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.