The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, 627 miles in 87 days

There is something appealing about the idea of making a pilgrimage and reading about it is almost as satisfying on another level, even when the pilgrim in question doesn’t know that is what he is doing.

Unlikely PilgrimageHarold Fry was not prepared for a pilgrimage at all, he was on his way to post a letter, a note written in haste that the closer he came to the post-box, the less satisfied he was with what he had composed, as if the letter had somehow come to represent all that he had achieved with his life – showing him up as incapable of stringing together the appropriate words that might express the sentiment he wished to convey – while harbouring his mild but growing discontent, he continues on to the next post-box and then the next and then one thing lead to another…

Harold’s letter is a reply to Queenie Hennessy, an ex-colleague whom he hasn’t seen since the day she disappeared from work, a disappearance that is in some way connected to Harold.  Queenie’s short letter informs Harold of her illness, he learns she is lying in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, in the very northern tip of England, about as far from Kingsbridge, South Devon as one could possibly be.

The walk to the post-box and an encounter with a young shop assistant in a garage prove to be the tipping point for Harold, he sets off to Berwick, convinced that by making his pilgrimage, he might save Queenie from certain death.

Harolds journey

Harolds journey up England

Harold is propelled by instinct, an urgency to make some kind of difference and as his feet carry him North, little by little he comes to understand the significance of his undertaking, as the layers of his self-protective habits built up over the years, peel away at a similar rate to the soles of his shabby yachting shoes, until eventually even words are no longer required to explain; his purpose and inspiration shine out of him, attracting followers and making him almost unrecognisable to the woman he has lived with for the past forty years, his wife Maureen.

Harold believed his journey was truly beginning. He had thought it started the moment he decided to walk to Berwick, but he now saw that he had been naïve. Beginnings could happen more than once, or in different ways. You could think you were starting something afresh, when actually what you were doing was carrying on as before. He had faced his shortcomings and overcome them, and so the real business of was walking was happening only now.

Rachel Joyce’s debut novel was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, however it would be wrong to think of her as a novice writer and as the back pages inform us, she has written over twenty original afternoon plays for BBC Radio 4 as well as adaptations television drama. It is clear right from the first pages that this is a confident and accomplished writer and I couldn’t help but imagine these characters already on-screen, it is as if we have seen Harold before, so much of that reserved part of his character seems so familiar, even if he does appear to fill a stereotype, however he does not remain typecast for long, yet neither does he change completely.

It may be stating the obvious, but this is a very English novel – well how could it not be when the protagonist is an Englishman traversing his country from one end to the other; it is not just the landscape, it is the slow unmasking of Harold, a man who barely made a ripple in his working life having done his best to keep unpleasant matters from being aired or making a fuss.

He had always been too English; by which he supposed he meant that he was ordinary. He lacked colour. Other people knew interesting stories, or had things to ask. He didn’t like to ask, because he didn’t like to offend. He wore a tie every day but sometimes he wondered if he was hanging on to an order or set of rules that had never really existed.

Overall, a most enjoyable read and I am sure we will be seeing more from Rachel Joyce, she is at work on her second novel, another “celebrating the ordinary, linking laughter and pain” story, she has said.

BBCInterview – Rachel Joyce discusses how her background writing radio plays informed the novel and how her father (to whom she dedicates the book)and others shaped the character of Harold.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed – my last review of a different kind of pilgrimage, the true story of Cheryl Wild’s hike of the Pacific Crest Trail

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Episode 10: The Move Down Under and a Shocking Diagnosis

Thinking that a move would give us more family time and offer a less stressful lifestyle, we left London behind and travelled half way around the planet to New Zealand, where most of my family still live today. I had been away for many years and hadn’t expected to return, however now that I was back, everything looked and felt familiar and it wasn’t long before we had moved into a house in the city and I had found a full-time job.

Not quite that large an island, Allia’s interpretation of somewhere very far away.
Putting New Zealand on the Map!

Initially we spent time staying at my parent’s home on the sheep farm they had lived for twenty years. It was wonderful to be there with Allia, for her to spend time around her grandparents and for them to get to know and love her.

Being a long way from the nearest town and a very windy road to get in and out, the forced isolation was a little more difficult for my husband to endure, but he was fascinated by the workings of the farm and in particular the shearing shed when it was in full working motion. Not so for me, years of spending school holidays working in that intense, stinking, hot and competitive environment (shearers get paid per sheep shorn, not by the hour) sweeping away wool, dags (sheep shit) and the occasional maggot were something I felt no nostalgia for at all.

It seemed to be good timing to have returned at this time as my mother was unwell, so I was able to go with her to her appointments and provide support. Good timing was an under-statement; she had lost a lot of weight and was having problems with her balance. She was only 59-years-old but seemed to have entered what looked like old age in an awful hurry.

Of course it wasn’t old age. By the time it was understood that it also wasn’t asthma or some diet related weight loss and she had been for a follow-up MRI scan, we found ourselves sitting in an office, opposite an oncologist who mumbled something that sounded like “three weeks”.

“Excuse me”, what did you say? I blurted out.

“The cancer is in the lungs, but it has spread to the kidneys and other organs and those lumps in the neck and brain are tumours. In the state that your mother is in now, I would say that three weeks is being optimistic.”

“But isn’t there anything we can do?”

“Yes, we can start chemotherapy to try to slow down the rapid advance of the cancer and the radiation treatment should be able to remove those tumours so you should actually start feeling better and get your balance back” he said looking at my mother.

We were both stunned. I wanted to protest and say hey that’s not fair, you can’t wait all this time knowing something isn’t quite right, you know it was more than three weeks that we have been worrying about this and we survived that, only to hand out a three-week life card as if you are prescribing community service. This is an unfair sentence being handed out for absolutely no crime!

Completely and utterly helpless, we sat and listened to what would happen in the next few days. I don’t recall much of what he said, but I remember my mother turning to me with that familiar, uncompromising look in her eye and saying, “I’m going to fight this.”

Yes, she would fight death as she had fought life; like every other great challenge that had faced her, she never gave up without a fight. But I looked at the thin frame of a woman she had become and knew that this was a fight she was not going to win. Not this time.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 11: Adapting to a New Rhythm and Creating Lasting Memories

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