Durham Book Festival 2012 Launch with Rachel Joyce

Yesterday evening I made my rather soggy way to the lovely Crook Hall in Durham to attend the launch party for the Durham Book Festival 2012 which runs from 13th to 30th October. The plan had been to have a garden party, but the torrential rain meant that we moved inside and, after indulging in cake and wine, we all settled down in the medieval hall to hear Claire Malcolm, the Chief Executive of New Writing North and the Festival, introduce the programme for this year, before handing over to the poet Linda Francis who outlined her current plant and ecology-inspired project ‘Botanical’ and read a poem. Claire then introduced Rachel Joyce, the author of the Man Booker Longlisted The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (which I reviewed here).

I thought I’d give a summary of the discussion which followed Rachel’s reading. Rachel, who apparently writes in a shed, had a successful career as an actress with the RSC and National Theatre before she began writing radio plays and adaptations for Radio 4 and BBC 2. Harold Fry grew out of a radio play that she began eight years ago for her father who had been told he would lose his battle with cancer. He never knew about it, but it eventually grew from a forty-five minute play into a Booker longlisted novel. That Rachel wrote the radio play for her father, in the hope of somehow keeping him alive, explains a lot about the way the novel turned out. It also shows how personal a writer she is. One of the things which came out of the discussion was the extent to which the experience of landscape and, I think, the Harold’s reticence comes directly from Rachel. Interestingly, despite the many comparisons made (by me amongst others) between Harold Fry and Pilgrims Progress, The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, and so on, Rachel explained that she never thought particularly explicitly about the her literary or religious predecessors; rather, this was a story about a fairly ordinary man, doing a pretty extraordinary thing, which, although likely inflected by the many tales floating around most people’s heads, was not conceived of in relation to them.

As Claire Malcolm highlighted, Harold Fry exchanges darkness for humour throughout, often within the space of the page, which led to Rachel’s admission of a fairly intense love for farce and slapstick. More seriously, I think, is the intertwining of darkness and humour that runs through most ordinary lives and, again, it is with the ordinary, fleeting meetings of normal people that Rachel is most concerned: meetings which hint at unseen and deeply-felt cares and stories. This explains quite a lot about the meetings Harold has throughout the book.

One story I particularly liked was that, as a mother of four, Rachel often has to wait for an empty house before she can retreat to her shed (whose walls were adorned with pages of the UK Road Map, much to her husband’s confusion when he discovered that it jumped from Bath to the Lake District). As a result, she has her children trained to take notes in the car in case an idea strikes at a moment when putting pen to paper would be inadvisable. Talking of writing, Rachel’s next book is apparently rather different. All she would tell us is that it is told from the point of view of two male voices, one of whom is a child who believes their mother to have done something awful. Complication ensues.

The Festival has secured a three year funding agreement with Arts Council England which should help the twenty-two year old Festival grow further. I’ve really enjoyed the last few years and I think they have some fairly ambitious plans. The programme is now online and we’ve already booked as many tickets as we can afford (poor students etc.). I thought we had gone for a good spread, but it turns out that it’s mostly poetry. We ummed and aahed over Pat Barker talking about her new novel Toby’s Room (reviewed here), but didn’t book it in the end.


An Evening with the Poet Laureate: Carol Ann Duffy

A Box of Birds Launch: Charles Fernyhough

Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor – Jack Straw

Roger McGough: As Far As I Know

The Narratives of Nature: Ruth Padel and Jean Sprackland

I’d also have loved to go to Anne Stevenson at 80 and the evening with this year’s Festival Laureate Lorna Goodison amongst quite a few others. We’re looking forward to it.

Durham Book Festival Launch

The Durham Book Festival 2012 runs from 13th to 30th October and they have very kindly invited me to the programme launch next week. The Festival has gone from strength to strength in recent years, with Simon Armitage and Don Paterson filling the role of Festival Laureate in 2010 and 2011. I don’t know what’s on the programme this year, but I really enjoyed 2011, and I’ll be going along to as many events as I can (writing, teaching, stuff permitting). The Booker Prize Longlisted Rachel Joyce will be reading at the launch and I’ll write a little report on that next week. I’m looking forward to it.

Man Booker Longlist: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

Part of the Man Booker Prize 2012 Longlist Series.

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices

This is a hard book to review. Not because it is bad. In fact, it is by turns charming, heart-warming, distressing, and profound; a novel of intense regret, grief, great tenderness, faith, and desolation. As Rachel Joyce’s debut novel it is a great achievement and deserves its place on the Man Booker Longlist. It is hard to review – at least as I find it – because the achievement of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is so tightly bound up with the cumulative effect of its various vignettes – the people and places Harold comes across – with the insights and setbacks Harold experiences, some of which seem trite or mere truisms in isolation, but which grow in the telling and in the initially Prufrockish person of Harold himself. Likewise, Joyce’s style is so unobtrusive, not plodding but diligent in its articulation of Harold and his wife’s voices that it threatens to defy analysis.

Harold is a retired and retiring sixty-five year old living in South Devon and with nothing to do. He is intensely insecure, private, wary of attention and emotional engagement.  His difficult childhood and that of his troubled son have hollowed him out, fearing and mishandling emotional connections to others. One day in mid-April, as he sits at the kitchen table, a letter arrives from Queenie Hennessy, a former employee at the misogynist-dominated brewery from which Harold has retired. She is dying of cancer in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold resolves to escape the house and his snappy, impatient, and sarcastic wife, for a while and post her a rather lame reply.

 Harold thought of the words he had written to Queenie, and their inadequacy shamed him. He pictured himself returning home, and Maureen calling David, and life being exactly the same except for Queenie dying in Berwick, and he was overcome. The letter rested on the dark mouth of the post box.

Harold keeps walking, meets a girl in a petrol station who speaks of cancer and faith, and comes to believe he can do something for Queenie, who long ago did something for him. So begins the unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry to Berwick-upon-Tweed: ‘Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living.’

Maureen is left alone in Devon to contemplate a life without Harold, from whom she has become so estranged. ‘She thought of their cold beds, in separate rooms, and the words they shared, which skimmed the surface and meant nothing.’ Since their son left them, Harold and Maureen have come to be coincidental occupiers of the same house, unable to bridge the gap between them. As in Larkin’s poem Talking in Bed ‘more and more time passes silently’, so

It becomes still more difficult to find

Words and once true and kind,

Or not untrue and not unkind.

I was recently reminded by Charles Fernyhough of a line from Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude ‘Memory: the space in which a thing happens for the second time.’ As he walks Harold’s memories, of his son, his wife, his absent mother and unsatisfactory father, and Queenie, assail him, deepening his despair and losing nothing in their recollection, but rather intensifying as though thickened by time and the impotence of distance.

Later in the same book Auster quotes Hölderlin who, before his first mental breakdown, undertook his own three-month walk from Bordeaux to Stuttgart across the Massif Central in 1802. Following the death of his wife, he spent thirty-six years in a room in a tower, built for him by a carpenter called Zimmer (which means room in German). Like Hölderlin Harold seems to have lived in one stuffy compartment of his life. And yet,


The lines of life are various as roads or as

The limits of the mountains are, and what we are

Down here, in harmonies, in recompense,

In peace forever, a god will finish there.

The heart of this book is the walk, the journey along the lines of life begun by Harold as he finally steps away in his yachting shoes from his staid life, only to find himself walking through it, seeing everything around him in terms of it his memories, regrets, optimism, or despair. Throughout Joyce summons parallels between the weather and Harold’s state of mind. The landscape of Britain becomes the geography of his life, the people and places, flora and fauna, the moments of joy when all around appears radiant, and the moments of desolation and utter isolation, which are themselves intensified by Harold and Maureen’s inability to communicate. There are moments where the story can strike one as repetitive, punctuated as it is by many moments of despair and subsequent new beginnings; but then such a journey is repetitive – will involve returning to thoughts, moments, memories. Some images can feel a little contrived, but occasionally they really hit home.

He looked out at the rain, waiting for it to break, and saw a crow with its head bowed, its feathers so wet they shone like tar. He wished the bird would move, but it sat sodden and alone. Maureen was so busy she had hardly noticed Harold had gone.

What rescues Harold’s insights from apparent triviality is their place in the context of his stunted emotional development. He meets an apparently prosperous gentleman in a railway café, and yet,

He was a chap like himself with a unique pain; and yet there was no knowing that if you passed him in the street, or sat opposite him in a café and did not share his teacake…It must be the same all over England.

This line might feel, perhaps does feel somewhat underwhelming, but Harold has never felt such things before, and this realisation, reinforced with each person he meets, leads to the heart of Joyce’s novel.

He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passer-by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things, that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.

And thus, as in Pilgrim’s Progress so in Harold Fry atonement integrates both the journey and its telling. At-one-ment: the return to a state of harmony, an act of reconciliation and reparation for past wrongs. The dark heart of this book questions the meaning and possibility of such things for Harold very effectively through the lens of his troubled relationship with his difficult son; but, at the same time Joyce questions the limits of our responsibility for others’ choices, a weight that surely all parents feel. She does so very well indeed and marshals the turbulence, love, fear, doubt, and faith of a life with originality in that most frequent of metaphors, the journey.

Man Booker 2012 Series

Right, I’m going to be reading the longlisted books this Summer/Autumn. There is a tab above where I will collate all the reviews. I’ve already posted some thoughts on Hilary Mantel’s characterisation which will suffice. It’s too long since I read it for me to go back and write a full review. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is already on my shelf, so that will be the next book on the list. Time to get reading.