In 1982, Jonathan Raban bought a wooden two-masted sailing boat and circumnavigated England in a slow, wandering, unhurried way.
He called this manner of travel “coasting”: moving along with the tide, letting the wind decide the direction of travel, and living “on the shifting frontier where the land meets the water and the water shades into the land.”
According to his childhood schoolmaster, coasting is what he had always done. “Raban has coasted through yet another term,” his housemaster’s report said, “and I can hold out little hope for prospects in the forthcoming examinations.”
But what may have been a disadvantageous temperament in early education is an ideal mode for the writer and observer.
Sailing along the coast with charts and a hand bearing-compass, and talking to the people he meets in harbour towns and failing fishing ports, Raban comes to understand England and the English, and his own sense of national belonging.
An early stop on the Isle of Man leads to observations on the insular nature of small island people, and the isolated, inward-looking Manx, with their prickly sense of grievance, localness, xenophobia, and nostalgia for the old days, come to mirror Britain at large.
The Falklands War breaks out in the midst of his journey. Raban hears the news when he ties up in Sutton Pool at Plymouth Sound, alongside working trawlers by the fish market. He observes from a distance as a sort of national hysteria breaks out, a poorer version of Churchillian resistance, stubborn Britain against the world.
“The Falklands stood anchored off the coast of South America very much as Britain stood anchored off the coast of Europe,” he writes. “You only had to look at the atlas to see that the identity of the Falklanders, like that of the British, was bound up in endless aggressive assertions of their differences from the continental giant across the water.”
Great travel literature has a way of shining a light on deep truths, those fundamental aspects of a culture that reveal themselves again and again. As the publisher of Raban’s back catalog, Barnaby Rogerson of Eland Books, said to me over breakfast at London’s Exmouth Market, “Anyone who has read Coasting would not be surprised by Brexit.”
But Coasting does more than expose the English national subconscious.
It also contains some memorable dialogue. One of my favourite scenes was a dinner with the elderly poet Philip Larkin, who the author had known as a young undergraduate. Larkin orders a gin and tonic at the bar. “Would you mind making that a double gin?” he says. “Since I’ve gone deaf, I don’t seem to be able to see single gins anymore.” That’s a line I’ve filed away in my notebook, to be shamelessly trotted out should I reach old age.
Earlier, in Brighton, Raban meets Paul Theroux, who is on his own book journey around the coast. Theroux is traveling clockwise on foot and by train, where Raban is sailing counterclockwise. The two writers meet for lunch and fence uneasily — “Nothing to see here!” — in a scene that perfectly captures the self-doubt and greedy possessiveness of an author at work on a book.
Raban’s descriptions are crisp, layered and sometimes startlingly interesting. “England shows as a dark smear between the sea and the sky like the track of a grubby finger across a windowpane,” he writes, describing the view of land from a northern sea.
Or take this wonderful description of waiting out a gale at anchor: “The boat thrummed and shivered on its moorings. Below, it felt as if one was squatting in the sound box of an out-of-tune harp, with every shroud vibrating on a slightly different note and the wooden frame answering the shrouds with a long, low sympathetic groan.”
But it is the way Raban mixes the personal past with his present journey that stayed with me after I turned the last page. His awkward church parsonage childhood, the poverty and class consciousness, and his incipient middle age, all reflected amidst the sea-shifting background of his journey, conveys something fundamental about the nation and culture, something you need to venture beyond the limits of London to discover.
But if you don’t have the opportunity to travel, you can still go Coasting with Jonathan Raban in this superbly written book, a true classic of the genre.
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