Took time off from knitting the other day and went down to see our greatest travel writer and probably my favourite person of all time, Dervla Murphy. She's just published her latest book, Silverland, on travels in Siberia. We know Dervla from way back, but it is always a huge pleasure (as well as a relief!) to see her strong characterful face at the gate, there in Lismore, Co. Waterford.
She lives in this marvellous place which used to be the old market of Lismore - it's for all the world like one of those compounds you find in African or occasionally Asian countries, with buildings round a central courtyard. One building is strictly and absolutely Dervla's own writing room and study - here she has the bookcases which her parents used to use, and so many objects from her travels. Her daughter Rachel and her three granddaughters were visiting when we were there, but the children didn't go into her study and neither did most of the dogs and cats - just the eldest dog who had special rights.
You have to be on your best form with Dervla - she isn't a woman who suffers fools gladly. When she asks your opinion you feel that momentary panic that you hadn't felt since a professor fixed you with an eagle eye in a particularly difficult lecture. But just hearing her soft voice recounting this incredible episode or that in her adventures - all taken for granted by this serene seventy-four year old (she'll be seventy-five on November 28 and that we should all have even the tiniest smidgen of her strength and character at that age) is a privilege. She'd be exasperated at me for saying that, but it's true.
We swapped dogbite stories and when I showed her mine (remember last December in the Carpathians when I got that homespun yarn?), she gave it a professional glance and said, 'Oh yes, a good one - a farm dog I'd say.' Bang on, of course. She was bitten on the latest Siberian trip but in true Dervla style shrugged it off as par for the course. Rabies shots? Of course not. Well - general vaccinations then? 'Gave that sort of thing up years ago. Utter nonsense, most of it!' The leg on which she displayed her own dogbite was tanned, muscled and as firm as a rock.
You have to read Silverland to realise just what this septugenarian gets up to - at a time of life when we expect ladies like her (are there any ladies like her? ) to be crouching by the radiator with a bag of peppermints and a hot water bottle while awaiting the local health visitor, she's trekking across a frozen Lake Baikal or fending off young Russian ruffians trying to steal her few worldly goods. She wasn't in the least afraid of the young men, she says matter-of-factly, but was genuinely scared of a very large, very hungry Siberian bear which confronted her in the woods near Baikal. 'Well, I knew the boys weren't likely to kill me - far too much trouble if they did that - but the bear was hungry and I was meat!'
What I think I love most about Dervla is her total incorrectness in modern terms. We moved into the kitchen of the main house where she offered us tea ('China or Indian? I think a blend of both is best.') but herself flatly refused such a weak brew. 'I'm going to have a beer.'
The dogs climbed on to my lap as she boiled the kettle, while the cats watched for the right moment to steal a biscuit.
The three little granddaughters were introduced, lively, friendly, and exceptionally self-possessed (do they know who they have for a grandmother?), but when they left to go on a hike, she drew a sigh of relief and said, 'Good, now I can have a cigar.'
(I had seen a packet of cigarettes lying around but when I enquired she dismissed them, saying 'Can't imagine who left those. I gave up that kind of rubbish years ago...') A phrase of hers that has stuck in my mind from a previous book (in the Karakoram or the Himalayas, I forget which) was when some locals helpfully offered her some marijuana. 'No thanks, I have older vices,' she replied, heading for the local firewater shop. That kind of practicality and commonsense appeals to me mightily. And so as well as a token log for her fireplace and some biscuits, we had brought a bottle of old cognac.
I think everyone should buy her latest book, Silverland, not least because this incredible woman depends on the royalties to live, but Dervla herself is furious about the title. 'What are they thinking of, these publishers? It's all trendy one-word titles these days, and positioning in the market, and all that nonsense. 'A Winter Journey Beyond The Urals' is what I called it and that's what it should be.' When she signed my copy, she insisted on doing what she had done at all the famous European literary festivals - firmly crossed out the offending one-word title and only then affixed her name below the secondary title.
When you read about her adventures in those wild snowy wastes, where sometimes she doughtily used a walking stick to get around, struck up conversations with anyone who had a word of English, endured bureaucracy and officials with incredible patience and good humour, and survived adventures that would send the rest of us shrieking for the nearest luxury hotel, you feel a sense of disbelief that anyone could have such courage. But Dervla dismisses that out of hand. 'Rubbish. You're the same. You'd do it too. I know you would.' I wish I were so sure.
On the way home we drove along the lovely Blackwater river where floods still lay in the fields. Wild swans had come down to rest and feed before continuing their long journey to heaven knows where.
They seemed to fit in as part of the day very well.