Coasting by Jonathan Raban (1986)
Recommended by Richard Thackeray
I've read this book slowly over the last fortnight, dipping in and out, like a ship on the waves, like I think you should. (Yes, I'm still behind, but I'm getting better, and I've got a few clearer weeks coming up, all the better to help catching-up.)
There could've been no better book for me this last couple of weeks, or no better experience for me to plunge into than this one. Welcome to a strange, sleepy world with a lovely salty guide - one man, Jonathan Raban, who bought a ramshackle boat, a vehicle he'd never captained before, and took it to sea.
I'd never heard of Jonathan Raban before, and I'm mad that I hadn't, because this book is fantastic. Good old Richard Thackeray recommended it to me, another of life's lovely, salty travellers, and - lucky me - my sort-of brother-in-law (or to give him the full family tree treatment, my husband's sister's husband). Richard is fantastic too. Always on hand with a shockingly placed euphemism or plain old-fashioned rude joke, he is also a thoughtful, clever soul under the salvo of fart gags. A consultant by trade, he's also training to become a ranger, and likes nothing better than yomping up the great Yorkshire hills with the lovely Hannah. He also loves music and books, and has a big old curious brain. He picked this one out for me on mine and Dan's recent trip up North, about a bloke travelling around the whole blustery, briny coast of the UK. Thanks, Thackers. It's the book I've loved most this year.
Jonathan Raban is that rare kind of writer: someone who can do funny as well as he can do melancholy. When Coasting begins, you expect the latter tone to prevail. Here's an opening segment about his late father, a man who came to represent the idea of 'old England' to his son, suggesting we're in the company of a solitary soul bob-bob-bobbing along. There's a particularly incredible passage about the moment Raban realises, as an adult, how young his father had actually been when he was a boy, which I'm going to quote in full, as I dream of writing stuff as good as this:
Raban's lovely, dry humour is hinted at as this paragraph comes to a close, but it really flourishes soonafter. Raban talks of his desire to coast as an adult, of it being "only a matter of time before the metaphor insisted on making itself actual". He gives us hilarious outlines of the other mad sods who had done the same: the "crashingly hearty" John MacGregor, the "mortally bruised" Empson Edward Middleton, the Mussolini-loving "rambling" Hilaire Belloc, and the "testy" R.T. McMullen, who died of a heart attack as he was at the ship's wheel, "his limbs locked in rigor mortis, [still] keeping a firm grip on the tiller".
And then we're off, joining a "moon-faced gang" of divorcees and lost men on various English quaysides, before finding Raban's new home: the abandoned Gosfield Maid at Fowey. (Raban renames it in an anagrammatic fashion: Die, Dismal Fog.) The journey that follows is not chronological, but scattershot, and oh, the writing's wonderful. We find the Irish Sea like "an upturned pudding basin". We navigate the difficult waters off Portland Bill, "a pendulous dew-drop hanging from Dorset's nose". We skim the gentle waters of Lyme Bay "as sedately as a tram", we encounter the shallows of the Thames "glossy with oil".
We also wonder what happened to the South Stack, which appeared, like people do sometimes, without trace. "First you are steaming along under a blue sky, and then you are sunk. For a few minutes you leave a trail of bursting bubbles - then nothing. Not even bubbles." A few lines to jolt the senses, there.
Sometimes we have to head for land. We get marooned for a bit on the Isle Of Man among accents that Raban writes out in musical notation, and are entertained by tax-dodging businessmen in casinos that use pre-decimal currency. We gatecrash Scottish country house parties. We even meet men who navigate the seas on maps that are crumbling to dust.
But the quality that makes this book really majestic is its anger. It is set in 1982, during the Falklands War. The other role the sea takes - in the romantic, dramatic narrative of conflict - is the unnegotiable current that tugs this book along. Raban sees the new armada leave for South America on his boat's rigged-up TV, and acknowledges the yank of patriotism that he feels, which is firmly against his nature. He mention letters written by Welsh Guards on their way across the Atlantic, and picks apart how antiquated their tone is, how very "new Elizabethan". He also notes how The Sun newspaper is "squealing with infantile excitement" as his boat makes a journey so many men, over so many centuries, have made before.
More than anything, Raban shows us how his feelings of wanting to coast, to escape, have always been there, just like others' desire to conquer distant lands, and prove one's might and mettle, have too. I'm with his side of things. His journey seems all the more human to this particular soul in watery London, bob-bob-bobbing along. And I know this a book I'll return to again and again, like the sailors, with the tides, and with the bubbles.