The Books Interview: A spokeswoman for justice

Dervla Murphy'a latest pedal-powered adventure plunged her into the dark aftermath of the Vietnam war.
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Lismore ,where Dervla Murphy was born and has lived for 68 years, is a dreamy market town in Ireland encircled with mellow walls over cobbled streets and huge old trees. The Blackwater runs through it, and high overhead is the Duke of Devonshire's majestic castle. In May, tourists who have kissed the Blarney stone come from all over the world to buy Waterford crystal from the seconds shop, and lean over the old stone bridge on the most expensive fishing bit of the river. I was there 17 years ago for the Irish Times, to talk to Dervla Murphy about climbing the Karakorams, high in the Himalayas, with her four-year-old daughter Rachel and an ex-polo pony. She had written a book about this adventure. Only the fact that it is a cliche prevented me from calling her an intrepid traveller - which was just as well as she disliked the label then, and now.

Lismore ,where Dervla Murphy was born and has lived for 68 years, is a dreamy market town in Ireland encircled with mellow walls over cobbled streets and huge old trees. The Blackwater runs through it, and high overhead is the Duke of Devonshire's majestic castle. In May, tourists who have kissed the Blarney stone come from all over the world to buy Waterford crystal from the seconds shop, and lean over the old stone bridge on the most expensive fishing bit of the river. I was there 17 years ago for the Irish Times, to talk to Dervla Murphy about climbing the Karakorams, high in the Himalayas, with her four-year-old daughter Rachel and an ex-polo pony. She had written a book about this adventure. Only the fact that it is a cliche prevented me from calling her an intrepid traveller - which was just as well as she disliked the label then, and now.

Walking the banks of the Blackwater on that hot day, which the Irish evocatively call "stone splitting", Dervla Murphy suggested a swim. An avid reader of her books (although only three had been published by John Murray then), I did not know her well enough to realise that my response - "But I didn't bring a cossie" - would not deter her. Peeling off all her clothes, she leapt into the river in full spate. Reluctantly, I followed suit in my birthday suit.

Strong swimmers, both of us, the current was too strong even for us. We whitewater- rafted the river to be spat out two miles downstream from our clothes. No problem. Slapping at May flies with admirable insouciance - and a dock leaf - Dervla strolled naked down the footpath with me flapping in her slipstream, while she explained that the Muslims in Karakoram never laid a finger on her during her travels as a woman alone with a child. Intrepid? I think so.

"Anyone can do what I do." she insists. "It's not as if I row the Atlantic or climb up Everest." True, but there are not many women writers who travelled alone in Ethiopia in the Seventies when Kalashnikov-toting soldiers argued over killing her. Or many single parents who could coax their 10-year- old to cross 1,300 miles of the Andes on foot with a pack mule. Now Dervla Murphy has been adventuring in Laos, that little country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam which the Communists sealed to the world until 1990.

The title of One Foot in Laos (John Murray, £18.99) doesn't mean that Dervla Murphy has gone soft in her 68th year. It may not have the same adrenaline rush as that of her first book Full Tilt: Ireland to India on a bicycle (1963), but the title explains the torn ligaments that threatened her three-month trek there. But she would not allow it to slow down her sleuthing. When she wasn't limping down drug barons' trails, she careered headlong through gorges on a bike without brakes.

The Foot (her capitals) required poultices and bed rest, but the nearest she came to putting her foot up was on a hazardous trip down the Mekong in a cargo boat. Instead, she put her foot down about all sorts of Western imports into Laos, from aid workers to processed food and fizzy drinks, forestry felling and burning, hydro-electric schemes that displace ethnic groups, and roadworks for more cars. In the book she refers to herself as a "geriatric granny" handing out snaps of her granddaughters and cats to the Animist tribes who shelter her in the forests, yet she makes no concessions to her injury - or her age - on her travels, apart from some trouble on precipitous mountain slopes.

No bigger than Britain, Laos wasn't even seen in the West as a real country, nation, or state, "merely a political convenience" or "that wart on the hog of Vietnam" as Secretary of State Dean Rusk memorably called it. Caught in the middle of the Vietnam war, with the breakaway Pathet Laos helping Ho Chi Minh, it endured nine years of bombing. This left the country one enormous land mine, with anti-personnel devices still killing and maiming.

Dervla Murphy identifies the Western legacy with ire before she wonders why the Laotians now want to buy into the Western world. "Every night during the Secret War, while Americans postured about saving the world from the evil empire, their AC47 gunships patrolled skies over Laos and when their infra-red sensors reacted to warm flesh, heroes on board fired 6,000 rounds a minute, not knowing whether their targets were Pathet Laos, soldiers, buffaloes, North Vietnamese, pigs, nursing mothers, gibbons or children. And B52 pilots on their way back from abortive sorties into Vietnam regularly dropped unused bombs upon Laos, having being ordered not to land with high explosives on board." Her publishers have sent a copy of One Foot in Laos to Clare Short, the Minister for Overseas Development.

The capital, Vientiane, was closed to Western influences by the Communists between 1975 and 1990. By the time Dervla Murphy got there eight years later, she did not find Shangri-La. Wayside hoardings, bulldozers, cranes, banks, discos, mega- pylons rising above flat, dusty paddy fields, are seen by her as statements of contempt for subsistence farming.

Is it arrogant of her to deny Laotians the right to try to attain some Western advantages? Dervla is unconvinced. Factory farming, chemical abuse of the land, machines laying off workers, sterile seed that will not germinate after one crop, big dams and slash-and-burn policies to erode the land will together destroy an ancient culture, she argues.

Much of the book is derived from journals, which she writes nightly with carbon paper so that she can post the top copy to her daughter. That intimacy in her prose remains, even after her return to write the books she still types (she has 40 ribbons in stock). She has some rhapsodic interludes with the Laotians, who welcome her into their lives. Sometimes she is "drinked" with her amiable translators for whom she gives English lessons - "there are entire villages with an Irish accent in Laos" - and sometimes she is slipped marijuana tea (no pothead, she believes that marijuana kills conversation). Nonetheless, she thinks that drugs worldwide should be legalised to stop the trade in opiates.

This is not a book for the squeamish. Wherever she went, she lifted the lid on pots and pans - even the long-drop lavatories. Dervla is a former vegetarian who stopped eating meat until humane farming methods were introduced in Ireland. When organic farming started to her satisfaction, she became carnivorous again. She unflinchingly records the toads, pigs' blood in buckets, poultry feet in bundles bound with grass, red squirrels, velvet- coated deer and turtles sold in markets. Hunter-gatherers are important for the food chain, even if noodle soups in Laos contain things that look like eyeballs, "or the other sorts of balls if the something was small". She ate with relish the herbs, barks, grasses, dried berries - even bamboo rats - that the hospitable Laotians gave her, although she had qualms about the two dozen quails' eggs - "a generous gift, one can't respond by giving a homily on conservation".Dervla Murphy's first travel book, cycling half way across the world, began a craze for outrageous adventures as gung-ho writers sought extraordinary feats to rival one another. Yet the reason she cycled there was simple. Ireland to India had the least amount of water to cross in between land masses, so she could cycle for longer distances. Now she admits that "travel writing like mine is superfluous when you can visit the world on your TV", a medium that she despises for its lack of analysis.

One Foot in Laos marks another watershed, as travel writing turns into a detective story with the villains and the victims fleshed out. She is more like a foreign correspondent than a travel writer, but as a lone woman living simply without bureaucratic controls and new technology, she gets a much fuller picture.

Her new book marks a fin-de-siecle preoccupation with the analysis of globalisation and its impact on countries that the West sees as Third World-poor because of their GNP rating. She sees Laos as rich in ritual and culture, with a precious eco- system and wealth in subsistence farming. If countries like Laos are unable to stop what they see as progress on the Western model, the world is in trouble.

Dervla Murphy, a Biography

Born in 1931 in Lismore, County Waterford, where she still lives, the only child of the county librarian and his invalid wife, Dervla Murphy boarded at an Irish convent before leaving school at 14 to care for her mother. After her mother died in 1962, Dervla cycled from Ireland to India where she worked with Tibetan refugees. She then wrote Full Tilt (1964) and The Waiting Land: a spell in Nepal (1967). In Ethiopia With a Mule (1969) was published after the birth of her daughter Rachel in 1968. In 1973, their travels in Southern India were published as On a Shoestring to Coorg (1976) A year later they trekked through the Karakoram in Pakistan and, in 1978, walked over the Peruvian Andes with a pack mule (Eight Feet in the Andes, 1983), followed by a disaster-prone trip to Madagascar (Muddling Through in Madagascar, 1985). A Place Apart: Northern Ireland was the first book to write from both points of view of the conflict there. A Race to the Finish (1982) is about nuclear energy and the arms industry, and Tales From Two Cities (1987) about life among the ethnic minorities of Bradford and Birmingham. Transylvania and Beyond (1992) covers the post-Ceausescu period; The Umkiwi Road: from Kenya to Zimbabwe (1993) deals with Aids; and South From the Limpopo (1997) is about South Africa. One Foot in Laos (John Murray) will be followed by a book on the Balkans.

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