Saturday 26 January 2013

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning


The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

As I drove out one winter afternoon to refuel the car and treat myself to a Southern fried chicken, cheese and coleslaw sandwich from the garage (a KFC bucket between slices of bread - pure mmm), I happened to catch Jeremy Vine ask his listeners (I listen to BBC Radio 2 in the car) if they'd seen anyone inappropriately dressed during our bout of snowy weather. As I popped open the petrol cap and switched off the engine I thought, Yes I have Jeremy. And his name is Harold Fry.

I know Harold isn't real and walks during the spring and summer months, but still walking from Devon to Berwick upon Tweed, from one end of England to the other, takes some doing in a pair of flimsy yachting shoes. And this is indeed what Harold sets out to do. Without even knowing it.

The least planned part of the journey, however, was the journey itself

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a story of retired Devon couple, Harold and Maureen. Their daily life is pretty safe and predictable. Harold sits in his chair and housework obsessed Maureen dusts and vacuums. They have a grown son, David, who they haven't seen in years, although Maureen speaks to him regularly on the phone. Their marriage sadly isn't great. Harold irritates Maureen. They sleep in separate beds and no longer have a close bond. On the morning of Page One, Harold receives a letter from old friend and work colleague, Queenie Hennessy, who he also hasn't seen in years after she upped and left. She writes to tell Harold she is ill with cancer, living her last days in a hospice in Berwick upon Tweed. She writes to says goodbye.

Harold pens a brief note of condolence to Queenie and wearing his usual everyday garb, including his comfy yachting shoes and anorak, he sets off to post it. He finds himself enjoying the walk. It's a lovely spring day and it's good to mull over thoughts as he strolls. Iit seems a shame to turn back after popping to the nearest post box not far from their home, so he keeps hold of the letter and heads to the next post box whereupon he thinks the same and walks to the next, and so on, until he pops into a garage to buy some fodderage. When the girl behind the counter suggests he opts for the microwavable burger (he is flabbergasted that  he can purchase hot food in a garage) he throws caution to the wind and goes for it. He tells the girl about Queenie as they await the oven's ping and she tells him her aunt had cancer but the girl thought she would beat it because she believed her faith could save her.

There is so much to the human mind we don't understand. But, you see, if you have faith, you can do anything 

This idea of faith strikes a chord with Harold and as he continues his afternoon walk the idea of posting a note to his once dear friend Queenie isn't enough and he throws yet more caution to the wind and decides to walk to her on the premise that she will have to wait for him to arrive. Thereby keeping her alive. His walk will save her.

You got up, and you did something. And if trying to find a way when you don't even know you can get there isn't a small miracle; then I don't know what is 

He scraps his short letter and writes another to Queenie explaining he is taking a little walk to see her.

Now, as I was reading all this I kinda knew Harold was going to attempt a mission of the sort. I mean the title and the illustration of the shoes - shoes you can't help but come to love as the story progresses - gives the game away. But how on earth does he do it? How long will it take? Where will he sleep? He hasn't trained! He needs proper hiking boots! What is he thinking?!

If we don't go mad once in a while, there's no hope

These, along with why are they estranged from their son? Why did Queenie leave so suddenly? Did/do they have a thing going on?, whirled around my head, urging me to read on. I thought there must be more to this than meets the eye for Harold to feel the need to take such drastic action. So I decided to walk with Harold and see if my questions would be answered.

Being a nature lover and enjoying the odd walk myself, I savoured Rachel Joyce's delightful descriptions of the changing scenery. I was so there. I fancied taking such a walk in real life. Well, a walking holiday, not a character enhancing epic voyage. How wonderful it would be to cover miles and observe the beautiful British countryside, resting up each evening in a cosy B&B  a la Sir Harold of Fry.

... He went under the stars, and the tender light of the moon, when it hung like an eyelash and the tree trunks shone like bones. He walked through wind and weather, and beneath sun-bleached skies. It seemed to Harold that he had been waiting all his life to walk. He no longer knew how far he had come, but only that he was going forward. The pale Cotswold stone became the red brick of Warwickshire, and the land flattened into middle England. Harold reached his hand to his mouth to brush away a fly, and felt a beard growing in thick tufts. Queenie would live. He knew it

However his walk does more than blow away the cobwebs and provide pretty vistas. Harold undergoes a huge transformation as he attempts his mammoth journey. He wrestles with personal demons and meets interesting to-say-the-least folk as he dodges traffic on dangerously main roads (he sticks to the main roads he is familiar with as a motorist).  He relieves memories and we learn more about Queenie and his relationship with David and Maureen. I grew fond of Harold, loved the descriptions of Queenie - I grew extremely fond of Queenie and Harold's confectionery-sharing friendship - although it took me a while to feel for Maureen but I did and it was worth the wait. As I got to know Harold, I feared for his health and safety. I worried about him straying into undesirable areas and wanted to protect him. Please don't encounter any axe wielding maniacs, Harold!

The logistics of the walk changed during the novel too. At one point I feared if too many people became acquainted with Harold and his mission to save Queenie we could venture into cheesy widespread media coverage territory and I didn't want the author to take that route. No, let's not allow our loveable Harold and his personal mission to save his marriage and his relationship with his son - not just Queenie - become tabloid fodder. For some reason I couldn't cope with the idea of Harold becoming a national treasure with the nation  heering him on. Harold's pilgrimage is a deeply personal one and I didn't want that invasion of his privacy.

I liked Harold a lot, you see. I liked how he didn't judge the people he met. I liked how in wanting to do this impulsive, unpredictable last act of kindness for Queenie, each step taking him away from Maureen, he creates the distance his marriage needs in order to survive. It shocks Maureen that her reliable husband has taken off so randomly, and Harold's spur of the moment jaunt certainly shakes up their marriage, jolting each other out of their taken for granted comfort zones.

He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others

I wanted Harold to reach Queenie in time and present her with the souvenirs he'd picked up on his travels. I wanted Harold and his unsuitably bedecked feet to be reunited with Maureen and I wanted the pair of them to go on to enjoy renewed passion in this charming, sweet story.

He could never imagine himself with anyone other than Maureen; they had shared so much. To live without her would be like scooping out the vital parts of himself, and he would be no more than a fragile envelope of skin

Read the story and cheer him on. Shake up your world, see it anew and keep an eye out for Harold on your travels. Go Harold Fry!

PS Who was the famous actor?

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