Thursday, 30 June 2022

Britain, with a Government bent on closing down English Literature degree courses in universities, is no country for a celebrated old author called Phillip Pullman

A Sheffield Hallam University spokesperson has confirmed that its English Literature degree course was among a small number of its courses that were being either suspended or closed, largely due to lack of demand and the award-winning author, Phillip Pullman is not a happy man. The seventy-five year old author of the fantasy trilogy 'His Dark Materials' and 'The Good Man Jesus' and 'The Scoundrel Christ' has said that : "The study of literature should not be a luxury for a wealthy minority of spoilt and privileged aesthetes, but a spring of precious truth and life that every one of us is entitled to”. “Without literature, without music and art and dance and drama, people young and old alike will perish of mental and emotional and imaginative starvation. We really do have a Government of barbarians".

A number of universities have made cuts to arts and humanities provision after the Conservative Government crackdown on what ministers regard as “low-value” courses. Under proposed new rules under consultation, universities could face penalties if fewer than 75% of undergraduates complete their courses and fewer than 60% are in professional jobs or studying for a further degree within 15 months of graduating. About 70% of graduates of Sheffield Hallam’s English literature degree gain graduate jobs.

Jo Grady, the General Secretary of the University and College Union, 'UCU', said : “The decision by Sheffield Hallam to shut down its English Literature course is as shocking as it is depressing, but seems part of a wider agenda being forced on universities by the Government against the arts and humanities.” 

James Graham, the writer of the critically acclaimed BBC TV series, 'Sherwood', who did a drama degree at Hull University saw the move as part of a trend, with arts and creative subjects slowly disappearing not just from higher education but from primary and secondary schools as well. He said : “It’s just deeply depressing that one of the great British success stories of the last few years – the arts and entertainment industry – is going to be systemically weakened and diminished because it is being eradicated from education in the UK”.

Sarah Perry, the bestselling author of 'Melmoth' and 'The Essex Serpent', said : “I suspect this is only the latest symptom in the disease creeping across education at all levels, in which learning has been stripped of everything but the most utilitarian aims, designed to form minds into nothing but cogs in the capitalist machine. It’s dismal and dehumanising, and I’m afraid its effects will be far-reaching”. 

Sarah Hall, an author and Professor of Practice at the University of Cumbria, reflected on the University’s decision to stop teaching the standalone English Literature Degree and incorporate it instead into a broad-based English Degree. She said : “It’s awful, absolutely awful. I wish it wasn’t happening.” 

Michelle Donelan, the Minister for Higher and Further Education and a History and Politics graduate from the University of York, put forward, what this Government would call a "robust "defence" of its position when she said that it recognised that all subjects, including the arts and humanities, can lead to positive student outcomes but : “Courses that do not lead students on to work or further study fail both the students who pour their time and effort in, and the taxpayer, who picks up a substantial portion of the cost”. I have the feeling that Jo and James and Sarah and Sarah would disagree with her and side with Phillip and sadly : 

"We really do have a Government of barbarians"

Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Britain says "Farewell" to its Master Craftsman of Poetry for Children, Tony Mitton

Tony, who has died at the age of seventy-one, was born in the January of 1951, in Tripoli, now Libya, in  North Africa, the son of Vera and Stanley. He said : "My father was in the British Army, so I spent my childhood in North Africa, Germany and Hong Kong". "I did not get much poetry at home in my childhood, as I recall. But my father used to have some songs and rhymes he chanted around bath and bed times : ‘Your baby has gorn dahn the plug’ole' was one. Another was politer versions of ‘The boy stood on the burning deck' and there were one or two pieces based on popular music hall or wartime favourites : ‘Run, rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run’ went down well.(link) I may have bounced on my bed to the rhythm of that". 

At the age of nine the family moved to Britain and when he was in his forties Tony recalled : "When I was about nine, and rather miserable and lonely in a strict little boarding school, I stumbled on a novel during the enforced half-hour of reading after lunch. It was called 'Prester John' and was by John Buchan. This is the first novel that I can remember reading for pleasure. It really gripped me. I remember the bereavement of finishing it and being unable to find anything that matched it for me then in power and style. I recently had a similar experience (thirty-seven years later) when I read the first two parts of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy".

He recalled : "When I was about nine or ten, I had a teacher at school who used to get us to learn poems by heart, which I seemed to have a natural talent for. It was through him I learned poems like ‘The Listeners’ (link), Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ (link) and others. He got us to write poems of our own, which I also showed a fair leaning toward". 

After passing the 11+ exam Tony attended a state boarding school in Suffolk and said : "Once I got to grammar school, where I again had an enthusiastic and original English teacher and a very good school library, things really took off for me, both in the classroom and in my own time". "I was reading poetry from my school library from the age of 12 or 13". "By my teens I was writing poems for the school magazine and keeping a notebook of my own poems, written out in my best handwriting. No typewriter, no tablet, no device of any kind. Just pencils, biros and a good fountain pen and notebooks. Simple but effective". He said : "I was eager about studying English Literature both for 'O' Level and for 'A' Level. Also I did French 'A' Level which included a lot of French Literature".

Having gained a place to study English Literature at Cambridge University, he became an undergraduate at Gonville & Caius College at the age of eighteen in 1969 and said : "I was taught, sometimes individually, by Jeremy Prynne one of Britain’s most erudite poets of the late 20th century". When he graduated in 1973 he trained at Cambridge for a year as an 'English' teacher and then, after a spell of secondary school teaching worked as a primary school teacher and specialised in 'special needs' teaching, working with children with literacy and behaviour issues.

During these years, his interest in poetry remained unabated. He said : "For me poetry is language at its sharpest, most evocative, most penetrating, most powerful. It’s like language with the dial turned right up. This doesn’t mean it’s loud and brash like rock music. It just means the power (and this can be a quiet, intense thing) is turned ‘up’. For me poetry is one of the main ways that life can be verbalised into a meaningful shape or form. Poetry is a means for making sense of the world, of life, of experience, of consciousness. That makes it sound very ‘serious’, very deep, very solemn etc. It need not be so". 

"Poetry can be light and humorous while carrying deep messages in its hold, like a light sailing vessel bearing a heavy, dense cargo over the ocean. Or it can wear a solemn face for a solemn occasion. It can take many shapes and forms, appearing in various moods and styles. Poetry is thought finding itself through the medium or agency of language, the fashioning of experience into a meaningful shape. Or you could say it is just ‘playing with words’. Look after the words and the meanings will look after themselves".

When he was forty in 1991, he married Elizabeth McKellar, a lecturer in modern and contemporary art and together they had two children and it is Doris and Guthrie to whom Tony refers, when he said :  "It was my own children who started me actually composing poems for their entertainment. My first ‘poems for children’ were written for fun, to amuse my two children when they were very young. Gradually I began to realise that my poems were as good as many I saw in print. Since I enjoyed the process I began to submit work for publication and it was from there that my late career as a poet for children and verse picture book writer developed". 

Tony said : "I spent half a lifetime subsequently as an 'intending, attempting poet' before I stumbled on kinds of writing that other people wanted to read and were prepared to pay  for. I was in my 40s by then and didn’t get to write full-time freelance until I was turning fifty". "I was, in my early days as a writer of poems for children, particularly fond of and very impressed by the poems for children that Charles Causley, our Cornish poet, wrote. I read his adult work too, but was especially keen on his work for children. He too spent many years as a primary school teacher in his home town of Launceston".

Tony said :
"I know that there are several things that many children respond to in poetry. One is the brevity of many lyric poems. For a novice reader a poem can be less daunting than a long chunk of narrative or discursive prose. There are fewer words. There is more white space around the words, so less the sense of a dense screed to be penetrated. A poem can seem more manageable, less threatening, for its modest length or size. It can seem less of a text and more of a sound bite. In today’s world that is particularly recommending to many children. Another thing is that many children enjoy the rhythms, rhymes and other textural aspects of the more patterned forms of poetry. The musical traits of the language feature highly in such work and can be seductively employed particularly in humorous work.
Spike Milligan’s ‘Ning Nang Nong’ continues to be a great favourite".(link).

Tony also said : "Poetry also has a quiet, lyrical, ruminative voice. Think of classics like de la Mare’s ‘The Listeners’ or James Reeves’s ‘The Sea’, ‘The sea is a hungry dog….etc’. (link) Children can be dreamers and musers. I know this because I taught in primary schools for years. And I’ve watched two children of my own go through childhoods that had many dreaming moments. Poetry speaks to this quiet, reflective aspect of childhood. It is not all bun fights and jelly throwing and silly teasing and mirth. Those are fine and there is a place for them. But children can be as serious and as earnest as any adult, as thoughtful as any philosopher, sage or mystic. The greatest minds in our cultures and canons passed through childhood in their emergence. And serious thought is not only for ‘great’ minds. It is for all minds at the right place and time". He shared his perceptions in Poetry Thoughts .

He said : "I love many of the poems I’ve written, for various reasons. That may sound arrogant but I don’t mean it that way. I’m not claiming they’re great. I’m just saying I love them because, for me, they’ve come through and taken shape to say something right in the best way I could at the time. The first and last poems in Plum, as children’s poems, are good old faves of mine: ‘My Hat' (link) and ‘Plum’(link). Simple, accessible, but in essential ways true, both for me and in general. “It’s my lid. / And I love it.” and “You have the making of / a whole new tree".

Tony said of children and poetry : 

"If they like it, if it diverts, engages, entertains or instructs them, it is important for them and they should have it."

Friday, 24 June 2022

Thankfully, Britain is still a country with an old dairy farmer called Michael Eavis, father and inspiration of the Glastonbury Music Festival

Last week the BBC televised 'Glastonbury : 50 Years and Counting' and it was peppered with televised anecdotes from the founder of the Annual Glastonbury Music Festival, eighty seven year old, Michael Eavis. 

Michael was born in the Autumn of 1930 in the village of Pilton in Somerset and in a Methodist chapel was baptised 'Athelstan Joseph Michael', the son of Mary, who was a school teacher and Joseph, who was a Methodist preacher. Michael himself said : "I was born into a good old-fashioned Methodist working-class family. My mother was absolutely brilliant. She was a headmistress and she was a tough character and she made things work in the family. My father was a preacher and ran the farm, and he was more laid-back, although he worked hard too. He was a very likeable chap. Everybody liked Joe Eavis".

He said his earliest memory was : "Playing with a toy motorboat in a stream where I was born, in Pilton. It went under a bridge and I never saw it again. I was so upset". When questioned about his heroes he said : "As a child I was keen on Julius Caesar. I wanted to be a centurion. It kept cropping up at school about Caesar conquering all these countries. For some reason I thought he was muscly and tough'.

Michael's religious background goes a long way towards understanding his character. He said :  "Having an obligation towards society, the whole Methodist, Wesley thing, was central to my family. The social attitude, rather than the faith, became the most important thing. The fabric of society, housing, the nation's health and caring for people worse off than we were – that was the general theme of the household. Every dinner time we would discuss all that at the table. A crusading attitude prevailed within the house". 

Despite his emphasis on family life, in 1944 and during the Second World War, at the age of 9, he was packed off as a boarder and educated at the Wells Cathedral Public School for Boys. In 2016 when he was seventy-six, he retuned to the school to open its new Cedar Hall with its auditorium names Eavis Hall in his honour. Michael said of his six years at the school : “Most people my age who I met had a different slant on everything and Wells broadened my fields of interest and humour. I learned to laugh about lots of things at Wells. That humour and esoteric view of the world has carried me right through my life. What we did at Glastonbury was unique and we are still ahead of the game. Glastonbury was recently voted the second coolest brand in the UK. Some of that is down to Wells and the satire I learned there". 

Michael said : "The next brother down from me, Patrick, had all the brains. He went to university while my parents sent me off to sea. I went to training college aged 15, then off to sea with the Union-Castle Shipping Company at 17". So for Michael it was  Thames Nautical College for training, followed by the Merchant Navy as a trainee midshipman with a British shipping line that operated a fleet of passenger liners and cargo ships between Europe and Africa from 1900 to 1977. He planned to spend 20 years at sea, returning with a pension to subsidise the income from the family farm.

He recalled : "My mother thought going to sea would be good for me, but I don't think she imagined what I would witness. I'll never forget the time we docked in Mombasa. The Chief Officer came up to me and said : "Eavis, we haven't got any crew, go and find them." I said : "Where do I go?" and he said : "The brothels and jails." I was only 17. So he gave me all this money and I wandered through the streets of Mombasa with a nice, fairly smart uniform on. A little girl came up to me and flighted her dress up at me and asked : "Would I lie with her ?" I don't know how old she was, probably about 13, so I said : "Thanks very much for the offer, but no thank you. But can you tell me where you would lie?", which of course was the brothel. So she took me into the brothel. They were all in there and I hauled them out".

His life at sea only lasted for two years and he said : "When I was 19, my father died of stomach cancer and I had to come home and run the farm. The farm had always been a love of mine. The bank manager said : "Look, are you going to get stuck in because otherwise we'll sell the farm." I said : "No, you can't do that. I'll get stuck in and see what I can do". 

Sixteen years were to pass before the seed of the idea of the farm being used to accommodate an 'al fresco' music festival was planted in 1969 on the day that Michael sneaked through a hedge with his future wife, Jean, to enter the 'Bath Festival of Blues'.  (link) He was inspired, in particular, by the performance of Led Zeppelin to host a free festival on his farm the following year. He said : "Something flashes down and you suddenly change. Bit like St Paul; do you know what I mean? There's a change of attitude, a change of purpose". (link) 

Michael recalled : "I'd been into pop music all my life. I started with Pee Wee Hunt, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley but by the late 60s it was Dylan and Van Morrison and I was very anti the Vietnam war. Anyway, I had such a good time at the Bath Blues Festival in 1969 that when I got home I thought, 'We've got a good site here in Pilton. Why don't we do something similar?' The first problem was that I knew nothing about the music business. I started by ringing up the Colston Hall in Bristol to ask how I could get in touch with pop groups. A chap there gave me the name of an agent, and the agent put me in touch with the Kinks, who agreed to appear for £500, which was a lot of money for me to pull out of a milk churn". In addition, there was local opposition and he said : "I knew I was in for a fight, but my background has always been nonconformist. Our whole family down the years have been Quakers, Methodists, very anti-establishment, always looking dubiously at central government".

Right from the start Michael was conscious that the future spirit of Glastonbury was shaped as a reflection of the Eavis family life . He said : "The thing about the Glastonbury attitude was that the ethos came from the dining-room table at Worthy farm. The whole thing has always been very homegrown, so it does have an appeal and it is a family affair". Witness the fact that Emily, his youngest daughter, is now his co-organiser of the Festival. "They're all involved and everybody knows who we are and what we stand for, and we're not ripping people off. I like to think that I have passed that social conscience on to subsequent generations".

"Once I was sure I was going to do it, I realised we needed a stage. I got a local house-builder to put something together out of scaffolding and plywood. I asked him : "What would happen if a high wind came along, would it blow away?" He shook his head and said he didn't really know. None of us knew. So I got him to lash it to two apple trees with some hefty ropes. Another problem was accommodation. Where, on a farm, were we going to put up all these bands and their crews? Luckily, I got a couple of my neighbours to agree to let us use their cottages for the weekend. 

"A week or so before the big day, I had a call from this fellow with a rich local Somerset accent. He sounded very genuine, offering to do security for the festival at two pounds per hour per person. That seemed very reasonable, so I agreed. When the day dawned, he and his mates turned up and they were the ugliest lot of Hell's Angels you've ever seen. What a fright I got. But I had agreed, so I had to take them on. When the fans started to arrive I immediately felt a lot better. These were softly spoken, middle-class hippies. Nice, attractive, interestingly dressed people. I found them very appealing. I felt right away that this was the beginning of something that would change our way of life".

For that first festival in the Autumn of 1970, 'The Kinks', were booked to top the bill, but dropped out after 'Melody Maker' printed a piece describing it as a 'mini-festival' and they were replaced at the last minute by Marc Bolan (link). Michael also had Al Stewart and 'Quintessence' on the bill (link) and said : 

" I regarded the whole event as kind of a cross between a harvest festival and a pop festival, so I had some bales of hay up on the stage and Marc Bolan perched on one of them when he was singing 'Deborah'. Despite my first encounter with him, I have to say that he was wonderful, easily the highlight of the Festival. The sun was going down behind the stage, a red sun. There were only 1,500 people there to see it, but you knew this was music that was going to last. To this day, I reckon it's one of the best things that ever happened here". (link)

Those 1,500 people had paid £1 for a ticket, including free milk from the farm and Michael made a loss of £1,500. During the rest of the 1970s, each meeting consisted of a series of informal events, culminating in the "impromptu" festival of 1978, when travellers flushed out from Stonehenge sought spontaneous entertainment. 

In 1981, the now, properly named 'Glastonbury Festival', gained a political edge as the first Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament Festival and Michael raised around £20,000, which was his first of 10 annual donations to CND. During this decade his Festival lived on a knife edge from year to year. Michael had to fight off district council charges that he had breached licence conditions and one year it was overshadowed by a confrontation between security teams and travellers who were looting the emptying site. This resulted in 235 arrests and £50,000 of damage. However, after a 'gap year', it returned with Tom Jones as surprise guest and now in the post-Cold War, with the threat of nuclear war lifted, Michael donated £250,000 raised to Greenpeace, Oxfam and local causes. 

Michael told the New Statesman that his hero in adult life had been the historian, writer, socialist and peace campaigner, E.P. Thompson and : "His speech from the Pyramid Stage in 1983 is still the best speech ever at Glastonbury". The late historian and peace campaigner likened the crowd to a medieval army and argued : “With its tents, all over the fields this has not only been a nation of money-makers and imperialists, it has been a nation of inventors, of writers of activists, artists, theatres and musicians". Looking directly at the assembled crowds he told them : “It is this alternative nation which I can see in front of me now”.

The 1990s, saw the Festival moved into the consumer-savvy age of cash machines, retail outlets, restaurants and flush lavatories. Channel 4 televised it, attendances topped 100,000 and the likes of Oasis, Blur and Robbie Williams headlined. Perhaps the defining image of the Festival for many was fixed in 1997, when torrential rain brought the 'Year of the Mud'.

After recovering from stomach cancer, Michael stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party in the 1997 General Election and polled over 10,000 votes. He then suggested that disillusioned Labour voters should switch their vote to the Green Party to protest at the Iraq War. In 2009, he was nominated by 'Time Magazine'  as one of the 'Top 100 Most Influential People in the World' and in 2010, at the Festival's 40th anniversary, appeared on the main stage with headline artist Stevie Wonder to sing the chorus of  "Happy Birthday". (link)

He started the Festival with a £5,000 overdraft and by 2013 it was up to £1.3m and when asked : "Could he pay it off?" he said : "I'd feel guilty if I did. Isn't it funny? Why? We give away £2m a year to Greenpeace, Water Aid, Oxfam, we do local stuff at schools and housing. It's really important to keep that going. I can't just pay off my overdraft and say, 'Sod that".

He still continued to see himself as a farmer first and foremost and easier to reconcile with his Methodism : "Being a farmer is more authentic than organising Glastonbury. You're rearing cattle, you're feeding people. There's no branding, no sales pitch, it's just a natural way of living. There's no contamination, no transport, trains or planes. The festival has got a lot of other stuff – drugs, drinking, branding. It's a different thing. I love the Festival. That's why it's so successful – because I love it so much. But you offered me a preference, and I'm just telling you why I prefer the farm."

In 2013 it was the turn of the Rolling Stones opening with 'Jumpin' Jack Flash', with Mick Jagger prowling the stage in a green sequinned jacket and after 'It's Only Rock 'N' Roll (But I Like It)', joked that the organisers had "finally got round to asking us to play." He then belted out a total of 20 songs on the two hour set. After 'Satisfaction' he said : "We've been doing this for 50 years or something. And if this is the first time you've seen a band, please come again". Michael's comment was : "They finally did it, and it was fantastic. My God, did they deliver." Speaking immediately after the band came off stage, he called it "the high spot of 43 years of Glastonbury".(link)

Michael said : 

"I'm a bit of a Puritan, but I do enjoy myself immensely. I have a hell of a good time. I've got the best life anyone could possibly have. I'm not moaning. This whole Festival thing is better than alcohol, better than drugs. It's marvellous".


Saturday, 4 June 2022

Britain, a country awash with Royal Jubilee celebrations, is no country for old Republicans .... for now

Elizabeth Windsor, has now sat on the throne in Britain for seventy years. The woman, who had a poor education as a girl, has neither earned her position as Head of State through ability, nor as the result of the vote of the people, but purely through the accident of birth. And this in the Twenty-first century in a country which advertises itself as a mature 'democracy'.

Republicans in Britain take heart at the fact that although polls indicate the vast majority of people in The country support the monarchy and the Queen herself is hugely popular, there is not as much support for her eldest son and heir as King Charles and surveys suggest there is growing republican sentiment among younger Britons. They might well ask themselves : Who are these people dressed in strange archaic costumes ? What are these people for ? Why am I expected to lower my head, if I meet them, making myself shorter as a mark of deference and acknowledgment that they are 'higher' than me ?



A recent Reuters article was headlined :
It reported :

'According to the survey by YouGov, 41% of those aged 18 to 24 thought there should now be an elected head of state compared to 31% who wanted a king or queen. That was a reversal of sentiment from two years ago, when 46% preferred the monarchy to 26% who wanted it replaced'.

"While there is no possibility of an end to the monarchy while the Queen remains on the throne, there is concern for the royals about a declining support among younger Britons. The survey of 4,870 adults found 53% of those aged between 25-49 supported keeping the monarchy, down five percentage points from a similar poll in 2019, while support for an elected head was up 4 points'.

Republicans, no doubt receiving this as good news and not partying this weekend : 

Journalists :

Mark Seddon

Will Self

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Jackie Ashley

Emma Brockes

Alistair Campbell

Nick Cohen

Bill Emmott

Jonathan Freedland

Roy Greenslade

Johann Hari

Mick Hume

Owen Jones

Vicky Richardson

Chris McLaughlin

Alan Rusbridger

Ash Sarkar

Miranda Sawyer

Suzanne Moore,

Kevin Maguire

Amol Rajan 

Brian Reade

Vicky Richardson 

Gary Younge

Brendan O'Neill

Writers

Julie Burchill, 

Heather Brooke

Michael Collins

Beatrix Campbell

Simon Fanshawe

Anthony Holden

Tim Lott

Kenan Malik

Film Directors : 

Danny Boyle

Paul Greengrass

Mike Leigh

Ken Loach

Film Critic :

Mark Kermode

Playwrights :

David Hare

Patrick Jones

Julia Pascal

Novelists :

Martin Amis

Alasdair Gray

Philippa Gregory

Mark Haddon

Kathy Lette

Zadie Smith

Michael Rosen

Joan Smith

Jonathan Trigell

Poets :

Benjamin Zephaniah

Mike Jenkins

Comedians :

Frankie Boyle

Jo Brand

Russell Brand

Robin Ince

Eddie Izzard

Lloyd Langford

Mark Thomas

Actors :

Mark Gatiss

Josh O'Connor,

Daniel Radcliffe

Scientists :

Richard Dawkins

Edzard Ernst,

Cartoonist :

Steve Bell

Musicians

Morrissey

Ray Burns

Mark 'Barry' Greenway

Paul Simonon

Robert Smith

Johnny Marr

Paul Heaton

Friday, 3 June 2022

Ireland made, but the World has lost that fearless traveller and much loved writer of travel books, Dervla Murphy

Page views : 324

Dervla, who as a writer of over 25 travel books, written over half a century, had inspired and informed millions of readers throughout the world, has died at the age of ninety. She was born in Lismore, a historic town in County Waterford, in the province of Munster, Ireland, in the late autumn of 1931, the daughter of Dubliners, Kathleen and Fergus Murphy. When the doctor broke the news to Fergus who was at work as the County Librarian in the County Library in Waterford, he said : 

"Well now. I don't know if I should congratulate you or not. It's a daughter you have. Came at a quarter to twelve. Strong child". 

The Ireland she was born into was a newly independent country, after Irish republican forces had fought and gained independence from the British just ten years before she was born and effectively became a republic with an elected non-executive president, when she was seven years old. In his youth, as a member of the Irish Republican Army, he was caught burying a weapon in his garden and sentenced to three years in Wormwood Scrubs Prison in London in 1918.(link)

When Dervla was six months old, her mother, at the age of twenty four, was crippled with deadly painful, rheumatoid arthritis. She recalled : "Mother had rheumatoid arthritis. I never saw her walking or standing. All my memories of her are in a bath chair". Here, in this garden scene, her father reads a book and her mother, in her bath chair, has Dervla on sitting on her lap. 

Obviously, as a child she was denied all the pleasure of running and playing in the garden with her mother and as, by the decision of her parents, an only child, she was also without the company of siblings. Many years later she would write : 'Only when I was a mother myself did I appreciate how my own mother must have felt when she found herself unable to pick me up, and brush my hair, and tuck me up in bed'. She recalled : "When I was very small I used to spend hours standing in a corner with my back to the world, talking aloud to myself. And I had an aunt who was a child psychiatrist and she became very concerned about this and told my parents that I needed a course of therapy to 'normalise' me and so on".

Dervla was to live in the small town of Lismore for the whole of her life and said that it was : "Set in very beautiful countryside and I grew up within easy walking or cycling distance of wide ancient woodlands with mighty trees to climb, a deep river to swim in and low mountains to climb".

Books became very much part of her life from a young age. Her mother encouraged her to read them with her and, as a child, she enjoyed writing and gave her parents short stories or essays as Christmas and birthday presents. She remembered writing : "Stories about a family of teddy bears that I'd invented and they lived in a really big tree. It was divided into little villages. Those went on for quite a few years". She said : "My Mother was my mentor when I was trying to write as quiet a small child. She would criticise everything I wrote in a constructive sense, pointing out what was wrong and how this could be improved". As for Fergus, her father, she said that in her early years : "I had some modest success as a writer because my father himself always wanted to be a writer". She was referring to articles she had published, while Fergus, over a number of years, had endured the disappointment of receiving only rejection slips for the novels he had submitted to publishers.

Dervla's life changed in 1941 and, she recalled : "It was knowing very definitely, there was something I knew I wanted to do in the course of my life and that was cycle to India. I was ten and I'd just been given a second-hand bike for my tenth birthday and an atlas by my grandfather and I discovered, not being very good at geography, you could, apart from getting across to Turkey, you could cycle all the way from Europe to India. And one day, early in December, just about a week after I got these two gifts, I was cycling up a hill and remember looking down and thinking : 'If I went on doing this for long enough I'd actually get to India just turning the pedals’ “.

It was her paternal Grandfather who had given her the atlas and she said of him that she : " Just adored him. He was a very big influence on my life really. Though I was fourteen when he died". He had served as an IRA volunteer who when he, like Fergus, was captured in 1918. In his case he had gone on hunger strike while in prison in England. In her autobiography she wrote of him : 'Pappa - when not delivering philosophy lectures at University College Dublin - was generally understood to be writing a book. Its subject, however, was never disclosed" and, some years before she was born she said  : 'Pappa had been in Rome as Ambassador to the Vatican from the Government of the Irish Republic'.

At the age of eleven in 1942, her parents decided to place her upbringing and boarding school education in the hands of the nuns at St. Angela's School, Ursuline Convent in Waterford. She recalled, with her over-protected childhood at home in mind : "One of the reasons I enjoyed going off to boarding school, after that first terrible week of homesickness, I suddenly felt liberated. I was just one of how many hundreds. It was nobody commenting whether my vest was dried ? My shoes were leaking ? or whatever".(link) At the age of twelve, she is seen here on the day of her confirmation into the Catholic Church in 1953. 

She also recalled : "I knew when I was young that I'd never marry and the sense that I would be a writer and although there was no talent showing at this stage, that I might possibly achieve the writing ambition, but this was knowledge in another sort of plain. And just knew I wouldn't marry".

Her freedom from home, at school, would prove to be short lived : "I had to leave boarding school When I was thirteen, well, nearly fourteen, and come home to look after my mother because her condition was gradually worsening and this was during the Second World War and we couldn't get any servants, anybody to look after her. But I was delighted to leave school because I knew I'd never pass an exam. I wasn't interested in passing exams. I knew what I wanted to do and exams seemed completely irrelevant to that. So that seemed to be a great release for a few years, but things got more and more difficult. My mother's health became worse and worse". 

In this situation, her rides alone on her bicycle became more and more important and this was something recognised by her mother and Dervla recalled that when she was wondering whether she could cycle down the southern Irish coast her mother would say : "Well of course you can if you want to" and she encouraged her : "To feel if you really want to do something you can do it". 

In fact, it was when she was seventeen, that she made her first journey out of Ireland, by ferry, to mainland Britain and Pembrokeshire in North Wales and said : "The Second World War restricted my movements until 1948 when a cattle-boat took me and my bicycle from Waterford to Fishguard. There I began a month of pedaling around Wales and England, pausing for a week in London where at that time even a teenager on a shoe-string could afford concerts and opera". The journey also led to her writing a series of articles published in Dublin based journal 'Hibernia' and later she had work published in the 'Irish Independent' newspaper. 

Occasionally, her father took over her nursing and domestic duties for a day, but usually she was never off duty for more than four hours at a stretch, between 6 and 10 pm. She recalled that the day's off : "Left me free to enjoy a serious cycle of sixty or seventy miles". Dervla took her cycling seriously and clearly pushed herself hard. She taught herself to endure pain by devising endurance tests which involved putting her feet in very hot water and : "Tying a string around your finger and pulling it tighter and tighter and learning, in a funny kind of way, how to repair - that kind of thing".

When Dervla was in her twenties, in the 1950s, the situation at home became increasingly difficult. Her mothers kidneys began to fail and she became totally dependent on Dervla and insisted she shared a bedroom with her. She recalled : "She needed her position to be shifted frequently to relieve the pain, which meant that for quiet a number of years I never got an unbroken night's sleep and that got me down quite badly, as I think it would of any young person. When my father died eighteen months before my mother died I must have had a complete breakdown, because I can record very little of that 18 month period. I went on the whisky in a serious way, chain smoked, ate very little, had broken night's sleep and was generally a wreck". (link)

Eventually it was arranged that she would have three hours a day on week days, free which helped and she wrote in her autobiography : 'It needed only this break in the automaton rhythm of the past months to release the cataract of despair. I was nearly thirty and had achieved - it then seemed nothing-nothing. As a daughter I was a failure, as a woman I was ageing, as a writer I was atrophied, as a traveler I had only glimpsed possibilities'. Dervla confessed to Sue Lawley on the BBC Radio programme, 'Desert Island Discs' in 1993 that she did contemplate putting an end to her mother's life and said : "If it had gone on from for another three four five years I might well have done it".(link)

When her mother died in at the age of fifty-four in 1961, Dervla described it was both a "release" and also experienced a "tremendous sense of guilt". Nevertheless now, alone in the house, she found some peace and wrote : 'Love leaves calm. Even when the circumstances have given it the semblance of hate, this is so. In the tangled relationships between my parents and myself, love was often abused, denied, misdirected, thwarted, exploited and outwardly debased. But it existed, and it left calm". 

She now saw that the previous years had not been wasted and wrote : 'At thirty, I could ignore neither my own flaws not the endless variety of causes that can lie behind the flaws of others. The school was hard, but the knowledge was priceless' and ' Had I left home at eighteen and made a successful career for myself, I would probably made a successful career for myself, I would have probably gone through life as an intolerant, unsympathetic bitch - a role for which I had, as a youngster, all the necessary qualifications'.

With the exhilaration of release she said that she : "Immediately began to plan for the cycle to India" and her travelling companion, seen here with her on her travels in Spain in 1956, would be her Armstrong Cadet bicycle, named 'Rozinante', an allusion to Don Quixote's steed, and always known as 'Roz'. He : "Had originally three gears, but I had them removed because in those days they were quite fragile, easily upset, and they would have been more trouble that they were worth".(link) She said that when she went into a cycle shop to have the gears removed because she was going to India and didn't think they were suitable for Asian roads : 'The mechanic looked at me very strangely indeed'.

She said she planned what proved to be : 'A happy-go-lucky private voyage to enjoy some of the world in the way that best suited my temperament. And, if publishing  trade winds were blowing my way, to provide material for a book'. She now 
crossed the English Channel and began the start of her epic journey in France and said : "In the winter of 1962-63 I remember cycling to Rouen with a very large icicle hanging off the end of my nose". However, she wrote : 'None of the privations, hazards or unforeseen difficulties bothered me. To be able to gratify my wanderlust, after so many years of frustration, was all that mattered'.

Before leaving with Roz Dervla had taken the precaution of posting ahead several spare tyres to embassies en route. Nearly fifty years later, in 2011, when she was asked by a member of the audience of a programme televised in the USA : "I was curious if you were joking, when you said you didn't know how to fix a puncture" : "No, I was deadly serious" and when the questioner continued : "And flats ?" Dervla replied : "Of course". And when asked : "And how did you fix them ?" She replied : "I just sat down and waited for a man to come along". (link)

What followed was her six-month journey through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and over the Himalayas into Pakistan and India. The result of her journey was her first book, 'Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle' which was published in 1965 and established her as an exceptional new voice among travel writers. In Yugoslavia, she began to write a journal instead of mailing letters and this had formed the basis of the book.

Within the first month of her journey, in Bulgaria, when stranded in a snowdrift, she was confronted by a pack of wolves as they tore at her clothes and saw them off with shots from the .25 pistol she carried with her.(link) Before she left home, she had been given an introduction to its use by the Waterford Garda taken and practiced firing in the mountains around Lismore. She used it again in Turkey, when  a “scantily clad” Kurdish intruder bent over her, in the moonlight, in the hostel room where she was staying and she fired a warning shot into the ceiling which sent him running.(link)  

Once, on a blistering hot day on a desolate road in Iran, an American engineer stopped in his Jeep to offer Dervla a ride and said :  “This track isn’t fit for a camel”. To which she replied : When you’re on a bicycle, instead of in a Jeep, it doesn’t feel like a frying pan.” To which he replied : “You are a goddam nut case!” (link) She reflected, when recounting the incident : “I regard this sort of life with just Roz and me and the sky and the earth as sheer bliss”. It was in Iran she used her gun again to frighten off a group of thieves, and "used unprintable tactics" (a knee in the balls), to escape from an attempted rapist at a police station. (link)

In the mullah-dominated country of the Great Salt Desert she found herself stoned by youths one day, but followed by adoring schoolboys clutching copies of 'Jane Eyre' the next.

Dervla always denied that she was brave : "Because isn't true. I think 'fearless' is true. But that is a totally different thing. If you don't feel fear, you don't have to be brave. You're brave when you're overcoming fear". She wasn't afraid when travelling, although she admitted being "creeped" by certain landscapes.(link)

She received her worst injury of the journey on a bus in Afghanistan, when a rifle butt hit her and fractured three ribs during a fracas on a bus between a group of Afghan men. It caused her much pain for several weeks, but only delayed her for a short while. She wrote appreciatively about the landscape and people of Afghanistan, calling herself "Afghanatical" and claiming that 'the Afghan' : "Is a man after my own heart". 

She said that : Ancient Herat was : 'A city of absolute enchantment', compared the bounteous Ghorband Valley to the Garden of Eden and was moved by the : 'Incredible, unforgettable beauty' of the mountains of the Hindu Kush. 'At times during these past weeks', she wrote in 'Full Tilt' : 'I felt so whole and so at peace that I was tempted seriously to consider settling in the Hindu Kush. Nothing is false there, for humans and animals and earth, intimately interdependent, partake together in the rhythmic cycle of nature. To lose one’s petty, sophisticated complexities in that world would be heaven — but impossible, because of the fundamental falsity involved in attempting to abandon our own unhappy heritage.' It was in Afghanistan that she sold the pistol.

Having passed into Pakistan, she exercised her resourcefulness on the freezing Babusar Pass in Pakistan, tied herself to a cow to get across a raging watercourse or 'nullah'. 

In Pakistan, she visited Swat where she was a guest of the last crown prince, Miangul Aurangzeb, and then moved on to mountain area of Gilgit. The final leg of her trip took her through the Punjab region and over the border to India and towards Delhi and when she arrived in the city on July 18, 1963, she estimated she had covered about 3,000 miles, cycling an average of 70 to 80 miles a day.

After arriving in Delhi, she worked as a volunteer helping Tibetan refugees under the auspices of 'Save the Children' and spent five months in a refugee camp in Dharamsala run by Tsering Dolma, sister of the 14th Dalai Lama. Here, she worked with a team of western and Indian staff to feed and bathe the children, giving them medicine and battling against the rampant spread of scabies. She later said that of all the people she had met on her travels, the staff there were those who had impressed her the most. (link)

She then cycled through the Kullu Valley, spending Christmas in  Malana. Her journals from this period were published in her second book, 'Tibetan Foothold'. She said her biggest regret was that she had not ventured into Tibet itself.

Dervla had now fallen into the system of using the proceeds of her last book to finance her next trip, which in 1966 was her first to Africa. She travelled to Ethiopia and walked with a pack mule she named 'Jock', after Jock Murray, her publisher, from Asmara to Addis Ababa and was confronted by Kalashnikov-carrying soldiers on the way. 
She later described this three month solo trek with Jock through the Simien Mountains at a time when there were no motor roads or towns along my route as her 'proudest achievement' and described it in her fourth book, 'In Ethiopia with a Mule'. Yet at times it was fraught with danger, witness the fact that she was robbed three times, once by armed bandits who nearly decided to kill her. She conceded : “That was nasty, and I knew it was very much in the balance. I was lucky then. Extremely lucky”.

In 1967, her pregnancy by design and birth of her daughter Rachel, was the result of an affair with Terence de Vere White who was married, almost twenty years her senior and the literary editor of the 'Irish Times'. She recalled : "He said, "I wonder what a child of ours would be like ?" and I said : "Let's go for it and find out". I was 36 and I wasn't sure it was going to work. I made the rule that I would be totally responsible for the baby".

In 2011, when she was eighty years old, she said : "I never felt my travels were getting in the way of my relationships, because the people who had relationships with me recognised at the beginning that I'd be here one minute and gone the next".(link). She didn't reveal Terence's identity until his death in 1994.

For the first few years Dervla stayed at home with Rachel and contented herself by writing book reviews for the 'Irish Times'. Her decision to bring up her child on her own was considered by some a a brave choice in 1960s Ireland, but she said she felt safe from criticism because she was in her thirties and was financially and professionally secure. In addition, she recalled how neighbours brought : “All sorts of knitted items” for newborn Rachel and what really scandalised the locals, she said was the fact that she took her baby out naked in her pram to get some sunlight.

Soon after Rachel turned five, Dervla flew with her to Bombay and travelled to Goa and Coorg and the resultant book : 'On a Shoestring to Coorg' was published in 1976. (link) They spent six months in the south of India and then the winter travelling through the remote, icy passes of Baltistan, beneath K2 high in the Karakoram Range. 

Dervla recalled : "In Baltistan when I was there when I was with my daughter in the middle of winter, neither of us took our clothes off,  literally for three months. Not once. I mean the temperature  went to minus 40 at night there, so at bed time you didn't like taking your clothes off .The Tibetans say the natural oils form a 'carapace'. You're sealed in as it were". She added :  "I regret to say the thaw had just come and when the that comes, little things begin to breed. So we had body lice when we took them off". In the resultant : 'Where the Indus is Young' she was able to write : 'The grandeur, weirdness, variety and ferocity of this region cannot be exaggerated'. 

Dervla had bought a retired polo called 'Hallam', on which Rachel rode, along with bundles of camping gear and their supplies. For three months they travelled along the perilous Indus Gorge and into nearby valleys and together they made arduous journeys from village to village, surviving on the occasional luxury of boiled eggs, but more often on handfuls of dried apricots and slept on the floors of flea-infested guesthouses. Dervla found that, to some extent, Rachel was an asset and said that children : "Rapidly demolish barriers of shyness or apprehension often raised when foreigners unexpectedly approach a remote village”.

Her journey in South America, with Rachel, when she was nine years old in 1987 inspired : 'Eight Feet in the Andes: Travels with a Mule in Unknown Peru'. The eight feet in question belonged to them and 'Juana' their mule. Together they traversed the length of Peru, from Cajamarca near the border with Ecuador, to Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital, over 1300 miles to the south. With only the most basic necessities to sustain them and spending most of their time above 10,000 feet, their journey was marked by extreme discomfort, occasional danger and even the temporary loss of Juana over a precipice. 

Dervla said : “People considered it insanity for us to set out with only basic supplies to a part of the country that had no roads, no hospitals, no services. But that was why we were there in the first place”. They both remained unflagging in their sympathetic response to the perilous beauty and impoverished people of the Andes they met on the way. Further journeys with Rachel involved 'Muddling through in Madagascar' in the early 1990s and Cuba with Rachel and her three granddaughters, when she was seventy-four in 2005.(link) 
When asked in one interview why she continued to travel, Dervla said : “I was born that way. I need to get away from the artificial life of the West. When I set out on a journey, my spirits rise. I’m never lonely or frightened”.

Dervla visited had Rwanda not long after the 1994 genocide and said : “Rwanda forces one to confront the evil inherent in us all, as human beings, however humane and compassionate we may seem as untested individuals". However, on another occasion her conclusion, based on her travels, was that : “Something I have learned is that most people are helpful and trustworthy. That people are generally good ".(link)

With perfect understatement she said, looking back on her life : “Clearly there have been discomforts and extremes of temperature – though not a great deal. But I am not going out to 'overcome something', like an explorer or serious mountaineer. I am travelling to enjoy myself”.

When she received the 'Edward Stanford Award' for 'Outstanding Travel Writing' in 2021, Michael Palin, documentary television traveler, told her in a video tribute : “What you have is this mixture of open honesty combined with fearlessness. You’ll ask anybody anything and they’ll open up and talk to you, and it’s your ability to give yourself to the people you’re talking to that makes for great revelations”. (link) Apparently, when he was visiting her, some five years before, for a television documentary, 'Who Is Dervla Murphy?' (link) , in which he said : “You can’t process Dervla – she just is what she is”, when she asked him to join her daily skinny dip in the River Blackwater, he declined.(link)

With her passing, the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, said : "Her contribution to writing, and to travel writing in particular, had a unique commitment to the value of human experience in all its diversity".(link)


Back in 1965, after a meeting at the publishers John Murray in London, where she was told it had accepted he book for print and met her editor Jane Boulanger.(link) She left and walked through St James's Park. She wrote that she reflected on the disappointment of her father's rejected novels and wrote  : 

'It was chance that in my lifetime - perhaps because of my mother's contribution to the genetic pool - all the strivings of generations of scribbling Murphys were to push their way above ground into print. And so on that sunny June day by the duck ponds, the acceptance of my first book seemed less a personal triumph than the fulfilment of an obligation to my parents'.

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In grateful acknowledgement to Derval's autobiography, 'Wheels within Wheels'


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And that other great traveler, Geoff Crowther, who predeceased  Dervla by one year :