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Tight Little Island

Coasting

by Jonathan Raban
Simon and Schuster, 302 pp., $17.95

England is a semiologist’s paradise, a novel that Henry James didn’t quite write. It is a land where all is sign and nuance and cryptic scruple. People decode your house, your accent, your socks, your taste in magazines and movies, the way you talk about the weather. A puzzled look comes over their faces at the simplest remark, as if you had suddenly dropped into Sanskrit. They don’t have any trouble understanding what you have said, they are trying to work out what you mean. This is particularly difficult if by any chance you mean what you say. Asked how you are, you don’t answer, “Fine” or “Great,” you say, “Surviving,” or “Struggling along,” or “Not too bad, considering.” That’s if you really feel fine. If you felt lousy you might say you felt great. We make wonderful spies because we think the double life is the only life.

The craziest English characters parade as straight, hearty folks, while the most conventional people dress like sideshows and treat themselves as eccentrics. The famous English sense of humor doesn’t find or make things funny, it just pretends to be serious when it is not, thereby fooling hapless and humorless foreigners, naturally not up to this frisky stuff. Jonathan Raban has a splendid throw-away comment on this topic. The English, he says, “are very famous—at least among themselves—for their sense of humor.”

One could understand such a country, if at all, only by stealth, skepticism, immersion, an ability to breathe irony. Or perhaps by escape, since the natives themselves tend not to know how thoroughly they live among signs. Raban has found the most elegant and tantalizing of escapes, a constant but erratic mode of contact with what he calls his “peculiar country.” For four years he sailed a small boat around the coasts of the British Isles—thereby taking in quite a bit more than “England,” of course—concentrating, as he put in and out of port, on “this aspect of land from the sea.” The phrase, quoted in Raban’s epigraph, is Hilaire Belloc’s, who continues, “You think of landsmen as on a stage…. Nowhere does England take on personality so strongly as from the sea.” But Belloc, and a series of nineteenth-century sailing solitaries, dubious, autocratic antecedents amusingly reviewed by Raban before he takes us on his own voyage, didn’t really look at England from the sea, they made it up in their own image. Uncrowded by the landlocked reality principle, they turned their country into the tight little Tory ship of their dreams, full of moral vigor and manly fortitude. The end of one of them tellingly shows that fact can be more allegorical than fiction:

On June 14, 1891, he was sailing alone in his 27-foot yawl, Perseus, somewhere in the English Channel, when a heart attack killed him. Two days later, Perseus was spotted by a fishing boat off Cherbourg. It was maintaining a steady westward course, its sails tight and filled with wind. The dead man, his limbs locked in rigor mortis, was keeping a firm grip on the tiller.

Raban says he would no more have tried to stow away with this “desperate bunch” than he would have “volunteered for service in the Tontons Macoute,” but they were seeking, he says, a last British frontier in the open sea, and so is he. This notion strikes me as both fanciful and weary. What the earlier solitaries were seeking, surely, was to swap society for a utopian raft, and what Raban is brilliantly doing is to wreck this whole tradition. His eyes, like theirs, are trained on the land, but what he sees is not an imagined order, but an inhabited confusion, the very world they wished to set at a distance. At the start of his journey he put up a photograph of Margaret Thatcher on the paneling of his boat, “a reminder that this voyage wasn’t going to be a holiday from life.” Mrs. Thatcher is a respectable, in some ways admirable, part of life. The idea that she is life itself, that no other mentality can match or cope with the times, is a pervasive revival of Belloc’s vision, the old view from the sea spreading all over the land. Raban’s irony, fortunately, keeps him well away from this view even when he seems quite close to it.

Coasting is not as easy as it sounds. There are shoals, shelves, and currents to be negotiated, and you can be lost at sea without being many miles from the shore. Raban has powerful accounts of life afloat in Force 7 and Force 8 gales:

The sea was breaking out in lumps all round the boat and rags of foam, torn off the wave tops, were plastering themselves against the wheelhouse window…. The twenty feet of narrow deck between the cockpit and the mast turned into a trepid journey on hands and knees. The sea kept on climbing to my level, then plummeting sharply out of sight. It was preferable to avoid watching it…. On the slow crawl back to the wheelhouse, I was laughing out loud. None of this experience belonged to me. It felt sublimely ridiculous to be squirming about on one’s tummy in such an unexpected roughhouse brawl.

The laughter is just panic. When the storm is over, Raban’s hands are shaking so much that he can’t pour whiskey into a tumbler.

But then this real danger is set against the apparent frivolity of the coaster’s enterprise, “going boating,” as Raban’s mother calls it. He takes his parents out to sea for a week, hoping to show them what a tough sea dog their nearly forty-year-old son has become, but the water is crowded with pleasure craft, and the waves are tiny and domestic. Worse still, Raban doesn’t know the proper nautical names for the ropes, and his father does. The Raban family picnics agreeably, and talks about the possible dangers of father’s and mother’s trip to Hungary.

This narrative persona, regularly exposed to both perils and mockery, escape and recapture, is central to the book, and makes an intelligent and attractive traveling companion. Raban writes extremely well, has a fine feeling for similes (“There were some fat ladies…with churning laughs like concrete mixers”; “the Devon coast…looked like a crumbled and halfeaten fruitcake on the edge of the sea”; “Her Majesty’s Navy was a seaborne industrial estate of displaced tenements and factories: it looked as if Slough, Milton Keynes and Newark had taken to the water for the day”), and a gift for catching character in speech. You can hear the regional tones in the grammar, no need to mess with funny spelling: “He were fishing off Dogger Bank. Then fog comes down.” Raban collects troubling island stories (about the monkey mistaken by the English for a French spy; about the crab trying to climb out of its bucket and being dragged back by the other crabs). And of course he reads the English signs like the half-emancipated native that he is:

The key to their character lay in their beautifully preserved shoes—brogues, handmade in 1923 or thereabouts, which had been so waxed and buffed that their polish lay in a deep lucent film on a spiderweb of tiny cracks like the glaze on a Ming vase….

They all talked in the voice which…puts you instantly and depressingly in mind of gin-and-tonic, cavalry twill, the next monthly mortgage payment, brussels sprouts, tea cozies, Journey’s End at the amateur dramatic society, the Magimix in the kitchen and the Queen’s head on the stamp….

By the age of twelve I had become expert at every deadly English deference and snobbery…. I learned to praise all those things which I secretly knew it was correct to scorn: flights of china ducks going full throttle up the wall, overfed and molting cats, plastic three-piece suites, pictures made of bits of old clocks, the new television set with the Radio Times in a special imitation-leather folder, paper doilies for putting cups of tea on, pots of cacti on the windowsill and the electric logs in the grate.

And at one point, following the pattern I have mentioned, Raban is horribly caught by his own posh accent. “How far’s Rossington?” he asks on a miners’ picket line, and is stared at and spat at in disgust. “It was accent and nothing but accent…enough to open the chasm of all the dirty and invidious distinctions of the English class set-up.”

Coasting is part reportage, part autobiography. Raban visits pieces of his past as he visits ports on the British coast. The naval college at Dartmouth recalls to him his old spartan school; the Isle of Man evokes the parental parsonage, “the home I’d always been running away from.” In Lymington he wanders back into the provincial Fifties:

Everyone was in uniform. Their toggled duffel coats were heaped on a trestle table. The sweaters of the boys hung in shapeless short skirts above their knees. The fastidious girls, all heels and hairdos, moved as if they had been blown in glass and were liable to a fatal fracture.

In Hull, Raban catches up with his student days, and in a splendid set piece, dines with Philip Larkin:

We won’t get much of a meal here,” Larkin said. “They used to serve quite a decent dinner, but I gather that they’ve gone completely down the drain.”

Well, don’t let’s eat here then,” I said firmly, dreading a Larkinesque dinner in which every course would prove that things were getting worse and worse.

Larkin’s driving, a matter of myopic fits and starts, is a comic poem in its own right, and Raban’s amusement at Larkin is part of his appreciation of him, and an act of courage. “One had to be brave to laugh with Larkin…. He wrote…inconsolable poems, teased and haunted by the beauty, only just out of reach, beyond the window of the railway carriage or the solitary room…. If poems can teach one anything, Larkin’s teach that there is no desolation so bleak that it cannot be made habitable by style.”

As I think the tone of these quotations may suggest, Coasting is not a confessional work, in spite of its memories and personal experiences. It is discreet about persons, and not seriously introspective. I’m not at all disposed to complain about this, but the book itself does seem to hesitate and worry a bit, as if Raban didn’t quite know what he had got or where he had been. He neatly turns his uncertainty into a metaphor, a reflection of writing, but the worry remains. His friend asks at the end,

How is it going?”

Slowly.” I type Slowly. Her coat at my ear is radiating a winter of its own.

Where have you got to?”

Not far. Only here where we are now, before we go——

Raban borrows the term coasting from an old school report—“Raban has coasted through yet another term”—and digs, maybe too hard, at its rich vein of meanings:

To coast is to proceed without great effort, to move by momentum or force of gravity, to march on the flank of, to skirt, to sail from port to port of the same country, to explore or scour, to bicycle downhill without pedaling, and to slide down a slope on a sled…. The coaster never stays in one berth longer than he can help…. He is a betwixt-and-between man, neither exactly a citizen nor exactly a foreigner…. For years I coasted, from job to job, place to place, person to person.

It was only a matter of time,” Raban continues too casually, “before the metaphor insisted on making itself actual.” It takes more than time to turn most metaphors into action—it takes, for instance, the loopy energy of Harpo Marx bent on wrecking the very idea of figurative language—and what seems to have happened is that Raban’s actual boat and literal England became altogether more interesting and many-faced than his metaphor. This is entirely to the book’s advantage, and Raban was in any case sailing in strange times—not only in his remembered past but in the odd. English waters of 1982, full of warships and war cries and a rabid nostalgia focusing on the Malvinas Islands, also known as the Falklands. Raban began his voyage on the day the Argentinians invaded the islands, and listening to a parliamentary debate on his radio, he says, was like “eavesdropping on the nastier workings of the national subconscious.” And yet he too, with a lack of self-righteousness that makes this a book we can trust, admits to being moved by the thought of the British fleet’s sailing off to the other end of the earth, his contemporary skepticism dissolved in the tears of an old, silly, but genuine patriotism. “This was not how a detached coaster ought to feel.”

Raban’s narrative moves forward as well as backward in time—he is eloquent and distressed about the miners’ strike of 1984—but the chosen heart of his story is 1982, the year when old myths were dusted off, and the islands thought of nothing but islands. Raban makes the grumpy, separatist Isle of Man stand for the mind of England, and the Malvinas for a curious mirror-self, reflecting “in brilliantly sharp focus, all our injured be-littlement, our sense of being beleaguered, neglected and misunderstood.” England, like the Isle of Man, is not provincial, it is insular, “and the distinction is essential.” “Provincial,” Raban says, “is Flaubert’s rancorous little market towns aping last year’s Paris manner and last year’s Paris fashion; it is Chekhov’s rusticated sisters sighing for Moscow.” “Insular” is not caring about either Paris or Moscow, and resenting everything that crosses the sea in either direction. It is crabs pulling each other back into their bucket, and monkeys mistaken for French spies. The English have been insular in this sense since the eighteenth century, but seemed to be reaching out a little in recent years—and of course still are reaching out in all kinds of ways. You have only to look along the shelves of an English supermarket. But insularity is the great returning temptation, and Raban’s 1982 offers a frightening image of it—it would be funny if it were not so desolate. Vera Lynn, who staunchly hymned the white cliffs of Dover in the Forties, was resurrected to sing for the brave boys of the new war:

It will stay this way for e-e-ver,
Which is why I love this land!

You had only to look at Vera Lynn at sixty-five,” Raban says, “to see that [the song] enshrined a wonderful, vainglorious untruth. But there was a dotty kind of truth in it too. It stated—more nakedly than anyone had dared to do so far—the terms of the daydream in which England was living in 1982.”

At this point the semiologist’s paradise turns into a schematic pageant. We don’t have to read the signs any more, they cry their meaning at us. The reduction is so crude and so violent that we may almost hanker for the old Jamesian complexity. We can’t quite hanker, or can’t simply hanker; but we can resist bullying daydreams and defend variety. Raban fears the English have come out as all “troubled” and “inward” in his pages: “The face of England in my typescript had a thin, hurt and sullen look.” He is not entirely fair to himself here. He also celebrates a mournful but undespairing people, constantly capable of jokes and surprises, and above all able to count their losses—the closed mines, the derelict docks, the vanished industries, the emptied towns—with something like Larkin’s style, “with, if not quite gaiety, at least great dignity and grace.” Over England, Raban writes, “The light is frugal, watery, and it always falls aslant, even in high summer.” The daydream of 1987 is not so much that England will stay this way forever, although there is that too, as that it should shape up and abandon all slants, political or otherwise. That is why it is good to be reminded of the unruly behavior of the light.

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