Posted Tuesday 19 November 2019
Acclaimed author and playwright Rachel Joyce has enthralled hundreds of students, staff and readers from across the community during talks about her novel, ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry', as part of Kingston University's Big Read initiative.
The author's debut novel - which started life as a BBC Radio 4 play - was selected to be sent out to all first year students and distributed among staff and current students as part of the University's award-winning shared reading scheme, which aims to make new students feel welcome before they arrive and create links between staff, students and the wider community.
Joyce told a captivated audience at the University's Penrhyn Road campus she had always been passionate about books and that reading had helped her through challenging times at university. "An imaginary world can be a safe place to go if you feel a bit lost, as I sometimes did," she said. "But, equally, it can be a great talking point and that's what's so inspiring about the Big Read project - you have this opportunity to share a reading experience which is something I didn't really have at university, but wish I'd had."
Professor Alison Baverstock, who heads the Big Read, invited the writer and former actor to talk about the key themes in the Man Booker Prize 2012 long-listed book, during a campus tour which also took in the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education's Tooting site.
Joyce shared dozens of humorous and moving anecdotes, including how she squirreled herself away in her garden shed with just a cup of tea and an A-Z of the United Kingdom to pen the story about seemingly ordinary pensioner Harold Fry.Her work tells the tale of how the 65 year old leaves his home and wife behind to embark on an unplanned hike the length of the country, wearing an unsuitable ensemble of shirt and tie and a pair of yachting shoes. The journey gives him time to reflect on his life and he becomes the recipient of unexpected acts of kindness from strangers he meets along the way.
The story deals unflinchingly with themes of loneliness and loss. The mother-of-four revealed she decided to adapt her radio play about Harold after her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. "I hoped a reader who was grieving would find comfort in the book simply because there's a space for grieving," she said.
"All of the characters know what it is to lose something they really didn't want to lose and they've all found different ways of coping with it," she explained. "Through Harold's journey, they find a way of accepting loss, or seeing that it's there and finding a way of walking around it, which seems to me a large part of grieving," she said.
Computer science student and President of Kingston Union of Students Feisal Haji said the scheme had a number of benefits, including the fact the book was given out for free and promoted reading for pleasure. "It's a fantastic way to escape from reality, where you can get under the skin of a different character in a different world and feel like you're actually living in it," he said.
Associate Professor Dr Karen Lipsedge, an English literature expert, is part of a University reading group that discussed the novel. "To my mind, the power of the Big Read is that it provides a stepping stone for discussion about literature, through which we gain a greater understanding of ourselves and each other," Dr Lipsedge said.
Professor Baverstock said meeting the author behind this year's Big Read had made an indelible impression on her. "Rachel Joyce talked openly about the challenges faced by today's young people and the strengths they need," Professor Baverstock said. "She also reflected back on her own start at university and was very supportive of Kingston's determination to ease the transition to higher education through shared reading."
Now in its fifth year, the Big Read is run in partnership with the University of Wolverhampton, Edge Hill University and the University of the West of Scotland.
It also has strong community connections, each year involving Joel Community Services - a night shelter in Kingston. Residents and staff are given copies of the book, invited to the author lunch and to attend the author's talk.
Local schools also collaborate in the initiative. The University has now worked with Coombe Boys School for three years to help them establish their own versions of the Big Read to promote an effective transition to secondary school, and this year the university also worked with Coombe Girls, Kingston Grammar, The Kingston Academy and Surbiton High School.