Old Glory


Now, how did that happen? Wanting to re-read Jonathan Raban’s Coasting, his evocation of a journey of discovery sailing round Britain, first published over thirty years ago, I just found a couple of days ago that our copy has disappeared from the shelves. A mystery:  I wonder what happened to it. So it is very good to discover that the book has recently been republished, along with four other books by Raban, by Eland, in rather handsomely produced paperbacks. I remember the book as being extraordinarily well written. The blurb on our new copy tells me that  Raban here “moves seamlessly between awkward memories of childhood as the son of a vicar, a vivid chronicle of the shape-shifting sea and incisive descriptions of the people and communities he encounters. As he faces his terror of racing water, eddies, offshore sandbars and ferries on a collision course, so he navigates the complex and turbulent waters of his own middle age. Coasting is a fearless attempt to discover the meaning of belonging and of his English homeland.” Which indeed is how I recall the book. I look forward to it!

I’ve been put in mind to read Coasting again because I have recently been re-reading with great  enjoyment two of Raban’s other books that are on our shelves (as it happens, another two of the five that have been republished by Eland). First there was For Love & Money, which is subtitled “Writing, Reading, Travelling: 1969–87”, and which reprints some early reviews and occasional pieces. The writing is consistently humane and insightful, but more than that, it is just so beautifully readable (the number of times I thought, “I wish I could write even half as well”). And then there was Raban’s early masterpiece, Old Glory from 1981, notionally recounting his voyage down the Mississippi in a small boat.

I say “notionally” as this complex work is lightly disguised as a straight travel book, a literal recounting of a journey taken. But the one-time English literature lecturer warns us clearly enough. One of the epigraphs of the book is from T. S. Eliot (writing of the  Mississippi), starting “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/Is a strong brown god …” The other epigraph is from Jean François Millet: “One man may paint a picture from a careful drawing made on the spot, and another may paint the same scene from memory, from a brief but strong impression; and the last may succeed better in giving the character, the physiognomy of the place, though all the details may be inexact.” So we are set up for this to be a mythic tale, and for the “Jonathan Raban” who features as the narrator and his adventures to be a very inexact rendition of the author and his own journey. And a mythic tale is what we get, an ordeal by water, with auguries and signs, battles fought, a princess won (but also lost, for this is a flawed epic, and the journey ends in emptiness). But woven together with this are encounters with American myths of frontiers and journeys. And, presciently — so striking, reading again now, nearly forty years later —  Raban notes the “deep, unsatisfied capacity for hero-worship” that makes many Americans (far from the artificialities of the coasts) long for a “strong” leader, a saviour. This is a many layered book, artful in the artlessness of its transparent prose. Wonderful.

4 thoughts on “Old Glory”

  1. I’m not convinced that Americans are more inclined to hero-worship than other people, or have greater longing for a “strong” leader. Think, for instance, of Russia and Putin, China and Mao, Cuba and Castro, Venezuela and Chávez, Britain and “Iron Lady” Thatcher. I’m guessing that the “now, nearly forty years later” is about Trump. But there’s also Bernie Sanders and his following and, over here, Corbyn. Their support seems, if anything, more hero-worshipping than Trump’s.

    I also question the dismissive “artificialities” comment about “the coasts”. An awful lot of people live on America’s coasts, and much of the interior is nearly empty in comparison. The coasts have as much claim to being genuine / natural — whatever the opposite of “artificial” is meant to be — as the rest (even if we’re talking or metaphorical coasts rather than the literal reality).

      1. Your blog post intrigued me enough that I looked for the Eland reprints in one of the larger local bookshops, and found them. I haven’t bought any yet, but I will probably end up getting at least one. (Since I already have too many books, I try to resist buying any on first encounter. So I’ll live with the idea of buying one for a while and see what happens.)

        1. Too many books? I’m comforted by Julian Barnes’s remark: “How weird it would be to have around you only as many books as you have time to read in the rest of your life.”

          And yes, Eland’s reprints are so very nicely done … there’s a lot of temptation there!

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