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 – 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.

Book Review: Not a Hazardous Sport

First published in 1988, Not a Hazardous Sport by Nigel Barley offers an account of the author’s travels to and around the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. For a few months he lived amongst the Torajan people, known in academic circles for the carvings on their buildings and their traditional ancestor culture. Barley interacts mostly with the men and this is reflected in the narrative. As an anthropologist he is there to observe. To get the most from the book the reader would be advised to set aside certain western sensibilities – something I struggled with. I baulked at many of the attitudes described, especially towards women. Certain incidents involving animals were also upsetting.

The author travels to Indonesia to undertake ethnographic fieldwork. Funds are limited so he travels economically. His preparations and the journey, although undoubtedly trying, are recounted with humour. A stopover in Singapore, where he stays with a Malay family, includes a visit to a red light district much to the discomfort of his hosts. This set the scene for conversations that would occur throughout the book. Women are sexually objectified, expected to produce babies and look after the home, children and the men. Whilst recognising that this was the accepted culture I would have liked to read of the women’s thoughts on how they were treated and if they desired change.

Indonesia is described with fondness despite its dangerous transport, mosquito infestations and often uncomfortable accommodation. The author describes the people as largely welcoming – impressive given the appalling behaviour of other tourists. He visits several villages, befriending those he meets and staying in their homes. The exchange rate makes him comparatively wealthy and he enjoys his ability to pay generously for services rendered.

The book is written as a series of descriptions of journeys and encounters. I found the cock fight episode distressing – I suspect the author wished to demonstrate the humour of the situation. A ritual he attended that required the killing of a buffalo offers up a picture of a painful and drawn out death for the poor animal, yet this entertains the local children. In a later chapter a bus driver deliberately runs over a puppy.

Other behaviours described increased my distaste for these men. They would wake up each morning and noisily clear mucus and phlegm from noses and throats – not a scene I want to have in my head.  It was, of course, interesting to learn of western habits that they observed with similar disgust. My recoil is not an attempt to take any sort of moral high ground.

At the time of writing Indonesia was changing. Many traditional beliefs were being abandoned for Christianity. Buildings with galvanised iron roofs rather than bamboo tiles were regarded as modern. Woven cloaks coloured with plant dyes were no longer as popular as those made from rayon.

Following his stay the author invites a small group of men to travel to London and build a traditional rice barn at the Museum of Mankind. The final chapter describes the reaction of these Indonesians to English habits and behaviour. Their experiences have repercussions when they return to their country.

Although well written and witty in places, I struggled to engage with the author’s portrayal. He may have been fond of those he met, impressed by their openness and welcome; my reaction was largely negative. I would have preferred a more rounded representation of a country populated by more than just men. From an anthropological point of view there is much of interest. As a casual reader I was put-off Indonesia.

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

Book Review: For Love and Money

Jonathan Raban is a multi award winning travel writer, critic and novelist. Eland Books has recently released five of his published works including For Love & Money, a memoir of sorts made up of articles and reviews that offer a fascinating insight into the author’s early life and career. First published in 1987 it provides a glimpse of the London literary world before the internet and the subsequent decline of print media.

The book is divided into five sections. The first introduces Raban as a professional writer with close to two decades experience. There is a brief history of his childhood including the burgeoning of his long held desire to become a writer. Although privately schooled he does not describe himself as academic. He attended Hull University rather than Oxbridge. This was in the 1960s when higher education was expanding rapidly. Armed with his newly acquired qualifications Raban secured a salaried job as an assistant lecturer at The University College of Wales at Aberystwyth.

From Aberystwyth he moved to the University of East Anglia where he worked with Malcolm Bradbury. During his time there he encountered students who went on to write best sellers. Raban regarded his tenure as a springboard into what he refers to as Grub Street – the world of literary hacks who write for hire. Bradbury talked to him about the difficulty of freelancing for a living with its need to jump between fiction and journalism, broadcasting and print. Raban was not deterred. The first section of the book finishes with a story accepted by the London Magazine in 1969. On the back of this, the editor invited Raban to review books for the publication. He resigned from his safe, salaried job and moved to London.

The second section opens with details of how a writer could earn a living in literary journalism. Raban wrote book reviews for magazines, took part in arts and book programmes on radio and TV, and wrote pieces for national newspapers. Included is an article he wrote about living in London at this time. It offers a window into the business of reviewing and the importance of the literary editor. As now, the view expressed was that more books were being published yet review space cut. Critics were commissioned to produce a set number of words, often fewer than could do a work serious justice. The remainder of this section is made up of Raban’s reviews of various books about writers, providing a masterclass in the form. Several do end quite abruptly, presumably when the word count had been reached.

The third section is a short history of Raban’s attempts to write plays. He saw this as a gateway to sociability after the solitude of a writer’s life. Television at this time was regarded as the national theatre. Money was available to commission more scripts than would be used, enabling producers to experiment with untried writers. Raban wrote for TV and radio. He is self-deprecating of his efforts.

The fourth section explores the world of the literary magazine where editors value perceived quality over sales figures. This is compared to commercial ventures which could send writers to far flung corners, fully financed, for a commissioned article. The remainder of the section contains several pieces written by Raban for a number of outlets. I was particularly impressed by Christmas In Bournemouth which cuts to the quick – an astute, verging on cruel reportage from a hotel which offers time-tabled entertainments for those whose family’s have inexplicably failed to invite their mostly elderly relatives to join them for the festive season.

The fifth and final section looks at travel writing and, in particular, why people travel. It is mostly made up of reviews of books by other travel writers and articles written on visits to foreign locations. There is also a walk along the banks of the Thames which is a slice of history. Raban came to be known best for his travel writing. His adventures developed from an early enjoyment of fishing to a point where sailing grants him freedom.

Raban has an eye for detail. His use of language is concise and rigorous. Where he writes about his early family life, his relationship with his parents, the insights are piercing. He admits to dramatising facts for effect but suggests all writing does this. Reportage and criticism are still performances for the benefit of the reader.

A prolific American writer of genre fiction tells him:

“It’s a writer’s duty to be an observer, not to show a high profile.”

I suspect there are many authors today who wish this was the case.

Raban’s book is a fascinating history of a freelance writer’s life and methods, personal and professional. It is witty, at times caustic, but always precise and percipient.

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