By Jonathan Raban. Harvill Press, 1986, 304 pp. (Vintage, 2003)
To some degree the traveler is always an outsider. For the travel writer this poses a risk: there are journeys where he never gains entry; his account is that of a stranger in a land he doesn’t understand. Yet it can also work to his advantage: the very detachment of being an outsider can serve to sharpen his perceptions and observations.
In Coasting, Jonathan Raban plays the outsider’s role wonderfully as a traveler in his own land. In 1982, at 40, the British travel writer set out to sail around the British Isles, stopping at various ports. His goal was not to escape but to come to terms with Britain’s identity and his own. Stocking his boat, the “Gosfield Maid,” with books on British history, geology, flora—“an explorer's, not an exile's library”; hanging on his wall a photo of Margaret Thatcher with clenched fist—“a reminder that this voyage wasn’t going to be a holiday from life”; he set off to visit familiar places and record how they had changed.
Coasting is partly about Britain, partly about the author, and the two themes are nicely balanced, pivoting smoothly on the figure of Raban’s father. The Britain Raban finds is in decline. At Hull, where he attended University and taught school, the once bustling Fish Dock is abandoned, The Fishing dead; Blyth is beset by the miners’ strike, Rye by tourism, the whole country by the improbable Falkland Islands War.
Yet for all that Hull is “doleful”, Blyth tense, and Rye “packaged”, Coasting is not pessimistic. A counterpoint is provided by Raban’s sense of humor; by the sea and its dangers, which he survives; by the people he meets—the “insular” Manx, the marvelous Philip Larkin, and Raban’s father, who in retirement has found a new life.
To Raban, his father—a vicar in the Church of England, a war hero, conservative, austere—was England itself. He now finds him a labor-voting, “cheerful...bearded, radical debunker,” and reflects at some length on how the vicar, like the Church itself, has adapted to the times. One comes away from this affectionate, upbeat portrait, and from the book, with a sense not of stagnation but of motion, of tides, of a country and people in flux.
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Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.