The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry is a surprising and delightful book. It is at times, a funny, sad, poignant, depressing, shocking and uplifting read. It was chosen by my book group as it was a Man Booker Prize Nominee in 2012 and I first feared it might be a bit too twee for my taste, but I was gripped.
The quick plot synopsis, without any spoilers, is that a retired man receives a letter from a woman he knew years before, letting him know that she is dying. He reads the letter, writes a reply and sets off to the postbox to send it. But he keeps walking, past the postbox, and decides to deliver it in person, on foot, even though she is 800 miles away.
The story unfolds at walking pace. The practical concerns about such a spur of the moment plan, such as shoes and fitness develop steadily and Harold’s back story unfolds and we gradually learn more about him and what lies behind his seemingly mundane suburban existence. It’s a strong reminder of Henry D Thoreau‘s observation that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry really struck a chord with me. I’ve previously made a few pilgrimages, starting with cycling to Santiago. I decided to do that just after learning of the death of a friend, when I was a little delicate. It was a physical challenge, and at times a mechanical one, but an emotional one too.
The characters that our hero Harold Fry encounters may seem a little weird, a little overwrought and over-written, but reading the book I was reminded of several of the characters I’d met along the way, and the stories they told me. I hadn’t really talked about them in the ten years since, mostly because they seemed a little surreal, people wouldn’t believe they were real, or if they were real, that they would tell me, a total stranger, their stories at a cafe stop or bar, or whilst riding along.
I met a young man who had walked from Switzerland and was on his way back, via Jerusalem. He was mourning the loss of his father, a deeply religious man who he felt he was a disappointment to. I met a man in his 50’s who had lived his whole life avoiding any kind of risk because his older brother had been killed in a swimming accident as a child and his parents had sought to keep him safe. He’d grown up feeling a deep sense of responsibility to stay alive at all costs. It was only after their deaths that he’d realized that he’d never done anything he’d wanted to do, and he didn’t know if there was anything he wanted to do, so he’d set off on his bike from Bavaria and decided to do whatever took his fancy.
Cycling through Italy I met a woman who had started walking to Santiago from the Netherlands now was headed to Rome. She’d quit a hard drugs habit and was terrified that if she stopped walking and went home she’d be using again. I met a woman who was driving 20 miles each day to find a hotel to stay in, booking it ready for her husband’s arrival. He was walking to make amends. He’d done something terrible. I don’t know what it was, and I’m not sure she did either, she didn’t understand why he needed to do it, she just supported him.
I often wonder about how they all are, how their stories developed. There were plenty of people who were mourning the death of someone, or the end of a marriage, the departure of their children or the loss of a career.
When you slow down and take the back roads you have a lot of time to think, and if you look like a good listener people will tell you all about their demons, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be gone in the morning. After reading about Harold’s pilgrimage, I’m more relaxed about listening without judging, it seems it’s not such an odd experience after all.
The Way is a film about the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. I loved this film, even though I was all ready to get defensive about it and claim it was nonsense. With the exception of one slightly silly scene in the middle, which feels a bit bolted on to make a point, this was a remarkably authentic account of a pilgrimage. The locations were real, I recognized places along the way, and the characters felt realistic. I’d met people along the way who I could easily cut and paste to make composites who fitted the characters in the film.The pacing works well too, seeing the slowing, the softening that occurs as people step outside the busy-ness of life.
Not quite a pilgrimage, but a real treat nonetheless. The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window and Disappeared is a Nordic delight.