Travel: The Book That Inspired Me


ON THE title-page of Full Tilt, Dervla Murphy quotes Robert Louis Stevenson: "For my part I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake."

I read this on a grey morning, wearing a grey suit, in a crowd of grey faces, commuting on the London Underground. I was not sure what it meant then as the ambit of my travels included only getting to and from work or getting away from work. But several lengths of the Central Line later, I had raced with Murphy and her bicycle, Rosinante, on a great adventure from Ireland to India and a seed of understanding had been sown.

Full Tilt is the very best kind of travel book. It is, at once, funny, ingenuous, mildly erudite and intrepid. In my case it proved to be, in addition, a hefty boot to my rear and the inspiration to spend three years riding a bicycle 24,000 miles around the world.

Murphy began her escapade during the worst European winter in living memory. She was attacked by wolves in Yugoslavia and stoned by youths crossing the Great Salt Desert in Iran. She had to repel the amorous and urgent advances of men everywhere (except Afghanistan), often occasioning the use of a .25 revolver which she kept in her saddle-bags. But to her, these hardships were, like strong seas to a sailor, minor but inevitable hindrances, which was great encouragement to me, a timid city solicitor.

What is also apparent from Full Tilt is that you do not need a wealth of knowledge and experience to embark on a journey like this. Bike-maintenance skills, fluency in languages, awareness of customs, and medical expertise are all largely superfluous if you have a flare for getting on with people. Such news provided the crucial incentive I needed to leave immediately.

Equally encouraging was the revelation that I did not need to be a finely tuned athlete. In fact, as a heavy-smoking, hard-drinking, slightly porky lawyer, I was actually extremely well suited to an epic bike ride of this kind.

I rode in a westerly direction and though I crossed Murphy's route in Pakistan, I only picked it up properly at Meshad in north-east Iran, when I emerged out of Central Asia. At this point, I had been on the road for two and a half years and I was keenly aware of the uninhibited generosity that travelling on a bike inspires in people.

Yet it was wonderful to recall some of her more bizarre encounters with the Iranians as I experienced them myself. When I passed Mount Ararat on the Turkish-Iranian border, which, as I remembered, she described as being like "a personality encountered" rather than a stunning vista, I thought of the crowded Central Line and raised a large shot of cheap whiskey to Murphy for her adventurous epic.

Abandoning my job, career, girlfriend, flat and puritanical English values was not easy, but somehow I trusted implicitly the message in the book: that human wisdom may be measured by the respect that we pay to the unattainable, the mysterious or simply the different and that to learn this you have to travel for travel's sake.Published by Flamingo

at pounds 6.99

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