Adam Somerset uses the two weeks of London 2012 Olympics as an excuse to revisit Jonathan Raban’s 1987 travel book, Coasting.
‘The Olympics feels like a turning point, a moment in which for the first time since our decline from empire, we felt genuinely self-confident. For the first time I can remember, we like ourselves.’ Over two joyful weeks rhetorical excess joined hands with sporting accomplishment and ceremonial chutzpah. Former Olympo-sceptics recanted with glee. Front-page editors let rip. Gold, surely, must go to the anonymous Red-top wordsmith who coined ‘United Blingdom.’
A novelist whose appearances on television are sharp and mordant – he is better left unnamed – ended up warbling, ‘Today, we no longer see ourselves as base metal. We believe now that we can be golden – and with that sort of belief, our potential as a nation is unlimited.’ Maybe. Thirty years ago, in 1982, Jonathan Raban sailed around England, then a very different kind of place. Over two weeks in 2012 I savoured the result, his book Coasting, slowly.
Bagehot is the anonymous columnist for Britain at the Economist. Invariably acute, informed and sober she wrote on 10th August: ‘The life of a country, like a person’s, is made up of moments, and the golden ones can be cherished even if they change nothing.’ Coasting has its golden moments. Jonathan Raban experiences a moment of exultation early on his journey.
The point of departure of his little ketch is not quite clear but he has an epiphany in experiencing the sheer island-ness of the British Isles. Five hours out from the Isle of Man he can see land in all directions, a small pointed atoll, a lumpier one, ‘a definite smoky pimple in the sea at 046 degrees and a smudge at about 012 degrees’. These are, in turn, the peak of Snowdon, the Sugar Loaf in the Wicklow Hills, Scafell Pike and the distant smudge the mountains of Galloway.
Jonathan Raban is unrivalled as the writer of water. Paul Theroux is the traveller with the fold-up kayak. He has written of a terrifying adventure between St David’s and Ramsey Island. But the view from a canoe is different to that from a vessel of 10.39 Gross Tons. To the watcher on the quay the sea is the sea. Coasting sculpts the hazardous interplay of rock and swell. ‘On a map,’ Raban writes, ‘Portland Bill is a pendulous dew drop hanging from Dorset’s nose.’ In actuality the Bill extends underwater with a ‘broad shallow ledge of shingle, coral, stone and broken shells.’ This means that a ferocious swirl of current hits the main stream of the English Channel.
By contrast the Eastern coast is a low slithery kind of place. The North Sea is ‘riddled with shifting bars and shoals… it needs to be watched with suspicion.’ On the Blackwater Estuary Raban sees a ‘meagre and featureless coast… too untrustworthy to do business with. The sea lathered over its maze of offshore sandbars.’ When he finds shelter his boat is assailed by gulls and cormorants that cake the deck white with guano.
There is a strand of travel writing that keels over with an overload of cut-and-paste history. Raban reaches for history sparingly, but he is illuminating on this corner of Britain. Defoe was there in 1722 reporting on its malaria-ridden condition. That meant no estates, no mansions, a hardy community of small farmers ‘more akin to American settlers than cap-doffing English tenants.’
Personality in travel ranges from the amused to the querulous to the erased. Jonathan Raban projects a persona of modest incapability. The asthmatic, bullied schoolboy – the word ‘coasting’ itself is multi-hued – briefly becomes the ineffectual teacher. His Anglican curate’s voice gives his Hessle fifteen-year-old pupils the giggles. The book stops in Hull for a full eighteen pages. In his youth he had tried and abandoned a doctorate. In those blissful days of post-Robbins Report university expansion, ‘the easy academic climate of the 1960’s’, he leaves Hull to teach at another university. (Elsewhere, he has disclosed the destination as Aberystwyth.)
This self-characterisation is a little deceptive. It takes nerve to float off on the Mississippi, as in ‘Old Glory’, alongside the monstrous commercial barges. Off Britain his description of going in search of the ‘inside passage’ is terrifying. This is a supposed ribbon of water close to the shore but separate from the tide race. In good conditions ‘some are avenues of calm as wide as the Champs Elysees’, while ‘others are narrow alleys in which a boat is squeezed tight between the race and the rocks.’
Peter Raban, father of Jonathan, runs through his work from a 1977 essay ‘Living on Capital’ to his funeral in 1999’s ‘Passage to Juneau’. In Coasting the figure has transformed from the absent World War Two serviceman and later vicar. By this time his beard has ‘grown out into a luxuriant tangle of ginger, jet and silver.’ His hair straggles over his collar and he wears a CND badge. Father and son face one another, each with a pipe in the left-hand corner of the mouth. The picture of the relationship is recognisably right, utterly of its time; unspoken distance on the surface masks depths of connection and continuity.
This England – and it is England – is another world. The absence of technology, GPS navigation, is a surface feature. It is a land where every high street has a Woolworth’s branch rather than a Poundland. Pitta bread is a novelty. To see a Russian abroad is a rare sighting. The immensity of territory between Austria and Greece is filled with one unitary Yugoslavia, which is doing well. The Woolwich Thames Barrier is sparkling new.
This is an England where the Reverend Raban’s church is ‘as greyly fundamentally English as limestone country, fog or boiled beef and cabbage.’ Blyth in Northumberland may be operating at half its peak but is still shipping out three million tons of coal a year. In Portsmouth, Jonathan Raban sees the armada that is being assembled for the Falklands’ re-conquest.
He steps ashore at Rye and sees a country ‘whose best hope lay, according to the government, in making a rapid shift from high-tech to low-tech to no tech at all.’ Rye has jobs for ‘waiters, shop assistants, ticket sellers, PR men, hoteliers, coach drivers, tour guides.’ It is an overly pessimistic view. The fruits of the Black-Scholes Equation are yet to be seen. Those new and noble professions of derivatives trading and mortgage securitisation are all to come.
Coasting reaches its peaks when the land is out of sight and the water has quietened. Around the Mewstone, off Plymouth Sound, the wind drops and Raban falls back on his engine ‘its soothing rockabye motion came as a blessed relief after the violent corkscrew rolling.’ On a brief city stop the sky is ‘a sickly electric orange in which even the moon was hard to find’. That is the difference, the sky at sea a ‘cold ultramarine in which you could pick out the Great Bear and find Polaris without thinking’. Three miles off Prawle Point in Devon he captures a voyage’s sheer intensity ‘out on the water you are the centrifugal point of the world, through which you move, carrying the great disc of your horizon as you go.’
The best critical anatomist of the travel genre is Paul Fussell who died in March this year. He showed that its best work is not fiction as such but it is a highly moulded artifice. A single line in Coasting reveals that it in fact comprises several journeys made over an undefined period.
Thirty years on is a testing time for a book. Coasting is of its time, but it speaks for its time with some eloquence. Its subject is England; the other nations are distantly seen but untouched. Travel writing, however, is writing as well as travel. Coasting is cut through with the author’s seasoned acuteness of phrasing. Jonathan Raban even spots his audience. This reader too is present, as one of ‘the moon-faced gang who loaf, hands in pocket, on every quayside, gazing innocently at water, floating fishcrates, dead jellyfish and old boats.’