Put Jonathan Raban on a boat and the results will be fascinating, and never more so than when he's sailing around the serpentine, 2,000-mile coast of his native England. In this acutely perceived and beautifully written book, the bestselling author of Bad Land turns that voyage-which coincided with the Falklands war of 1982-into an occasion for meditations on his country, his childhood, and the elusive notion of home.
Whether he's chatting with bored tax exiles on the Isle of Man, wrestling down a mainsail during a titanic gale, or crashing a Scottish house party where the kilted guests turn out to be Americans, Raban is alert to the slightest nuance of meaning. One can read Coasting for his precise naturalistic descriptions or his mordant comments on the new England, where the principal industry seems to be the marketing of Englishness. But one always reads it with pleasure.
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February 04, 2003
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Excerpt from Coasting by Jonathan Raban
The Marriner having left the vast Ocean, and brought his Ship into Soundings near the Land, amongst Tides or Streams, his Art now must be laid aside, and Pilottage taken in hand, the nearer the Land the greater the Danger, therefore your care ought to be the more.
Being in Tides-ways, narrow Channels, Rocks and Sands, I hope the ingenious Mariner will not take it amiss in recommending this to your care, your Tides, Courses, Soundings, and the goodness of your Compasses.
Captain Greenville Collins, Great Britain's Coasting Pilot, 1693
All morning the sea has been gray with rain under a sky so low that the masts of the boat have seemed to puncture the soft banks of cloud overhead. The water is listless, with just enough wind to make the wavelets peak and dribble dully down their fronts. Sails hang in loose bundles from their spars as the boat trudges on under engine, dragging its wake behind it like a long skirt.
The engine, the engine. Its thump and clatter, all mixed up with the smell of diesel oil and the continuous slight motion of the sea, is so regular and monotonous that you keep on hearing voices in it. Sometimes, when the revs are low, there's a man under the boards reciting poems that you vaguely remember in a resonant bass. Sometimes the noise rises to the bright nonsense of a cocktail party in the flat downstairs. At present, though, you're stuck with your usual cruising companion at sixteen hundred revs, an indignant old fool grumbling in the cellar.
Where'd I put it? Can't remember. Gerroff, you, blast and damn you. Where'd I put it? Can't remember. Sodding thingummy. Where'd I put it? Can't remember.
Way out in front, England shows as a dark smear between the sea and the sky like the track of a grubby finger across a windowpane--a distant, northern land. We're crossing into the cold fifties of latitude, as far from the warm middle of the world as Labrador at one end of it and the Falklands at the other. The light is frugal, watery, and it always falls aslant, even in high summer. The sun, when it manages to find a break in the cloud, fills the land with shadows. It's no wonder that England, seen from the sea, looks so withdrawn, preoccupied and inward--a gloomy house, all its shutters drawn, its eaves dripping, its fringe of garden posted against trespassers.
All the pilot books warn one of the dangers of an English landfall. The Admiralty Pilot cautions all those who sail up from the south: "Fogs, bad weather and the long nights of winter frequently render it impossible to obtain a position . . . under such circumstances the course steered, the log, lead and nature of bottom are the seaman's only guides." The first signs of England aren't very encouraging either:
The edge of soundings may generally be recognised in fine weather by the numerous ripplings in its vicinity, and in boisterous weather by a turbulent sea and by the sudden alteration in the colour of the water from dark blue to a disturbed green.
The sea is never still. Even when it's calm, the tides sweep at speed along the English coast, racing round headlands and throwing up acres of churning white water--water so violent and unnavigable that even big cargo boats have been lost in these rapids and overfalls.
There are ledges of submerged rock designed to rip your floor out from under you, hidden shoals of gluey mud, and such a lacework of sandbars and narrow channels that even Her Majesty's chartmakers get into a helpless tangle about what is properly England and what is properly Ocean. This serpentine and tricky coast is ringed around with devices to scare ships off, back into the deep water where they're safe. Bell buoys clang, lights flash. On console screens in wheelhouses and on ships' bridges, radar beacons paint their warnings like fat white exclamation marks, glowing and fading, glowing and fading. When the fog comes down (and it's never long before the fog does come down) the diaphones in all the lighthouses along the shore begin to moo, making a noise so bottomless and sinister that you'd think it could be heard only in a nightmare. England's message to every ship that gets near to her coast could hardly be clearer: DANGER--KEEP OUT.
The navigator, now anxiously busy with his 4B pencil and parallel rules, will know a bit about the reputation of the natives of this place, which is not good. The Roman poet Virgil, one of the earliest foreign observers, wrote that "Britons are wholly sundered from all the world." They're famous for their insular arrogance and condescension. They love fine social distinctions and divisions and are snobbishly wedded to an antique system of caste and class. Yet the upper lips of this superior race are so notoriously stiff that they can barely bring themselves to speak, preferring to communicate in monosyllables interleaved with gruff silences. They are aggressively practical and philistine, with a loud contempt for anything that smells abstract or theoretical. They are a nation of moneygrubbers and bargain hunters, treasuring pennies for treasuring's sake. When the English reach for a superlative to praise someone for his general moral excellence, they say he has a "sterling character," meaning that he has some of the same quality as the coins which they like to chink noisily in their pockets.
When it comes to sex, they are furtive and hypocritical--and their erotic tastes are known to be extremely peculiar. Many Englishmen will pay a woman 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 color. For the most part, though, the English, both men and women, are afflicted by such a morbid decay of the libido that it has always puzzled the rest of the world how the English manage to reproduce themselves at all.
They are casually rude--a vice which they claim as a virtue by labeling it forthrightness. They are also violent, feared in all the neighboring countries of Europe for the marauding hooligans who accompany their football teams and sometimes murder spectators who have come to cheer a rival side. In compensation, however, they are softhearted about animals, for which they have an arsenal of sentimental nicknames, like "pooches," "bunnies," "pussies" and "feathered friends." Yet they enjoy dressing up in ceremonial outfits to go round the country on horseback setting packs of dogs on foxes. When the fox has been dismembered, it is the English custom to smear the faces of little girls with its blood. This sport is a favorite subject with the artists who design English Christmas cards. The English are addicted to cheese. But they detest garlic, a vegetable associated with "foreigners," who are held in more or less universal contempt and are the main butts of the jokes which the English like telling to each other. These jokes are bartered in public places, and they increase in value as they grow older and more familiar. For the English are very famous--at least among themselves--for their sense of humor and pronounce it an essential component of a sterling character.
The pilot books, the folklore and the weather ("Cloud amounts are everywhere high at all seasons, depressions may occur in long series at any time of the year") don't exactly make one's heart leap at the prospect of England. But all that's forgotten in the high excitement of making a landfall as the coastline across the water slowly thickens and takes shape. It is a wonderful conjuring trick. The land surfaces lazily out of the sea, first gray and indistinct, then flecked with hazy color, then decorated with a sudden scatter of sharpening details--a broad scoop of chalky cliff, a striped beacon like a stick of seaside candy, a continuous waterfall of slate roofs down the slope of a valley. There is something satisfyingly eerie about a landfall--any landfall. The growing coast ahead, no matter how exhaustively charted it is, or how old and familiar its history and internal topography, looks so imaginary from this sea distance. Watching it come slowly alive, inseparable from its broken reflection in the water, you feel that you're making it up as you go along. It's not real. On a green hill above the town you see a fine, bran-new medieval castle--turrets, towers, keeps, drawbridges, the lot. Like a novelist toying with an invented landscape on the page, you think, That won't wash; and, obedient to the thought, the handsome castle rubs itself out and in its place there comes up a stolid clump of gas-storage tanks or the cooling towers of a power station.
Downstairs, the engine is talking to itself. Pease-porridge hot, pease-porridge cold, Pease-porridge in the pot, nine days old. The floor rolls a little in the swell and the land sinks under the sea again. When it reappears, it rises from the water changed. There are people out there now. A lone wind surfer, clinging to a sail painted in the brilliant acrylic colors of a tropical butterfly, skims and flits through the surviving trelliswork of a burned-out pier and the sunless beach is dotted about with matchstick men. A little espionage with the binoculars and you can catch their swollen images, swimming and jerking in the lenses. Anglers, spaced at wide intervals along the pebbly shore, squat under their golf umbrellas with thermos flasks. A man is throwing a stick for a giant poodle--the only creature in sight which looks properly dressed for the weather. Families huddle in small self-absorbed groups in the shelter of seaweedy groins. Some people are laid out, entirely alone, on towels, as in the aftermath of an accident. On the wet promenade, a psychedelic ice cream van betrays the improbable fact that this is summer.
As a first glimpse of the natives of the place, the scene will do nicely. "The English take their pleasures sadly after the custom of their country," said Maximilien de Bethune in 1630, a remark for which the Admiralty Pilot might usefully find room, just as it might point out that English bell buoys manage to strike a much lower, clangier and more dismal note than their tinkling French counterparts on the south side of the Channel.
With the soundings getting shallower every minute, this is too close for comfort. Bearing in mind the shoals that lie inshore, you turn the wheel and haul the rudder round, leaving England to sidle slowly past on the beam, a mile and a half, a world, away.
I took to coasting early on in life. To begin with, the word was used to stain my character.
"Raban has coasted through yet another term, and I can hold out little hope for his prospects in the forthcoming Examinations."
My father was reading my housemaster's report aloud over the after-breakfast litter in the parsonage dining room. The Easter sunlight was blue with pipe smoke and thick with dust.
"Coasted? Through yet another term?"
For days I had been dreading the arrival of the brown envelope with the Worcester postmark. Now it had come, there was something soothing in its dreary litany of undistinguished sins. The boy described in it was lazy. He showed no house spirit, no team spirit, no application and precious little intelligence. On the page headed GEOGRAPHY, there was just one word-"Slack," followed by an irritable squiggle of a signature. My father read on, in the same voice that he used to say weekday Evensongs in a church empty except for three devout old ladies. The recitation was making me feel sleepy.
The cassock that my father wore had belonged to my grandfather before him, and before that it had been my Great-uncle Cyril's. Generations of clerical wear had given its black threads a lizardy sheen. It looked as old as the Church of England.
At thirteen I was easily fooled by clothes, and this aged cassock made my father himself seem like a very old man to me, a tall and shaggy Abraham whose presence in a room was enough to make any child shiver a little in awe at a famous patriarch. He was thirty-six. Sitting now in another dusty room, its air thickened with pipe smoke of the same brand, I find myself staring back, puzzledly, at a man much younger than myself--a man with a pained boy's face, his own hurt showing, as if it were he and not his son who was being dressed down by the schoolmasters. His hair is black and thick, his skin unlined. His preposterously old clothes only serve to underline his youth as he returns my gaze--astonished to find himself the father to this bulky, balding fellow, in his forties.
It was my father's uniforms that I saw--never my father in person. When he came home from The War (there was only one war then), he was in battledress, and at three I embarked on a dangerous romantic affair with his rough army khaki. I was a secret transvestite. Finding his tunic, impregnated with manly sweat and St. Bruno Flake, sprawled on a chair back, I pulled it round my own shoulders and felt the tickle of its doormat bristles against my bare arms and neck. It weighed me down; its giant waist and mighty sleeves trailed behind me on the floor. A major's embroidered crown was sewn onto each epaulette, and the colored strip of campaign ribbons on its left breast was decorated with a miniature bronze oak leaf to show that my father had been mentioned in dispatches.
I was found, and shamed, by indulgent grown-up laughter. Later, though, when the night-light guttered in the draft on the table beside my cot, I lay dreaming furiously of the soldierly imprint of the coarse cloth on my skin. I fell asleep putting Germans to the sword, in a rainbow of ribbons and oak leaves.
It was five years later that I learned to chant amo, amas, amat and parse pater and patria, father and fatherland. It was one of the few things in Latin that I ever understood, the intimate connection between those two words. For England really was my father's land, not mine. It was the country where the uniformed warrior-priest, returned hero and man of God, was at home. Blue-chinned, six-foot-two, robed in antique black and puffing smoke like a storybook dragon, my father was a true Englishman--and I knew that I was always going to be far too puny, too weak-spirited, ever to wear his clothes except in make-believe.
"Wouldn't you say, old boy . . ." he said, tamping his pipe with his forefinger, "that it was about time that you put a pretty abrupt end to this . . . coasting?"
Beyond the leaded windowpanes, the uncut lawn was spattered with early dandelions like so many teaspoonfuls of scrambled egg.