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Coasting (Jonathan Raban, 1986)

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ISBN 0-330-29977-8

Coasting chronicles Jonathon Raban’s solo circumnavigation of the British Isles in a refitted 10 ton, wooden hulled boat, the Gosfield Maid. I was loaned this book by a friend who recommended Raban as a more gentlemanly version of Theroux. Indeed, the two writers know one another and each crops up, making a cameo appearance in the other’s work, when the two of them meet in Brighton.

‘In his Papa Doc tinted spectacles, and L.L. Bean duckhunter’s camouflage shirt, with a little brown backpack hoisted on his shoulders, Paul Theroux was on his travels.

‘... Ten years before, Paul and I had been friends and allies, but the friendship had somewhat soured and thinned since. Nor had either of us been best pleased when each had discovered that the other was planning a journey, and a book about the British coast.

‘... His book, The Kingdom by the Sea, came out a year later, in 1983. I read it avidly and with mounting anxiety. It had only one seriously flat patch, I thought – his account of our meeting in Brighton. There wasn’t a single start of recognition for me in his two pages: what he described was not at all what I remembered. But then memory, as Paul had demonstrated ... is a great maker of fictions.’  (pp. 196-199)

(Theroux’s account of the meeting was slightly kinder.)

I enjoyed Coasting immensely but – sorry, Sue – probably more for the similarities to Theroux’s writing than the differences: Raban seems able to mine an equally deep seam of intellectual arrogance when the mood strikes him. For example:

‘The terrace was built of blue-tinged Edwardian brick, and the faces of its houses were aggressively English. The bulbous, ornamental stuccowork around their doors and windows had once very nearly entitled them to be called villas. They had the wholesome snobbery of Mr Pooter, and there still clung to them the stuffy, cosy, anxiously superior air of the bowler hat, the Bicyclists’ Association, and the meat tea.

‘The original Pooters, who’d been proud to pay off their mortgages at five bob a week, would have been baffled by the appearance of the street now...

‘The blush-pink lights were just the right colour for this quiet and suburban combat zone; they promised mild naughtiness rather than serious red-light depravity, a spot of slap and tickle, not the heavy stuff with ropes and rubber.’  (pp. 169-170)

What attracts people – me – to this kind of writing I cannot say. Certainly it rattles the senses in a way which no amount of genteel word-candy ever can. But perhaps we like the books in spite of their viciousness; perhaps it is the other, benign, passages which keep us reading? (Ah, ... naw.) In any event, Raban’s writing is excellent, effortlessly conjuring up mood and scenery to order.

The book itself is somewhat disjointed, perhaps as a consequence of trying to manufacture a linear narrative out of a non-linear journey, spanning some years. I was particularly mystified by the leap from London to Fort William, then back to London again, at the end of chapter five. The book survives despite this, however, and is ...

Recommendation:  Definitely recommended.

Look and Feel:  The usual paperback.  No photographs.

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