Culture Street

By Sophia Whitfield

Rachel Joyce is an actress, most notably with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but recently has turned her hand to writing radio plays. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frystarted out as a radio play before she transformed it into the elegant novel it is today.

Joyce began writing this book just as her father was diagnosed with cancer. In between caring for her father she created the enigmatic character Harold Fry. She wrote the book for her father knowing he would never get to read it.

The book opens with a quote from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress:

“Who would true valour see,

Let him come hither;

One here will constant be,

Come wind, come weather.

There’s no discouragement

Shall make him once relent

His first avowed intent

To be a pilgrim.”

Joyce’s book has been called a contemporary The Pilgrim’s Progress, but perhaps it sits better with Mr Rosenblum’s List or even Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Books that beautifully describe the idyllic English countryside whilst celebrating the eccentricities of their lovable English characters.

Recently retired Harold and his wife Maureen, live in Devon. Their lives seem uncomplicated, but a shadow hangs over them. There is much that goes unsaid in Harold and Maureen’s relationship; their son David’s disappearance from their lives 20 years ago is a constant source of unspoken pain.

Harold spent his entire working life at the same brewery and in retirement seems to have no motivation to do anything. The Fry’s live in a neat home where nothing much happens.

Out of the blue Harold receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a former colleague. She informs Harold that she is dying of cancer and will not live for much longer. Harold pens a sentence in response and goes to post his letter to Queenie. As he walks to the post box he realises that perhaps this letter is not enough and decides on the spot to walk across England to see Queenie. He calls the nursing home to speak to Queenie and when the nursing staff responds by saying she is unable to come to the phone, he asks them to give Queenie a message:

“I will keep walking and she must keep living”

And so begins Harold Fry’s pilgrimage. In a pair of yachting shoes Harold Fry embarks on his journey from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed. He leaves Maureen behind and as he journeys he reflects on the past. Maureen takes a journey of her own, without leaving home, as she also looks back at their lives together. Queenie Hennessy waits.

This is an elegantly told story with vividly described characters. There is humour in the characters Harold meets along the way as he journeys some 627 miles across England. During the 87 days it takes Harold to walk the distance he garners a following of people and media attention, some keen to help him, others simply wanting to bathe in the glory of his new found celebrity status.

This very average man is for the first time in his life doing something extraordinary. He is fuelled with a new energy and accepts help from complete strangers along the way, something, which is keenly unnatural for an Englishman to do.

Joyce, an accomplished walker, has written a gentle tale, which draws on the healing properties of quiet reflection and exercise.

Jim Broadbent, the perfect Harold Fry, reads the audiobook. I was never so keen to go and pick up my children from various activities around Sydney as when I was listening to the voice of Jim Broadbent narrating this charming story.

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