Those little things

When Henry Fraser jumped into the sea while on holiday, he hit a sand bank underwater and became paralysed. Aged just 17 at the time, he could never have known that his life would end up better than he could have ever imagined. Editor Melissa Holmes spoke to Henry to learn more… 

Picture of Henry Fraser painting a brown highland cow onto a black background. Henry holds the paint brush with his mouth.

Ten years ago, in April 2014, Henry Fraser took to the stage to share his story. He’d spent six months working on his first talk; writing the script, trying to memorise his words. “Public speaking terrified me,” admits Henry. “I hated being the one everyone was looking at.” 

But when he came off stage, Henry’s life would never be the same again. Someone saw a recording of that talk, which led to an agent approaching Henry to write a book. That became his memoir The Little Big Things, which led to a musical based on Henry’s life. 

“It really spiralled,” he smiles. “If I’d said no to that first talk, none of this would be happening.” 

Of course, his first motivational talk on stage wasn’t Henry’s only life-changing experience. Becoming a wheelchair user after an accident on a post-exams holiday with his mates was the reason he was giving that speech in the first place.   

ACCEPTANCE  

“There’s nothing about my accident or my disability that makes me feel down or upset. Other things annoy me – like accessibility, the usual. But I’ve driven so hard for this positive attitude,” says Henry calmly.

“None of this happened overnight: “It took me 13 months to accept what had happened. There was a lot of physical, mental hard work to get to that point. But that point was the start of adapting, moving on and living. Staying in that fight for the outcome to be a whole lifetime of happiness was worth it, I’d say.” 

Henry told me about the unending support from his family and friends, his incredible physiotherapist, the hours spent doing rep after rep and difficult breathing exercises to be able to propel his wheelchair himself and get off his ventilator. “The person I am now and the person I was before the accident are two vastly different people,” he shares. “To my core, I’m the same person. But the way I’ve decided to live my life is completely different.”   

VULNERABILITY  

Being vulnerable, sharing his emotions and practising gratitude have all helped Henry become the resilient person he is today. “When my parents and brothers first came to see me after my accident, it was a wildly emotional moment. We all cried, we were all in pieces. I’m so happy we did that,” he recalls. “As brothers from a fairly macho household, we’d never done that before. To let that all go was huge for us.” 

Henry had the same experience when he first saw his reflection after his accident. “I lost it,” he says. “I properly broke hard – again. I’m glad I did because it allowed me to let that go and not hold it.” 

For a young man, Henry knows himself well. He told me that his baseline of happiness is simple: little things like looking out of the window and seeing nature, having a cup of tea, or re-watching a TV show. “You realise those little things that make you feel happy are everywhere, every single day. We become numb to them because they’re so abundant in our day-to-day lives.”   

Picture of Henry Fraser smiling at the camera from the waist up. Henry sits in his wheelchair and wears denim jeans, a white T-shirt and green jacket. The background is out focus but there is an easel with one of Henry's paintings on it.
Henry Fraser

MOUTH-PAINTING  

Spending time on bedrest due to a pressure sore would bore most people to tears, but Henry found a way to make it positive. Propped up with a couple of pillows, he put a stylus in his mouth and started sketching on his iPad. “It was super basic, very linear,” he explains. “I wouldn’t even call it a sketch, to be honest.” 

The iPad led to pencils which led to paint and, after sharing his work online and hours and hours of practice, Henry is now a renowned mouth-painting artist. “I love being at  my easel,” he says. “The other side of my life is being in front of people and sharing my story, so my easel is my comfort zone.”   

MAN OF FEW WORDS 

Writing his book pushed Henry well out of that sanctuary. “Normally I’m a man of very few words,” he admits. “In the book, I was really honest about how I was feeling, how bad things were – especially physically, because there were many touch and go moments early on. That’s what people have resonated with deeply: the honesty.” 

After the memoir’s release, Henry received messages from strangers. “They’d talk about tough times they’d been through, like divorce, loss of a  family member, drink or drug issues,” he reveals. “Most of them didn’t want a reply, they just wanted someone to say it to. It’s an insane privilege to be able to be there for people.” 

That book eventually became a musical. The Little Big Things ended its run at Soho Place in March, and Henry says: “The cast is incredible, the writing, the music, everything about it is just awesome. It was very special.” 

Having a musical written about him is something Henry is glad he said yes to. Always attuned to himself, he told me: “Without everything I’ve been through, I wouldn’t have had these opportunities. There’s nothing about my life, my work, anything I do now that’s anything I could’ve dreamt of before.”  

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Find out more about Henry’s work at henryfraserart.com. Henry’s next solo exhibition is at The Grove Hotel, Watford on 14 and 15 September, from 10am to 5.30pm both days. Entry is free.

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