Treating the tiger

Ian Jack

  • Tales from Two Cities: Travel of Another Sort by Dervla Murphy
    Murray, 310 pp, £12.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 7195 4435 1

Dervla Murphy made her name as a writer who got on her bike and travelled bravely and alone through the less accessible parts of the non-European world. More recently, she stayed closer to her Irish home and investigated the religious and social divisions of Northern Ireland. In this book she turns her attention to the non-European populations of two British cities, Bradford and Birmingham, and there confronts the hazards and complexities of inner-city life with the same fortitude – sometimes amounting to pig-headedness – which carried her through Baltistan, Ethiopia and the further reaches of Nepal. Her physical courage is manifested on many pages, most notably in her prolonged confrontation with some West Midlands Rastafarians. But no less courageous is her remarkably open treatment of a theme, race in modern Britain, which for too long now has been narrowly viewed – by the white population at least – through the wrong end of two faulty telescopes: the one cracked by guilt and ideology, the other by complacency and hate.

In Tales from Two Cities she writes with a kind of combative liberalism which attacks the lazy and sometimes violent ignorance of white Britain, as well as many of the quainter ‘anti-racist’ notions which this malevolent ignorance originally inspired and has since sustained. She does so with an old-fashioned tool, the plain reporting of what she sees and hears, powered by an old-fashioned belief that ‘whether we are vegetarians or will only eat halal meat, whether we insist on arranged marriages or don’t bother marrying, whether we believe in eight thousand gods or one god or no god – none of these differences is significant beside our common humanity.’

Murphy is an Irishwoman in her mid-fifties. She is not one of the new travelling ironists and actually seems to like people – and, perhaps more important, says so openly when she does not. Meeting and befriending strangers is her modus operandi. Clearly many people like her, though I am not at all sure myself that I would care to meet her. She kisses kittens on the nose, calls her lodgings her ‘pad’ and her bicycle ‘Bronte’. She can sit for hours in pubs drinking pints of cider and smoking small cigars. She speaks with a deep voice and in winter, by her own account, dresses in ‘asexual garb’. She might also be Miss Marple played by Margaret Rutherford, an odd mixture of the fey and the hearty, who bustles into other people’s lives using a charm and guile which might be unforgivable if her inquiries were less well-intentioned or their results less illuminating. As it is, quite a few people she meets think of her as an ‘interfering bitch’ who could well be employed by the Home Office or the drugs squad. She writes of her stay in Handsworth, Birmingham:

My material-gathering task proved even trickier than it had been in the tense sectarian ghettoes of Northern Ireland. There most people eventually accepted me as an outsider with no axe to grind. On the race relations scene, my being without an axe aroused many suspicions which were strengthened by my working methods or lack of them. Blacks and Browns are used to their territories being studied by battalions of sociologists, political scientists, urban economists, even theologians ... Writers of books about race relations are not supposed to wander casually around the back streets, equipped only with their antennae and a scruffy little jotter, talking to ‘unimportant’ people.

Her methods are not, in fact, quite as casual as this implies. She does not subscribe to the headless-chicken school of reporting, and her book testifies to hard work in libraries and many contrived encounters on the street. Here Miss Marple-Murphy has several techniques at her command, culled from years of travel. They include the broken-down bicycle trick, in which she appeals for help after she has derailed her chain with her own hands or self-inflicted a puncture. Foreign experience is also helpful in other ways. Meeting a migrant from Swat, she introduces herself as a friend of the late Wali. Trying to win over truculent Rastafarians, she produces photographs of herself in Ethiopia with Haile Selassie’s royal descendants: ‘You can hardly name-drop more effectively than by recalling your friendship with God’s granddaughter.’

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