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4.4 out of 5 stars18
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on 31 March 2007
'Coasting' has to be considered one of the best books by a living British author. It is a travelogue describing Raban's single-handed voyage around Britain in an old restored sailing boat, that takes various digressions - just as his journey does - as he mulls over his childhood as the son of a Church of England priest and the current state of Britain under Mrs Thatcher at the time of the Falklands War.

The book is remarkable for its penetrating and highly perceptive insights into the character and state of the British nation. Raban is able to form a detached view of his country whilst out at sea, and quite rightly he finds there is more to criticize than praise. However, rather than taking the battering ram approach of his eccentric predecessors (whom he ironically describes in his story), he uses beautifully crafted language to describe the life of a single-handed sailor in awe of the power of the sea, with detailed almost lyrical descriptions of the characters and encounters he meets along the way. There are two passages that I am particulary fond of. One is of a rather hostile meeting with Paul Theroux at Brighton marina, himself in the midst of researching a similar book about Britain on foot, and a much friendlier one with Philip Larkin at Hull, a city that Raban knows well from his student days and working as a part-time minicab driver.

This is a writer at the very heights of his craft. Having become disillusioned with so much low-grade modern writing, it is a delight to come across an author who is on a par with some of the great writers of the past. Whereas 'A Passage to Juneau' and 'Hunting Mr Heartbreak' are similar in theme but more localized in their American context, I consider 'Coasting' his best novel because it so successfully reflects and intertwines Raban's perspective on his own life with that of the British nation.
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on 2 August 2010
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.
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Jonathan Raban takes to the water to write a rich account of English culture and personal history. His voyage in a patched-up boat, stocked with books, is the embodiment of a million (probably largely male) escapist fantasies. Coasting is packed with beautifully crafted phrases, fertile ideas and acutely observed passages which make you laugh out loud. This was my first encounter with Jonathan Raban's writing, since when I have made a thorough nuisance of myself recommending him to everyone I meet. Non-fiction doesn't get much better than this.
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on 11 January 2013
This was a new author to me, although has has a considerable number of published works. I feel his style bears comparison with Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux. So, he's in good company then.
The subject matter of 'Coasting' is mostly the people he meets while sailing and motor-sailing around the UK (except Scotland, as he takes the Crinan canal), and his thoughts on his childhood as a 'son of the manse' in the 1950s. He isn't shy about airing his views on the Falklands invasion or the miner's strike, both of which coincided with his voyage.
One minor criticism is that some episodes in his coastal voyage are dealt with out of chronological sequence, which is a little strange (artistic licence, perhaps).
And don't imagine that the reader will learn anything significant about the 'sailing' part of sailing around our coasts.
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on 7 August 2012
In a nutshell: the English as viewed by a haughty snob. Or Virginia Woolf patronising a working-class pub: 'Just too, too, ghastly darling...'
Philip Larkin's fleeting appearance comes as all too brief relief.
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on 13 November 2009
I expected a continuous journey around the coast of the UK. first I was in Cornwall buying a boat in Fowey, so far so good, then How did I get to the Isle of Man? Never mind- I must be sailing in a northerly direction-No - I'm heading South around Devon ( Did I imagine Cornwall) and up the Channel. I know the format now is remembering his past and putting it into the story, but I would have liked a bit more of the journey included. But that is why he is a writer and I am not.
I am now enjoying Passage to Juneau more than Coasting.
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on 13 January 2015
A thoughtful and enjoyable ramble around the edge of Britain's coast, making connections between the authour's life, along with the political landscape of the day.
As a sailor myself, it was easy to assimilate myself into the style of writing and the mindscape that comes with solitary sailing. The sea, and the coast, and the people met during the wandering around with no real deadlines gives rise to ways of thinking not always allowed by shorebound, hurried and harrassed lifestyles.
Highly recommeded.
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on 16 November 2009
I first read this just after it was published in 1986. A re-read now underlines how much the world has changed in 24 or so years. Back then there was no GPS, so the coastal foghorns 'mooing' at the foreigner when they get too close to the UK, are no more. Neither can one's position on the sea be in doubt with modern GPS systems, and mobile phones mean that the isolation of the semi-reclusive 40 somethings living out their fantasies on their boats is no more. Further, it is sad to realise that our society now tracks our every movement, whether this is through financial transactions, CCTV, or paranoid surveillance of coastal shipping. I can't imagine that anyone can hide themselves away on a boat like this and live on a shoe-string. There would be too many rules and too many fees. The upbringing that Raban describes in the 1950's now seems like something out of a Victorian novel; however, in the 1987 paperback edition pp15 we also have this description of the English, which used to be a cliche, but which now could not be written or even thought:
"When it comes to sex, [the English (men)] are furtive and hypocritical - and their erotic tastes are known to be extremely peculiar. Many Englishmen will pay women money to take their trousers down and spank them. Others cultivate a neoclassical passion for small boys - preferably boys of a lower caste or another colour."
I can't imagine anyone writing this now, much less getting it published. I haven't checked the most recent edition; someone might want to see if this sentence (and a few similar) have been removed.
So I am rather shocked by this book now; it was old-fashioned in 1986 I think, because Anthony Burgess was writing similar lines but 2 decades before Raban. I'm shocked mostly by how much it has dated and by how our attitudes and mores have altered since then, mostly for the better I think (with the exception of GPS).
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on 17 February 2000
Raban's study of England and the English is a standout peice of travel writing. By eschewing a linear structure, and talking generally about his voyage, the sea and his childhood when the mood takes him, Raban is able to get to the core of what being English is. The voyage then becomes an intimately personal but utterly fascinating blend of autobiography and reportage. The intricacies of Falklands war, the embarassment of growing up, the consciousness of an increasingly fragmented nation are all discussed with seriousness and wit. He loses one star for being just the teeniest bit boring when he bangs on about the sea.
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on 31 October 2014
Brilliant book delivered on time
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