Monday, 24 May 2010

Dervla Murphy

I've just been reading Dervla Murphy's recent book on Cuba, THE ISLAND THAT DARED. As always, she sets her personal experiences against the structure and the history and the politics of the country she is visiting, and then puts that into a wider context of world history.

I found her book so interesting that it spurred me to dig out the notes I made when I stayed with her and interviewed her for an American magazine, many years ago.

In my usual disorganised fashion) I have not dated my notes - but I'd say they're mid 1990s. I bet Dervla would have dated them, because I was particularly impressed by how meticulously she organised the tottering piles of papers and books which constituted the background reading for each project. She explained to me how she prepared for a trip.

"I don't read other travel books - I don't think there is any point" she said. "If there is material about the history of the country, I read that. In the case of somewhere like Cameroon, where the background reading is almost all in French, which I can barely understand, I find it very frustrating. I feel I am not understanding the present because I don't know enough about the past.

"The past is very important. Even the way that unexpected, completely new developments are dealt with in a country, is influenced by the past."

In THE ISLAND THAT DARED, she brings into sharp relief the contradictions of a country which combines discouraging aspects of Soviet-style communism, with the kind of basic people-centredness that leaches away in a modern materialistic society.

An observation that jumped out at me was that the "corrosion of the welfare state is insidiously weakening Western democracy. Voter turn outs have remained highest where the welfare state has suffered least damage."

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