My Top 5 Cycle Touring Books

Thinking of giving a pressie of a cycle touring book this Christmas?  These would be the top five titles from my wish list – if I didn’t already have them!

Number 5:
Barbara Savage, Miles from Nowhere.
savage1 This is full of wit and good fun and makes light of a pretty fantastic world tour. There is a nice balance of, ‘how we did it’ and wonder at the adventure as it unfolds.  It’s a read made sadder by the knowledge that Barbara was killed on her bike on her return home and before the book came out.

Number 4:

Josie Dew, The Wind in my Wheels

DewI think this was Dew’s first book and while her writing improves in the later titles, this one has a brightness and verve that is very appealing.  It’s nice to track back to her first adventures in cycling and catch her enthusiasm from the start.  It’s infectious.

Number 3:
Anne Mustoe, A Bike Ride
Mustoe_CoverThis was Anne Mustoe’s first book and the result of her first round the world tour: in fact her first tour of any sort. In my view its a gem.  It’s a real page turner and with each new page you gasp at her pluck and vitality and strength of character. Each of her trips followed some historical route, but she never crowds out her own adventure with tales of the past.

Number 2:
Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt

MurphyI suppose Dervla Murphy might have filled all five positions.  I certainly would have liked to include her autobiography, but ruled it out as it’s not strictly a cycle touring book. In some ways Full Tilt set the benchmark for others: epic voyage, courage and endurance, brilliant writing and a dash of humour – what’s not to like?

Number 1:
Anne Mustoe, Lone Traveller
LoneTravellerThere is no rule to say that an author can’t have more than one entry!  This was Anne Mustoe’s second book, following her second round the world trip and as she said, she wanted to make it a bit different from her first. She says she steeled herself to reveal more of ‘how she did things’ and ‘how she felt doing them’ and I think this makes for an even better book.

I am a bit surprised to find that it’s an all woman list.  Not even a token man!  Well, I have called them as I see them,  What attracts me in cycle tour writing is:

  1. Writing that takes me along on the adventure
  2. Good humour and not too much ego
  3. An epic journey well described
  4. A balance of how to and why to themes
  5. Not too much straight journalling.

Reviews of the individual titles are available via the Book Review tag to the right of this page.

I’d welcome any suggestions for other titles to consider.

A life in books: Dervla Murphy | Books | The Guardian

Dervla Murphy is a treasure and an inspiration:  here is what the Guardian had to say about her and her daughter, Rachel,  in a recent review

“When Rachel was nearly five, Murphy deemed her old enough to accompany her to Coorg in southern India, and they travelled together throughout her childhood. Murphy is both uncomprehending of, and appalled by, the modern cosseting of children – Rachel was once left abandoned in the Aeroflot Hotel in Moscow when her mother was struck down with food poisoning. “I did worry that she might be distraught, but when I got back she was as happy as Larry. The Russians adore children and they looked after her wonderfully. In fact, travelling with a small child makes things easier, as people are generally helpful to you. It was more difficult on our last trip together, which was to Cameroon when she was 18. It was nothing to do with our personalities, but being two adults travelling together prevented me interacting with the local people as I like to.”

Over the decades, Murphy acknowledges, her interest in probing broad geopolitical developments as they affect some of the more remote places on earth has become an increasingly potent part of her work. “I found myself very dissatisfied with the travel book that just tells the story of a journey, which my first books did. I have this interest in how people pick up the pieces after trauma and tragedy, and I think there needs to be a balance between the personal events and impressions and a bigger picture.”

She identifies the turning point as her 1981 book on nuclear power, Race to the Finish?, which she followed up with books about Northern Ireland and about race relations in Bradford and Birmingham (Tales from Two Cities). She was in Romania two weeks after Ceausescu fell (Transylvania and Beyond), Rwanda less than two years after the genocide (Visiting Rwanda), and South Africa immediately post-apartheid (South from the Limpopo) – she had been refused entry by the apartheid government.

In her 2002 account of her journeys in the Balkans, Through the Embers of Chaos, Murphy wrote about her sense of Nato intervention being part of a wider pattern of opening up world markets. She found related processes in Siberia: “I was attracted to Siberia partly because for so many years it was inaccessible to foreigners. But the multinational developers had beaten me to it. There’s a lot of construction companies in there which are all part of the same processes of globalisation.”

She says that “a letter writing segment” of her readers disapprove of the “political stuff”, but there is an equivalent group “that tells me they haven’t thought about these things in this way before and are glad that I’ve written and thought more about the political side. My view is that I have these things I want to say and I don’t really care if it spoils a pure travel book.”

The travel literature boom of the past few decades has had little impact on her. She has no agent and has always had the same publisher, John Murray. She accepts no advances and writes what and when she likes. “Occasionally young writers who want to write about travel ask if I can help. One of the things that worries me is that in the last few years I’ve read three really good books but they couldn’t find a publisher. They were extremely well written, but very quiet, with nothing dramatic or sensational, and that doesn’t seem to be acceptable any more. One of the writers was asked to insert a bit of made-up drama, which to his credit he wouldn’t do. So instead we get things like that man who ran around Ireland with a fridge. I haven’t read it so I don’t want to condemn it too much, but the idea doesn’t really appeal.”

The locations at the top of her wish list are North Korea and Iraq. “But absolutely nothing would induce me to be like John Simpson going into a war zone, so I won’t be going there any time soon.” Instead, her next book will be a companion piece to Through Siberia by Accident. “I don’t often go back, but I did fall in love with the place. While a lot of the countries I’ve been to are troubled in one way or another, they are also often staggeringly beautiful. I wouldn’t live anywhere else than my own beautiful little bit of west Waterford, but in somewhere as depressing as Kosovo it was coming across a spectacular landscape that kept me going. Siberia was also breathtaking and I had to see it again. But this time in the winter. And I’ll still take the bike.”

Sum it all up as, “And I’ll still take the bike.”

via A life in books: Dervla Murphy | Books | The Guardian.

Book Review: Silverland: a Winter Journey Beyond the Urals

Silverland: a winter journey beyond the Urals by Dervla Murphy, John Murray, London, 2007.

I must have read ‘Full Tilt’ some 20 years ago and so I am no stranger to Dervla Murphy’s personality and reputation.  This (and the graphic on the cover) perhaps explains why I took this to be a book about a cycle adventure.  In fact it is hardly that at all as most of the travelling is done by train.  However, the travel writing is as vivid and insightful as you would expect from this author.

The book gives a masterclass in travel writing with flowing description jostling with personal encounters, historical backgrounders and political rants throughout the 275 pages. Dervla Murphy is at her best when she seeks to give you a sense of the lived lives of the people she encounters on her journeys. She is as much sociologist and historian as she is traveller.  In this regard this book does not disappoint.

However, I have to say I did not finish it. By the end of my reading I ground to a stop: somewhere along the read the slabs of historical background and the rants against aspects of modern living and western policies got to be too much for me.  While I share the general political perspective the author advances I lost patience and confidence with her on this occasion.  I lost patience with the historical sections because they seemed remote and too poorly connected to the lives of the people she met.  I lost confidence as I came to question the simplicity of her analysis of policy and so began to question how clearly she was seeing the people she met with.  I worried that she was seeing their world through her own ideologically framed lens.  I worried that she seemed to be locked into a past Russia that might have been admirable in many respects, but was now just not sustainable.

I think I had another problem.  Travel in Siberia in winter is just too hard for me to imagine ever wanting to do it.  Somehow the graphic account of life in perpetual frost crept into me and convinced me that this was a journey I could never imagine myself wanting to make.

I abandoned the book reluctantly, however, if for no other reason than someone who suffered as much as the author her her research deserved to be cut some slack.  She is a remarkable person and her fortitude would be outstanding at any age – far less as she is well over 70.  Silverland also presents a very different and powerfully independent view of what is going on in the former USSR and in our wider world and for that it is to be welcomed and admired.

What do I take as the essential contribution to the cycle tourists’ lexicon of this book?  Simply this: there will be times when you will need to be both brave and tough – not least when faced with hard-bitten muggers.  In such situations it helps to be prepared, but it also makes sense to let discretion be the better part of valour.

A serious book by a truly intrepid traveller with a strong spirit and very clear personal view of the world.

Silverland: a winter journey beyond the Urals by Dervla Murphy, John Murray, London, 2007. Recommended with a qualification with 3 stars.   Available here from  Amazon.