Hello all! I’m here to introduce a guest post from my good friend, Charlie. We met last year in Italy, where we spent our days together singing about vomiting bananas, dealing with unruly camp directors, and pretending to be baby sharks (in other words, we were English tutors for a campful of Italian bambini), but we swiftly discovered that we were also both writers. Given that we met as travellers, though, it’s very fitting that her post should fall on Travel Tuesday!
‘He had started something and he didn’t know what it was, but now that he was doing it, he wasn’t ready to finish.’
‘I had also been vaguely bored with my life and its repetitions – the half-finished, half-hearted attempts at different jobs and various studies, had been sick of carrying around the self-indulgent negativity which was so much the malaise of my class and my generation…’
On the surface of it, these two books have very little in common. For a start, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is fictional, where Tracks is a true story written by the woman who completed the journey. When she decides to undertake the walk from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, Australia-born Robyn Davidson is in her early twenties and, of course, female. Brain-child of writer Rachel Joyce, Harold Fry is in his late sixties, recently retired, and a quintessential Englishman. They couldn’t be more different. Davidson literally spends years preparing before she even sets off – she HAND PICKS AND TRAINS HER OWN CAMELS – and she learns how to survive in the bush. Harold Fry simply leaves his wife upstairs vacuum cleaning one morning and goes to post a letter to a friend. Finding the post box has appeared a little too soon for his liking, he continues on to the next one. And the next. And the next. And so on. Granted, it’s a bit easier to survive a trek across the UK than across the Australian outback – a trip like that takes considerably more planning and preparation. So despite them both being about walking, that’s all they really share. They surely depart at both genre and pretext, and such key elements could never be reconciled. Or could they?
Both contain some kind of inner search and desire to process the events of their lives which can only be achieved through walking, but neither actually refer to their walk as a pilgrimage. Despite the title, it is the other characters in the book who paste the word ‘pilgrimage’ onto Harold Fry’s journey – as far as he’s concerned, he’s just walking from Devon to Scotland to personally deliver a letter to an old friend, and I have a feeling Robyn Davidson really wouldn’t appreciate having her journey across 2000 miles of Australian desert referred to as a ‘pilgrimage’. Both complete their journeys in their native countries, as though their national identities contribute something towards the meaning of their journeys, (we’re doing this at home, nowhere else) and, without giving too much away, death and loss feature very heavily for each character. While Davidson is very cagey about her motivation, ‘When people asked me why I was doing it, my usual answer was ‘why not?’’, and is very quick to point out that others would assign motivations she had not herself expressed, it becomes clear that a death-related trauma in her background has contributed towards making her the fiercely independent, stubborn and inspiring young woman we encounter in the narrative. And while Harold isn’t entirely sure what spurs him into starting his seemingly madcap journey, as he progresses up the country and reflects on events in his life, it becomes clear that death and loss form a large part of his need to discover and assert his sense of self and value.
They are both absolutely certain of their destination, and neither will be swayed from it by the well-meaning efforts of concerned relatives. This is something they have to complete, and they will see it through. When Harold’s wife appeals to him on national television to come home, he tells her he’s fine and that he will be home when he’s finished. When Davidson’s family and friends suggest that she cut the trip short and that they accompany her some of the way, she is momentarily tempted but refuses – she cannot back out of this thing that she has committed to.
It is also worth noting here that both characters prefer to complete their journey in isolation from other human beings. Both build very strong relationships with animals (dogs in particular), Davidson because she requires hers to carry provisions (the camels, not the dog) and Harold because he quite simply finds himself being followed by a dog one afternoon. Both feel a sense of loss and grief when they lose the companionship of the animals that they don’t feel when the various humans they encounter along the way leave them. In fact, with the exception of the male Aborigine who accompanies Davidson through a sacred stretch that she would otherwise not be permitted to cross, other humans are portrayed as a nuisance throughout both narratives.
Both journeys become the focus of a crazed media frenzy. Davidson became known as the ‘Camel Lady’ and actually had to change her route in order to avoid photographers and journalists who threatened, as she saw it, to suck the soul from her expedition. ‘We…laughed and joked and went to play pool in the local pub, where a woman…noticed Rick’s cameras and asked if he knew where the camel lady was.’ A bit like Forrest Gump running across America, Harold attracts a group of cling-ons who all paste their own meanings and searches onto Harold and his journey, turning him into a person he is not and hijacking his trip for their own purposes. ‘I suppose in the end his was a journey of a kind,’ said Rex, ‘Just a different one.’… The reporter made a brief reference to Harold Fry…’ Also, where Davidson writes to National Geographic to bid for funding for her trip (against her will but with a grudging acknowledgement of the fact that she can’t go forward without money) and then immediately feels she’s ‘sold out’, Harold is offered money for his story but declines. Both of these narratives are about something so much more valuable than money.
What was it I loved so much about these two apparently different, but really very similar, literary accounts of a walking journey? One is a work of fiction and the other a personal account, I highly doubt the writers have ever met, and yet they share so much sentiment. It’s telling that the thing they most particularly have in common is walking – that mundane and every day act that has such a transcendent quality – the act which allows people to detach themselves from the rhythm of their thoughts and process everything they need to in order to grow. And yet in the face of the rich history of this every day act as being prayerful, sacred and mindful, they never refer to themselves as pilgrims. The Oxford Dictionary defines pilgrimage as ‘A pilgrim’s journey.’ Useful. It also defines a pilgrim as, ‘A person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons.’ Well if that’s the case, neither of these examples fit into the generic definitions. And I’m not sure I really related to these definitions either – I have never undertaken a pilgrimage – yet I definitely related to both of the narratives. In fact, by the last page of each one, I was ready to saddle up my camels and don my deck shoes and jack-in-a-pack and head off across Dartmoor in search of whatever it was these two characters ‘found’.
I certainly haven’t defined the modern pilgrimage here, but in showing what these two narratives have in common, and in recognising the process of a spiritual journey made manifest in a physical one in both, I have discovered that fiction and non-fiction are not so far removed as they might seem, and it is the tenacity and conviction with which both characters undertake their journeys that makes these two books so similar and so exciting to read.
Charlie Murrell-Edwards is a graduate of English and Drama from Queen Mary University of London and a chronic knitter, food-lover and traveller. She writes for the online student publication Exploration Online and has also recently started her own blog, Lessons in Transience. Charlie is currently researching a historical novel on the life of Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt, and is about to enter the world of English Language Teaching. She lives in Bristol with her boyfriend and their imaginary cats.