It is forty years to the month since I first met Dervla Murphy in what she describes as ‘an Andean doss house’ (a hostal in the Ecuadorian town of Otavalo). Through the intervening years this remarkable woman has become a friend and inspiration and today, International Women’s Day, is being awarded the highest accolade from the British Guild of Travel Writers, the Lifetime Achievement Award.
In a world of travel writers, Dervla is utterly unique. These days more travelogues are published because the author is famous, or because he or she has thought up a gimmick to make their travels seem more interesting, than by genuinely good writers who love to travel.
Dervla takes this a step further. She has never accepted an advance, nor a commission, and writes according to her own timetable on an electronic typewriter. Only recently has she accepted the necessity of a computer and emails; I have a folder full of Murphy postcards, her favourite form of communication over the years, which still make me chuckle. Here’s one concerning Eight Feet in the Andes which was written after our meeting in Ecuador. ‘Last week corrected proofs of my Peru vol. And it is quite sensationally BAD – I mean, worse than you could imagine or believe. Cannot think why Jock is publishing it; it will destroy my reputation, what there is of it…’. Stapled to it is a review from the Daily Telegraph a few months later: ‘This adventure is one of Miss Murphy’s best. She remains her humorous, modest, self-mocking self’.
Dervla’s self-mocking modesty is genuine. She has always hated the razzmatazz that we publishers put authors through in an attempt to sell more books. She described one such event in the trade magazine, The Bookseller, in 1984. ‘My venue was Cambridge, where herds of besotted Dervla Murphy fans were expected to stampede into Bowes & Bowes, trembling in their eagerness to shake the hand that wrote the books that widened the horizons of so many.
Over-excited by the author’s presence, and dazzled by the prospect of signed copies, they would then spend so recklessly that strong men might be needed to help them carry home their parcels of DM hardbacks. In fact four DM fans turned up – or four and a half if you count a nonagenarian who only came because he thought I was Isabella Bird Bishop. None of them found my aura so unbalancing that they were tempted to the extravagance of hardbacks.”
Another Dervla hallmark is her passionate interest in politics. As the years progressed it was the political aspect of the countries she visited that provided the focus in her books as much as the landscape. An unreformed socialist, she is always on the side of the underdog and against anything that smacks of capitalism.
This year, in our exchange of emails about the foreword she has written for our upcoming anthology of tales about travelling with children (provisionally entitled Kidding Around) – a foreword that is typically forthright on the subject of family travel today compared with half a century ago – she gets stuck into the Brexit debate with untiring vigour.
At the age of 87 her physical health may be declining but there is no diminishing her enthusiasm. ‘I’d rather like to make 100 out of sheer curiosity,’ she says ‘the world is in such a chaotic stage one would like to know what happens next for as long as possible’.
The BGTW award is richly deserved. There may be better writers on travel but I am sure there is no better traveller who writes.