sure I will read it again in future.

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