Dervla Murphy was born in Cappoquin, Co Waterford in 1931. Her first book appeared in 1965, following a solo cycle ride to India. She has since lived in and written about several countries on four continents, becoming interested in political/ethical problems.
The books by your bedside?
This pile changes rapidly. At present: Democracy for Sale by Peter Geoghegan, The Spoils of War by Andrew Cockburn, The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 by David Goodall. Using different styles and methods, each of these volumes exposes some of the mechanisms operating in the wings of our threatened world.
The first book you remember?
Johnny Crow’s Garden by L Leslie Brooke, published in 1903 and one of my father’s childhood favourites. Today I handle this slim volume, fraying and faded, with reverence. Its beguiling illustrations and absurd text recall a uniquely thrilling moment – suddenly, I could read!
Your book of the past year?
The Amur River by Colin Thubron. Aged 80, he set off with three Mongolian helpers to ride a stallion across a huge area of almost uninhabited territory. One of his five pack-horses (the descendants of nomad cavalry) was unbroken, with predictable consequences. Time has not tarnished the Thubron magic. Here again is that distinctive blend of vigorously graceful prose, history ancient and modern, and wry comments on the contemporary human condition when obscure towns appear on the Russian or Chinese banks of the Amur.
Your favourite literary character?
On first reading PG Wodehouse I laughed all the way through each volume. Only later did I relish the social commentary between the lines as Jeeves sought to deliver his employer from evil.
The book that changed your life?
The Vanishing Empire by Chaman Lal (first published in Japan in 1937) was a 10th birthday present from a 15-year-old Sikh pen-friend living in Old Delhi. While not quite changing my life, this volume did sharpen my childhood ambition to travel in India. It opens with Tagore’s famous warning to England and now prompts the reflection that the Vanished Empire’s debris remains toxic in 2022. A long chapter is devoted to the women of India, so often acknowledged by MK Gandhi. By 1941, when Ireland was only two decades old, I had often heard my aunts quoting the Mahatma: he had inspired the less activist members of Cumann na mBan.
The book you couldn’t finish?
Clarissa, promoted by my mother as one of the great masterpieces of English literature. I abandoned this hyper-obese novel, long before Samuel Richardson’s restrained references to abduction and rape.
Your Covid comfort read?
Paradigm Lost by Ian S Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. The subtitle explains my enthusiasm – From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality. For me this volume represents yet another tiny step in the right direction. Its author concedes that, as yet, very few Israelis are even remotely interested in thinking about one-state. However, an increasing number of young Palestinians are being influenced by Lustick’s shrewd, compassionate arguments; he thinks in terms of decades rather than years.
The book you give as a present?
Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers. On its first appearance 25 years ago, many readers described this scientific detective story as “the most significant publication since [Rachel Carson’s 1962] Silent Spring”. In readable detail, it describes “how the body may be tricked into a radical disruption of the reproductive system”. It is now back on the bestseller list, as interest grows in the gender content of our current culture war.
The writer who shaped you?
It’s impossible to name one! George Eliot, Isabella Bird Bishop, Mary Kingsley, Dorothy L Sayers, Alexandra David-Néel, Doris Lessing.
The book you would like to be remembered for?
My last two books, A Month by the Sea and Between River and Sea.