Book Review: Coasting

Coasting, by Jonathan Raban, was first published in 1986. This edition is from Eland who tell us, ‘For the price of a good bottle of wine our travel books offer inspiration for passionate exploration ā€“ in the company of authors who really know, and who know how to tell it.’ The author of this book is pleasingly self-deprecating without sacrificing his obvious abilities. The tale he tells is of its time and place yet offers wider understanding of the psyche of the British. This should be essential reading for those who cannot comprehend why Brexit happened – who talk of lies believed as if those who disagree with their point of view are somehow lacking in cognitive ability, who rail against politicians without digging deeper to understand what matters to those who vote for them.

On April Fool’s Day, 1982, Jonathan Raban set sail from Fowey in Cornwall to circumnavigate the British Isles in a two-mast sailing boat kitted out as a one-man floating home. Travelling widdershins, his plan was to stay close to shore, stopping off regularly to meet with locals and gain a feel for the places where they lived – research for the book he was planning. He had never before taken charge of a boat. A retired naval commander spent a fortnight teaching him the basics. The rest he learned from books and then experience.

The journey ended up lasting four years – four circuits. Ashore, the media were covering: the Falkland’s War, the Miner’s Strike, Diana fever. Many of the British people he encountered had more prosaic concerns. Unemployment was rife, traditional jobs disappearing taking with them a way of life generations in the making. In their place came tourism – Britain as a theme park for increasing numbers of foreign visitors. Opportunities were in service rather than manufacture.

The author is the son of a war veteran turned CofE clergyman. He was educated at the same minor, public school as his father – an inexplicable parental decision given what he had to endure there. Coasting is as much memoir as travel journal. The personal reminiscences are skillfully woven into the stories of storms at sea and encounters on shore. There are also pleasing asides detailing other gentlemen’s sailing adventures over several centuries. Raban is far from the first to have decided time at sea would offer a welcome escape from a life stifled by the practical demands of finance and family.

There is much humour but also insight on offer. The writing is well balanced between details of shore time adventures and the challenges of life at sea. Raban comes to view familiar places through the lens of a tourist, albeit one who wishes to delve beneath the surface of photographic memory making. It is the views of the locals that interest him along with his own reactions to their insularity.

Evocative and entertaining, this is travel memoir that peels back the veneer of Britain to expose the preoccupations of its people. Although evaluative it is written with understanding and generosity. A reminder that change is inevitable but will likely be railed against. An engaging and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Eland.

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