Embracing Ageing

Above: this Creative Commons image is not Pete, but is a Fox Terrier on a beach that resembles Tahunanui in Nelson, NZ :-)

july 1, 2023
Embracing ageing
Death in Print: Grey Urbanist columns, Meet: Writer and performer Ro Cambridge, Death on Screen: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Listen to Episode 2 on the following podcast platforms
Or, if you've already listened to the show, scroll down for more info and links . . .
Grey Urbanist columns
In the lead up to my conversation with Ro Cambridge in episode 2, it seems fitting to focus on some of her writing in this 'Death in Print' segment (although only digital copies of this work are readily available, they once existed in hard copy).

From 2012 to 2020, writing as the Grey Urbanist, Ro penned a column for the Nelson Mail. These columns are still available on Ro's Grey Urbanist website.

In her own words, the columns 'comment on the oddities of urban life as observed by an older woman who roamed all over Nelson city with her Fox Terrier, Pete'.

Pete died in 2015 and Ro is now accompanied on her urban expeditions with a tan and white Jack Russell called Rosie.

As we discuss in the interview, the most popular column she wrote for the Nelson Mail was about taking Pete to the vet.

Ro had to have him put down on a later visit and wrote about that experience too.

She also explores the subject of death and dying, with candour and good humour, in numerous other columns.

Dealing with death helps us embrace life, Nelson Mail, 9 Aug 2019
Facing up to mortality just a matter of time, Nelson Mail, 23 March 2018
A place to give thanks for being alive, Nelson Mail 24 Sept 2013
'Most of us do not look mortality in the face until the shadow falls on friends, family or ourselves.'
- Ro Cambridge
Meet Ro Cambridge
In episode 2 of Deathwalker's Guide to Life Season 3, I speak with Ro Cambridge, a Nelson-based writer who has in the past worked as an editor, columnist, book reviewer, feature writer, radio host/producer, and arts/special events manager. She's also created author websites and blogs for technologically-challenged writers.

Ro was one of the first people I met when I moved to Nelson 10 years ago (we started a writing group together) and I’ve always admired the way she has unashamedly embraced ageing.

Ro featured in an exhibition called Visible at 60 and its accompanying book was published around the time we met. She appeared in the book, and exhibition, partially nude and partially wrapped in butcher’s paper pasted with pages from a variety of books.

Ten years later, she disproved the old saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks (dog cliches are unavoidable when interviewing a dog lover like Ro), by writing and performing her own one-woman play. Her autobiographical one-woman show, The Departure Lounge, featured at this year’s Nelson Fringe Festival. Gail Tressider, writing for Theatre Review, described it as 'brave and creative work, delivered with searing honesty'.

As well as writing for the Nelson Mail (see above), Ro edited Mudcakes and Roses, the magazine for seniors in Nelson Tasman, for the past seven years. Sadly, the July 2023 edition was the last to be published. In her final column, Ro reflects on her own ageing and mortality.

In the column writes: 'The face in the mirror has wrinkled, my body (without any consultation whatsoever) has resigned itself to the force of gravity. Although I have so far escaped heart attack, stroke and arthritis, my ears, eyes and bladder aren’t as efficient as they once were. And as the late Leonard Cohen complained in one of his bleaker songs, “I ache in the places where I used to play”.'

She signs off by saying she was grateful that the role enabled her to connect with clever, interesting and engaging older people. In our conversation, I start by asking Ro what was the most surprising thing she learnt about 'older' people.
'Pete’s unselfconscious enjoyment of the everyday taught me to relish the simple pleasures of life: a patch of sunlight; good food; a warm glance; a loving touch; a cool drink of water. Nothing very spectacular, but knitted together these moments make a life.'
- Ro Cambridge
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Starring Jim Broadbent and Penelope Wilton, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is based on the bestselling 2012 novel of the same name by Rachel Joyce, which was a longlist finalist for the Man Booker Prize that year. The film adaptation was released in the UK in April 2023 and has recently opened in cinemas across Aotearoa.

The film opens with 65-year-old Harold and his wife eating at the kitchen table. Their home is relic of the past, with tired-looking 60s décor, and the couple’s manner appears to be equally miserable. It’s obvious they are enduring a monotonous existence, barely speaking to each other.

Then a letter appears for Harold. It’s from an old friend, Queenie Hennessy, who is dying from cancer in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold writes her a cursory note but instead of posting it, he decides to deliver it in person, spurred on by a young woman he meets at the local petrol station, who tells him about her aunt who also had cancer and advises him not to give up. When he asks if her aunt got better because she believed she would, she replies ‘She said it gave her hope.’ Howard calls the hospice and asks them to let Queenie he is on his way, and she must wait for him.

For some unspoken reason, Harold decides to walk – rather than fly, drive or catch public transport – from his hometown of Kingsbridge in Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is in the far north of England. Which is no small feat, if you’ll excuse the pun, because it’s a 672-mile walk (1,081.5 km).

While it’s unclear in the beginning why he decides to walk in the first place, it becomes clearer. At one point, with feet covered in bruises and blisters that have led to a blood infection in his leg, Harold is about to give up. But when he calls the hospice again, a staff member informs him that Queenie’s condition has miraculously improved. And so Harold continues, perhaps because he believes it will prolong Queenie’s life in some.

As he walks, he also begins to reckon with his own grief. We learn that many years ago, his son died and, gradually, we learn how and get more of an insight into the circumstances leading up to his death and the impact it had on both Harold and Maureen.

Along the way, Harold attracts some media attention – both old school and social media – and soon finds himself leading an entourage of misfits, including a young man who is battling addiction and clearly reminds him of his own son.

I can’t say much more without giving way spoilers but suffice to say this is gentle and thoughtful film that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. It’s also peppered with many life lessons; some explicit – like Harold telling his wife Maureen, ‘You just have to let go of the things you think you need.’ – and others implicit. Harold experiences many random acts of kindness along the way, he and Maureen learn how to communicate with each other again, and some things… well they simply remain unresolved, as they do in real life.

I unexpectedly found a trigger in this film – with the young petrol station attendant giving Harold the idea that hope alone could somehow save someone dying of cancer and all he had to do was believe. For a big chunk of the film, my own thoughts intruded as I began to worry that this idea wouldn’t be challenged. Again, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I can say that The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry isn’t a fairytale, it is rooted in real life.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Watch the trailer
Catch up on previous episodes
Deathwalker's Guide to Life kicked off in 2021. Catch up by browsing past episodes, which you can listen to on all the major podcast platforms.