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.