Put Jonathan Raban on a boat and the results will be fascinating, and never more so than when he's sailing around the serpentine, two-thousand-mile coast of his native England. In this acutely perceived and beautifully written book, the bestselling author of Bad Land turns that voyage-which coincided with the Falklands war of 1982-into an occasion for meditations on his country, his childhood, and the elusive notion of home. Whether he's chatting with bored tax exiles on the Isle of Man, wrestling down a mainsail during a titanic gale, or crashing a Scottish house party where the kilted guests turn out to be Americans, Raban is alert to the slightest nuance of meaning. One can read Coasting for his precise naturalistic descriptions or his mordant comments on the new England, where the principal industry seems to be the marketing of Englishness. But one always reads it with pleasure. "A lively, intensely personal recounting of a voyage into a gifted writer's country and self." "Coasting is a glorious book, written with energy, wit, and a melancholy lyricism...There's something wonderful on every page of this book." "Marvelously written and superbly constructed...The sort of book you put among those favorite books you keep on your desk or table...The sort you wish you had written yourself." "Raban is...one of our most gifted observers."
He also gives a fascinating vignette of life in the Isle of Man in the early 1980s, which he surmises was almost indistinguishable from the early 1950s.
Later on he visits his parents who, after meandering through the country from one Anglican diocese to the next (Raban pere was a senior clergyman) have ended up living in the midst of Southampton's red light district.
There is also a very moving encounter with poet Philip Larkin (whom Raban had idolised during his stint as a student in Hull). Still, this book offers all the generous and sensitive insights that have come to be Raban's trademark, and I was very glad to revisit this book almost twenty-five years after I first read it.
Raban also meets fellow author Paul Theroux who was engaged in a journey around Britain's coast by foot, also with a view to writing a book based on his expedition (this would eventually come to light as the sclerotic "Kingdom by the Sea".)
The only drawback from my point of view was the predominance of the English south coast - I would have preferred to read more of his adventures in Scotland.
Some wonderfully descriptions of England but full of encounters with fascinating people, including a "flash" businessman with whom Raban visits a casino in the Isle of Man, and a fond reunion with Poet Laureate Phil Larkin.
His journey, in 1982, was a coasting voyage around Great Britain in a sailing boat. He started from Falmouth and went anticlockwise around, using the Caledonian Canal to cut out the tricky part round the North of Scotland. The first part of the trip up the Channel from Cornwall to the Thames is described fairly linearly, albeit in the middle part of the book; on the East coast we only hear about Hull and Blythe, in Scotland we get one brief vignette from Loch Linnhe, and on the West coast we get the Isle of Man and part of the passage across the Irish Sea towards Wales (in the opening section of the book). The rest is left to our imaginations. Most perversely of all, he finishes the book by telling us he is starting another journey, without giving us any clue where he is headed, or why.
What Raban really wants to do with the journey seems to be to dissect what being British (or at least English) means in the 1980s, how the British view themselves, their islands, and the rest of the world, and how he fits in with it, having grown up, the son of a clergyman, on the impoverished lower edge of the upper middle-class, the rather unsatisfactory product (in their view) of a minor public school. He uses the model of the Isle of Man to develop his ideas about insularity and how it makes us view the rest of the world, and ties this in with Mrs Thatcher's Little War, which conveniently breaks out as he is sailing towards the Plymouth naval base. Later on he also brings in an account of the miners' strike, which actually falls outside the timeframe of his journey, but is something you can't really omit from an account of Britain during the Thatcher time.
Where sailing books normally overwhelm us with technical information about the boat, equipment, weather and courses sailed, Raban makes a point of telling us more about the contents of his on-board library than about sails, masts and rigging. We gather that his boat is a wooden ketch designed like a North Sea fishing boat, but that's about as far as the technical description goes. He talks wittily and perceptively about some of his predecessors as writers about coastal sailing - people like John MacGregor, E.E. Middleton, and Hilaire Belloc, all clearly running away from lonely and unsatisfactory lives to try to find some sort of fulfilment in communion with the sea - and tries to analyse his own motives for buying a boat.
Raban was clearly irritated to discover that his "former friend" Paul Theroux was also busy with a trip around the island, in his case going clockwise on foot (see The kingdom by the sea). The two arranged to meet in Brighton: it's amusing to read their subtly-different accounts of what was evidently a slightly edgy afternoon for both of them, neither willing to give the other too many details of what he was working on (Raban had the advantage of writing his when Theroux's book was already published, of course). A happier (and equally comic) meeting is his reunion in Hull with the elderly poet Philip Larkin, whom Raban in his undergraduate days had apparently cajoled into acting as a kind of mentor.
Oddly enough, the other writer who is most obviously looking over Raban's shoulder is never explicitly mentioned, except for a throwaway remark about amateur theatricals: his fellow-pipe-smoker J.B. Priestley, whose English Journey (1934) dealt with many of the themes Raban picks up. Post-industrial society, the "merrying of England", depression in the North-East, inward-looking Englishness - all as actual in the eighties as they were in the thirties. Although Raban sails where Priestley travelled by bus, train and Rolls-Royce, there seem to be very strong echoes between the two of them, in the structure and feel of their books as well as in the subject-matter. Not that Raban tries to imitate Priestley's very oral "radio lecture/pulpit" style, of course: his voice is a more literary, abstract one, more in keeping with the 1980s and the printed page.
His journey would be back through the pages of our history, a semi nostalgic look back at his own childhood and a contemporary take on the state of our nation under the rule of Thatcher in the early 1980’s and the effect that the outbreak of war with Argentina over the Falklands Islands would have on our outlook as a people. However, this was all a backdrop to the seascapes that he travels through, the looking cliffs, fast races and eddy’s, sandbanks and other much larger boats that would challenge him every day of the journey.
He has a slightly tense meeting with Paul Theroux in Brighton who is heading around the UK in the opposite direction and also in the process of writing his book, The Kingdom by the Sea. Raban joins the miners on the picket lines to see what real political action is like and takes the views from the locals on their opinions of the Falklands War. There is often a vast gulf between the rabid right-wing press and their attitude to the war and the indifference of the general populace.
I didn’t think this was quite as good as Old Glory, but I don’t think it is as easy for an author to understand their home country as sometimes it is for an outsider to do. That said, it was written just as the country had begun an enormous political change, was at war and in the middle of a enormous strike by the miners. This means that he could easily see the differences and splits that were very visible in society at large. There is something about Raban’s writing that is beguiling and very readable too, he is a stickler for the details that he drops into the narrative when meeting people like Philip Larkin or talking to the owners of trawlers in Lyme Regis but also has that ability to present you the seascape; you sense the rock of the boat and the wind on your cheek as you bob along with him, in sparse lyrical prose.