Put Jonathan Raban on a boat and the results will be fascinating, and never more so than when he’s sailing around the serpentine, 2,000-mile coast of his native England. In this acutely perceived and beautifully written book, the bestselling author of Bad Land turns that voyage–which coincided with the Falklands war of 1982-into an occasion for meditations on his country, his childhood, and the elusive notion of home.
Whether he’s chatting with bored tax exiles on the Isle of Man, wrestling down a mainsail during a titanic gale, or crashing a Scottish house party where the kilted guests turn out to be Americans, Raban is alert to the slightest nuance of meaning. One can read Coasting for his precise naturalistic descriptions or his mordant comments on the new England, where the principal industry seems to be the marketing of Englishness. But one always reads it with pleasure. ... Read more
Customer Reviews (8)
Wandering about Britain
Jonathan Raban's Coasting is a book that defies labels. It's not a novel. It might be a travel book. It might also be an autobiography, or even a politicised journal. What it is not is dull.
Back in the 1980s, Jonathan Raban decided to chill out on a boat. He found the Gosfield Maid, a hearty, old-fashioned wooden thing that could chug along at a few knots and decided to circumnavigate the circumnavigable Britain. He failed. He opted out of the northern challenge and took the easy route through the Caledonian Canal. None of this is at all relevant to the book, by the way, because it's not a travelogue. And who cares if, on a quest to record the intricacies of an island's coast, you miss out a bit?
But Jonathan Raban does travel Britain's coast. And here and there he describes experience, recalls memories and reacts to current events, but in no particular order. He is particularly enamoured with the Isle of Man. Its insularity seems to mirror, perhaps concentrate, the insularity of the English. The Isle of Man's microcosm occupies much of the early part of the book, so much in fact that the reader wonders how the author will manage to cover the rest. Rest assured, however, for he has no intention of doing that.
The book might also not be an autobiography, but we learn a lot of the author's parents and family life in the Raban household. They started as fairly conventional Church of England vicar and vicar's wife cassocked and aproned in rural serenity. We meet them later, slightly hippied, father bearded and radicalised, both CNDed and residing alongside Pakistani grocers and amidst less salubrious activities along the Solent.
The author's school years also figure. He was unlucky enough to attend a less than prestigious public school. For Americans, for whom the label will be incomprehensible, I qualify that in England public schools are private. Don't ask. But they are renowned for their unique, often idiosyncratic cultures.
Jonathan Raban regularly found himself at the fag-end of upper middle-class society, but without the personal economic base to back up his pretensions. Coasting, by the way, is not an autobiography.
Neither is Coasting a memoir. But Jonathan Raban calls in at Hull on England's east coast. He finds a largely forgotten city that once fished. By the 1980s its giant fish dock was deserted, its trawlers chased out by Britain's defeat in the Cod war with Iceland. He went to university there and befriended one of the nation's great poets of the century, Philip Larkin. Their meeting is precious. He had also conversed with Paul Theroux along the way.
Coasting is also not a political book. Jonanthan Raban, however, does record some detail of Margaret Thatcher's conflict with the Argentine over The Falklands and with the English over coal mines. Coasting is also not a personal confession on identity, but the author clearly does not number himself amongst the victorious Tories who idolised their imperatrix.
Coasting is a compelling read, a snapshot of personal and societal priorities from 1980s Britain. If you lived through the influences and references, the book presents a vibrant commentary on the period. If you didn't, either because you are too young or not British, it's a good way of learning how history surely does repeat itself. Coasting is a book that can become almost whatever you want it to be. It is superbly written, journalistic in places, poetic in others. It's a travel book that goes wherever it wants.
Coasting, a private voyage
A totally relaxing read. A jumble of saling references mixed with many personal moments and memories. The many descriptions of England from the perspective of the man on a small boat are fascinating and I have to say (as an Englishman) pretty accurate. The characters he meets throughout the voyage are very interesting and you learn a lot about the real Jonathan Raban from his reactions to the characters he meets or talks
about (I must say he and I agree totally on Margaret Thatcher!!!!).
I will now read some of his other books, hoping to enjoy them as much as this one!
A Bit Grim, but a well written and readable book
I like Jonathan Raban for his willingness to wander places in small boats. First I read his book about going down the Mississippi in a large rowboat, Old Glory, and now coasting. Both are a bit bleak due to the author's general unhappiness. Raban is an unhappy guy plain and simple but he does have an ability to find and describe wonderful places and characters. The reader just has to look past Raban's negative outlook on everything, I really mean everything. I thought he only hated the United States but he really hates his home, England. But all considered he is quite readable.
An excellent read - for an 80's anglophile....
I read this when it was first published and it is probably the least American of Raban's books. It is thoughtful, incisive and pretty much spot on with how the country was split during the Falklands conflict and for me it gives a wonderful, if now a little dated insight into my own country and people, I love Raban's eclectic style of collecting up a whole series of people, books and charts and then introducing them to the reader as 'characters' along the way. Probably also the most autobiographical of books to date by this author but then I was in England at the time and British to boot.
Great view of England during the Thatcher years
Raban, to move himself from his own country, goes offshore in a small boat to look back towards the land and his own past. This book is beautifully written and full of humor and insights. It is a few years since I last read it (it is a good investment because you can enjoy reading it several times). When I saw the low ratings it got from people who don't like his politics I felt inspired to give it a little boost. I do not agree with many of Raban's views, but I cannot imagine letting that spoil this wonderful read.
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