The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry – a book review

Harold Fry is a tall, quiet and rather unassuming man in his mid sixties, a retired brewery representative plodding along in a monotonous marriage to Maureen, a woman he’s been with for over 40 years and who seems to be irritated by almost everything he does. The marriage seems to have gone stale over the years and there is very little to differentiate one day of his ordinary life from another until the morning he gets a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a former work colleague he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie is in a hospice, dying of cancer, and has written to thank him for his friendship when they worked together, and to say goodbye.
Writing a very brief reply and leaving Maureen doing the hoovering Harold walks to the post box at the end of the road but then has second thoughts about posting the letter – maybe it was too brief or the words were wrong, maybe he should go back home and rewrite it. While pondering on what to do he decides to walk to the next post box – and the next, and the next, until a chance conversation with the young girl assistant in a local petrol station where he stops to get a snack convinces him that he must deliver the letter to Queenie in person. Phoning the hospice but being told that Queenie is asleep he passes on the message that he is going to visit her and she must wait for him – and so begins the unlikely pilgrimage.
Still in his canvas yachting shoes and light jacket, with no map, compass or mobile phone, Harold is determined to walk more than six hundred miles from his home town of Kingsbridge in Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed in the Scottish Borders, believing that as long as he keeps walking Queenie Hennessy will live. At first he spends each night in various bed-and-breakfast places but with little money and not wanting to use his bank card too much he takes to sleeping out wherever he can find a bit of shelter. Some days he covers several miles, other days only a few, and from each stopping place he sends postcards to Maureen, Queenie, and the girl in the petrol station who gave him the inspiration for his journey.
As Harold nears Coventry he gets chatting to Mick, a young man who buys him a drink and a packet of crisps in a pub. Unknown to Harold Mick turns out to be a reporter for a Coventry newspaper; the story of this modern-day pilgrimage is soon all over the news and turns Harold from an ordinary man-in-the-street to being recognised wherever he goes. Before long he is joined at various points along the way by a stray dog, a young lad who reminds Harold of his son, and an assortment of hangers-on from different walks of life, each with their own personal story and reason for joining the pilgrimage. Though they all get on well together at first, as time goes on and they get further north there are thefts and disagreements between some of them, irritating Harold and making him wish they would all go and find something else to believe in.
Eventually a splinter group is formed and without including Harold in their secret nightly discussions they decide to proceed directly to Berwick without him, where their self-proclaimed ‘leader’ takes the glory for completing the pilgrimage. Harold, now left to continue his journey alone, becomes quite disorientated in the last stages of the walk but finally, after walking 627 miles in 87 days, he makes it to the hospice in Berwick, though at first he can’t face going in. Instead he writes a letter on the back of an advertising flyer to the girl in the petrol station back home, in which he confesses to another reason for doing his walk.
After spending the night sleeping on a park bench Harold returns to the hospice to see Queenie, finding her very weak but still alive. Later on, sitting alone with his thoughts on a bench overlooking the sea, he is joined by Maureen who has driven all the way up from Devon to meet him. Visibly upset he tells her about his visit to Queenie and how ill she is; Maureen then books them into a bed-and-breakfast for the night and the following day they go to see Queenie together.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry  was initially written as a radio play broadcast on BBC Radio 4 but was later developed into this full length novel, the author’s first, published in 2012. I found out about it recently from someone else’s blog and it sounded so intriguing I sent for a copy from ebay. At first I wasn’t sure if I would like it but a few chapters in it turned into something I couldn’t put down and I had to keep reading to find out what happened next.
What starts out as a journey to save someone’s life soon turns into much more; walking gives Harold plenty of time to think and he reflects on his life, his broken marriage, his failed relationship with his son, and the mistakes he made over the years, while back home in Devon Maureen is also thinking about the mistakes she herself made and how she can put things right. There is much more to this story than I’ve written here; with very believable characters it is by turns moving, amusing, sad and thought-provoking with a couple of unexpected twists towards the end. The writing is so beautifully descriptive that I felt as if I was walking alongside Harold, seeing the same things he saw, meeting the same people he met, and experiencing the different parts of his journey myself.
It’s not often that a book leaves such a profound impression on me but this one did, so for anyone who hasn’t read it I can definitely recommend picking up a copy and walking with Harold on his journey.


House of Grace – a book review

Sixteen-year-old Grace Granville is in her last few months at boarding school in Brighton. For years she has dreamed of becoming a successful dress designer owning her own fashion house and most of her spare time is spent sketching ladies outfits but her father, wealthy and very strict Lord Granville, dismisses her ambitions as frivolous nonsense and wants to groom her to become a good wife to someone of his choosing.
In the last holiday before she leaves school she travels north to Lancashire with her room mate and best friend Katy to stay with Katy’s family, parents who are far more relaxed and friendly than her own parents. While there she and Katy meet up with two young men, Jack and Eddie, to go to a dance – Jack is Katy’s cousin and five years older but while Katy’s family are quite well-off and live in a big house with servants Jack and his father live in a small two-up, two-down terraced and work down a coal pit. Before long Grace and Jack are in love and want to be together but the only way Grace can stop her father marrying her off to someone else is for her to lie to her parents that she’s pregnant. This results in her father banishing her from home without a penny to her name, though she’s welcomed into Katy’s family and soon settles in there.
Eventually Grace and Jack marry, with the wedding paid for by her surrogate ‘parents’, and she settles into the hard life of a coal miner’s wife, living in a small newly-built terraced house near the coal pit and next door to Nancy and John who become good friends. A few years later Grace and Nancy become young widows when both Jack and John are killed in an accident at the pit ; Grace by then has three children, the youngest a baby only two weeks old, and with no income other than the pin money she earns by making dresses for various neighbours she swallows her pride and contacts her parents for help. That help comes at a great price though – they will give her enough money to buy a small shop and flat in London’s East End so she can start her own business but she has to agree to her son, 9-year old George, going to live with her parents so her father can groom him to one day take over the running of the family estate. She doesn’t want to give George up but with threats that the authorities will be called and her daughter and baby will be taken away if she doesn’t agree Grace has no choice – George goes to live with her parents and she and Nancy pack up and go to London to start up a small fashion business.
It doesn’t take long before Grace’s designs become recognised and eventually, with some financial input from a businesswoman who becomes a firm friend, Grace expands the business, gets a large store in Oxford Street, sets up a factory abroad and employs several more staff. There are two things missing from her life though – her younger sister Elizabeth, who she hasn’t seen since before she was made to leave home, and her son George, and though she writes to each of them regularly her letters are always returned unopened, sent back by her parents without her sister or son ever knowing she has tried to contact them. Eventually though, Elizabeth makes contact with Grace and though their first few meetings are strained things do start to get better and Elizabeth says that when she next visits she will bring George, who is by now almost 16 and growing into a fine young man.
At first George thinks like Elizabeth, that Grace abandoned him when he was younger, but after she gives him the bundle of returned letters that she has written to him over the years he realises that wasn’t true and he begins to thaw towards Grace, eventually learning to call her ‘mum’. Unfortunately Grace’s joy at getting her son back is marred by the death of her father and the mental instability of her mother who goes to live with a cousin in Somerset, but then she finds out that Elizabeth is getting married so happily starts designing a wedding dress for the big day. With a successful business, a new man in her life – a French fashion designer who originally came to work for her – and her family and friends around her Grace finally puts the past behind her and begins to look forward to the future.
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Published in 2017 House of Grace covers the years 1950 to Christmas Eve 1969 and is the first book in what will be a family trilogy. A real ‘riches-to-rags-to-riches’ story it reminded me very much of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman Of Substance, and anyone who enjoyed Mr Selfridge and House Of Eliott will probably enjoy reading this. Filled with 1950s/60s nostalgia the era is quite faithfully depicted, from the strict draconian rules of the wealthy upper classes to the poverty and hardship of the coal pit workers and their families. I found it hard though to imagine that even as late as the 1950s young girls were being forced into loveless arranged marriages just to satisfy the whims of their wealthy parents but maybe that’s what wealthy people did, especially if they themselves had been brought up that way.
This is a well researched piece of writing with very believable characters and scenarios which draw the reader into the story ; once I started reading I couldn’t put the book down and read the whole thing in one night, staying up till almost 4am to finish it. The sequel, The Coal Miner’s Son, is to be published in March 2020 and tells the story from the point of view of Grace’s son George ; I enjoyed House of Grace so much that I’m really looking forward to reading its follow-up.
**Sometimes fate works in mysterious ways and it’s through the internet and this blog that I came to be reading House of Grace. Not long ago I got an email notification to approve a comment on my October 2017 post about Bolton’s Palais dance hall ; that comment came in the form of a link to the blog of an American author in which a guest post has been written by the British author of House of Grace. It seems that as a child she spent several years living in Bolton and many of the places she knew back then, including the Palais and other places which are familiar to me, feature in her writing ; the story sounded interesting so I sent for the book from an ebay seller. Although listed as ‘pre-owned’ it’s actually brand new, and in another twist of fate it’s also been signed by the author – it really couldn’t get any better than that.


Tom’s Midnight Garden – book & dvd

I’d never heard of Tom’s Midnight Garden until I read about it a couple of weeks ago on Shazza’s blog. Written by Philippa Pearce and first published in 1958 it’s a classic story for older children/young adults but it sounded so fascinating I just had to get a copy, and I read it in its entirety one evening earlier this month.
Tom’s younger brother Peter has the measles and so Tom doesn’t catch them as well he’s packed off to stay with his very dull aunt and uncle who live in a first floor apartment in what was once an old manor house. There’s no garden to play in, just a back yard where the dustbins are kept and where one of the other residents tinkers with an old car ; the only thing that interests Tom is a big old grandfather clock in the communal hallway which never strikes the right time. He soon realises that every night at midnight the clock strikes thirteen so one night he sneaks out of bed to investigate and finds that the extra hour takes him back to a time over half a century earlier where the old house is just one residence and the back yard is now a huge and very beautiful sunlit garden. There he befriends a lonely little girl called Hattie and meets her in the garden almost every night, where they play together and have different adventures which he gradually realises are taking place in the late 19th century.
No matter how many hours Tom stays in the garden he finds that when he goes back to his own time he’s only actually been gone for a few minutes, but time in the garden advances through the seasons and several years. Although Tom stays the same age Hattie grows up fast and as she grows older Tom seems to her to become thinner as though he’s gradually disappearing, then after one last outing together, where she begins to fall in love with a young man from her own time, Tom finds he has become completely invisible to her. He doesn’t see her again and the next time he goes to the garden he finds that it’s turned back into the modern day back yard where in a panic he runs into the dustbins, knocking them over and making quite a noise.
The following day it’s time for Tom to go back home but before he leaves the house he’s told that the elderly and reclusive landlady in the upstairs flat, who he’s never previously met, wishes to see him, presumably so he can apologise for disturbing her and the other residents during the night – and that’s when he discovers that she is actually Hattie, many years older than when he last saw her in the garden. After a long conversation, in which Hattie tells him about her life through the years between their last meeting and the present day and asks him to visit her again, they say a fairly formal goodbye to each other and Tom turns to go but at the bottom of the stairs he rushes back and gives Hattie a big hug, happy that he’s found her again after so long.
The story is extremely well written and the description of the beautiful garden is so detailed that I could really imagine myself exploring such a place. I must admit though that the time shifting aspect of the story seemed to ask more questions than it answered and left me a little confused. When Tom was in the garden no-one but Hattie and the gardener could see or hear him and as the story moved on through their adventures I found it hard to tell who was actually real and who could have been a ghost, or if the whole thing was just one of Tom’s dreams. Nevertheless it was an intriguing and fascinating read and left such a lasting impression that on learning that it had once been made into a tv series I was prompted to find out if there was a dvd version of it. There was quite an up-to-date one made in 1999 so I sent for that and watched it last weekend.
The start of the dvd is nothing like the start of the book and I initially felt a bit disappointed until I realised that it shows present-day events after the story has moved on, events which lead back to the beginning of the story. The story itself is told in its entirety as a flashback and the film is very true to the book right up to the last few minutes where it reverts to the present day and a continuation of the film’s beginning. Although the book doesn’t mention Tom’s age I got the impression that he was about 11 years old but the film portrays him as being 14. The book ends where young Tom hugs the now elderly Hattie and I was left with the feeling that there should have been a bit more, but the end of the film shows a now adult Tom with a wife and baby daughter, who they’ve named after Hattie, living in a cottage which is one of several built in the original garden of the old house which is now being demolished – and still standing at the bottom of their own part of the garden is the big tree where young Hattie had carved her own initials and young Tom’s signature drawing into the trunk so many years before. It’s a very fitting ending to the film and I think it finishes off the story very well.
The house and garden in the story are based on the author’s own childhood home in Cambridgeshire and a bit of Googling discovered an article written in 2014, which included many photographs, when the actual house and over three acres of garden were up for sale. I’m not sure if the garden in the film is the real life garden or a bit of computer-generated imagery – or maybe some of both – but it’s a truly beautiful garden, and looking at the photos of the real garden it’s easy to see how it inspired this magical fantasy story. The book makes a lovely read and the film really brings everything in the book to life – certainly well worth anyone reading and watching.

Will You Love Me? – a book review

Will You Love Me? by Barby Keel is an emotional true story of the deep bond which can exist between a human and a dog and shows how, in rescuing others, we can also help ourselves. The first two chapters are written as if being related by the dog, an ex racing greyhound fallen into the wrong hands. Permanently chained to a wooden post and with no shelter, beaten, kicked, scarred and bleeding from cigarette burns all over his body, terrified of humans and so weak from starvation he can hardly stand, he’s almost at death’s door when he’s dumped in the dark and rain at the gates of the Barby Keel Animal Sanctuary in East Sussex.
The story is continued by Barby herself and tells of the hours, days and nights she spends nursing the dog, which she names Bailey, back to health and helping him to overcome his nervousness and fear of humans. It’s a wonderful moment for her when Bailey finally gets his first taste of freedom in an off-lead run round an enclosed paddock. She also has to deal with the daily comings and goings of various animals and the financially devastating effects of two burglaries at the sanctuary’s town centre charity shop, and all this while undergoing a debilitating course of radiotherapy treatment after getting breast cancer for the second time. The book also gives an insight into Barby’s early life and how she started the sanctuary, the money-raising events, hard work and great expense involved in the day-to-day running of it and the care of all the animals living there, which wouldn’t be possible without the help of a few official staff and a band of very willing volunteers.
Eventually Bailey, although still a bit underweight,  is considered confident and well enough to be rehomed, and though it breaks Barby’s heart to let him go a new forever home is found for him with Mary and Ron, a lovely couple who already have two rescue greyhounds. After several meetings to make sure that Bailey and his new owners are right for each other the final papers are signed, and as he walks out of the gate to a new life with Mary and Ron and their other two dogs it’s as though he’s always been with his forever family. There’s a welcome surprise for Barby a few weeks later though when Mary and Ron bring Bailey back to visit her on the day of the sanctuary’s summer fete.
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This book is the third in a series of three, though it can be read without reading the other two first as each one is a different story in its own right. Although Michael had bought me the previous book several months ago I hadn’t got round to reading it before I spotted this one in my local Asda store ; as a long-time lover of animal stories, especially real life ones, it was the photo on the front cover which attracted me. One look at the sad face of the pictured dog and it was a no-brainer – I bought the book.
I read it in its entirety last Sunday morning and right from the first chapter there were several times when the story brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes, though thankfully the unhappy times are outweighed by the happier ones. It’s a story of sadness, hope, triumph over adversity, and the love humans and animals can have for each other – for anyone who loves animals it makes an interesting and very moving read, and unless you’re extremely hard-hearted there’s every chance that at some point it will make you cry.