Thursday, November 09, 2006

That We Should All Be Like This at 75!

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.



25 comments:

Angeluna said...

Fabulous, Jo. Thank you sooooo much for this very personal peek at a fantastic character. This woman is notoriously hard to photograph and you've captured her wonderfully. And just loved the photo of you and the dog, and the swans. Thanks to lovely Richard.

Ann in Montreal said...

Was feeling a bit cranky and pathetic today so I thought I'd take a trip to blogland and see what was up. Your post about your visit to Dervla Murphy was a real tonic. Just the boot to the arse I needed! Although I've never had the good fortune to meet her I have read most of her writings and DM holds a special place in my heart. I so look forward to reading her latest.

Angeluna said...

Ooops, more. Is the dog at your knee an Irish Wolfhound? Did you get any photos of the compound? Will you send us a link for the article when it is published?

Rachel H said...

That sounds a perfect way to spend a day.

Francesca said...

I didn't know anything about Dervla Murphy but after reading your post I know that I'll have to get that book. Thanks for the great portrait.

LaurieM said...

What a delightful character! She reminds me of my mother-in-law who is still participating in Cub Scouts at 82 (83 in February!).

I've never read her writings, but I will see what our local library has in stock.

She reminds me of a quote I just read "It's not how old you are, it's how you are old."

Peg said...

I love Dervla and we've never met. She's the kind of girl you would want with you on a desert island! What a wonderful visit for all of you!

Fiberjoy said...

Super pictures, you both have wonderful smiles and cheerful contenances. Truly a remarkable lady, I can't wait to read "Winter Journey Beyond the Urals"! Wish I had her kind of courage and way with peoples of the world.

Great sweater you were wearing.

Kit Is Knitting said...

When I hear about such women, a part of me wishes that I could be brave and adventurous like them.

Then I look at my own life, how I've endured a childhood of surgeries, life-threatening illnesses, mentally unbalanced family members who I love and embrace fully, challenges that have shaken my faith and made it stronger, well, it makes me realize that we really are made of the same stern stuff that defies the bluster of the world and makes us who and what we are.

We all have adventures that make people stare in astonishment and awe, they just don't all have to do with young Russian men and large bears.

Angeluna said...

Still another question, you mentioned bringing a token log for her fireplace...is that an Irish custom? There must be a story behind it. I find it charming.

anne said...

wow, what a woman—i can only hope to be like that in 20 years!

gwtreece said...

What a amazing person. I have never read any of her books but I sure want to after reading about her.

Marianne said...

What a perfectly wonderful day you and Richard had, and I'm certain from the photos that Dervla had the same.
She is an amazing woman, her latest book just made it to the top of my book list.
Thank you Jo, this was very much worth the wait.

Laura said...

Until I read your post I never heard of Dervla Murphy, but now that I have I love her. You go, Dervla!

angie cox said...

A wonderful woman indeed..heard her on radio 4 a week or ago .Is that a Philosopher's Wool sweater..very nice.What a great house Dervla lives in cats,dogs and best of all her.

Karen said...

This is a great post, Jo. Thankyou for taking your readers along with you to meet such a lady!

cheekiemary said...

I am sure you have no idea how peaceful your posts make me. Even when you are in a hurry you notice the world around you in such fine detail, and then take the time to share it with us. Thank you so much, I look forward to reading more as time goes by. Congratulations on being the kind of person that Ms. Dervla would choose to have as a friend.

Ms. Knitingale said...

Jo, thank you so much for "introducing" me to this wonderful woman. I have also never heard of her until now....but you can be I'll be hunting for her books now.

Dez Crawford said...

Jo, I will be looking for her books now, you can bet. She very much reminds me of my friend Ruth Smith, a herpetologist who received her first venomous snakebite after placing a radio transmitter on prairie rattlesnake when she was almost eighty ("I must be getting slow," she said), very nearly dying from the envenomation, and then going back out in the field.

carlarey said...

Okay, you have given me a new writer to track down. I long ago read all of Jan Morris and MFK Fisher, so I have been looking for someone to fill the gap. Now Dervla can join the bedside stash that I go back to over and over again.

Barbara-Kay said...

Thank you - this post has been a joy! I've checked daily for your posts, and not found a new one since September - until today. What a wonderful way to start back! Then I scrolled down and found your October posts had finally arrived this side of the pond. I do hope this is not an indication that blogs will also become "snail mail". VBG!

Charity said...

What a wonderful time had by all! A real treasure indeed, thanks for sharing! I've added this book to my wishlist - I've never read her before, but I plan to now! :0) I love how this blog-world opens me up to so much more than knitting.

Dez Crawford said...

Jo, I have a question I have been meaning to ask you. It might even make a good blog topic instead of just a quick reply to me.

What is your knitting style? My mostly-German granny knitted continental and my Irish granny knitted in what I now know is called English lever-style, though she is likely spinning in her grave at the thought of doing ANYTHING English style -- when shopping for the holidays she was sure to tell the store clerk to give her "the Catholic whiskey, none of that Protestant stuff." Of course New Orleans has a large enough Irish population that (at least then) the clerk knew what she meant, and brought out the Jameson's.

P.S. Barbara-Kay, it may be something with your server. I've received all of Jo's posts in a timely mannner. We have Cox Cable, you?

Lyn said...

Thank you for the introduction to such a fine person as Dervla, obviously a very inspirational sould to be around.

Michelle Smith said...

Hello, I was so excited to see your story of Ms. Murphy and know that you may have a way of contacting her!

I have been searching the web for a way to contact Ms. Dervla Murphy as my Mother-in-Law, Ceclia Singh, and family met Ms. Murphy during her travels in India back in the early '60s when she was traveling through on her bicycle. Cecilia and family lived in India and were traveling on holiday and ended up staying at the same overnight place as she and had breakfast and tea with her on the following day. Actually even spotted her again in Delhi several days later and until very recently had no idea that she would go on to write a book about her bike travel to India, let alone many other books beyond that.

Cecilia is an avid traveler herself and recently read a prologue to a book that she was reading about India and the prologue was written by Dervla Murphy and her memories of their meeting so many years ago came flooding back. Cecilia turns 80 years old on the 27th of November and I would love to make contact with Ms. Murphy in an effort to possibly allow them to correspond by email or letter and more importantly, I would like to purchase an autographed copy of the book that she wrote "Full Tilt" which took place during the time in which they met. I know that this would be such a special gift for her. She currently lives in the US but is going back to Chennai, India for volunteer work this January and I think that reading a copy of Ms. Murphy's book before going would really make it an even more meaningful trip for her.

I am hoping that if there is anyway of forwarding my message to her or someone who knows her - or possibly providing me with contact information on her, I would be very appreciative! Thanks for any help that you can provide.

Regards,

Michelle Smith
12425 NW Marshall St.
Portland, OR USA
email: 397rs@comcast.net