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In Watery America

Mike Urban/Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Jonathan Raban, Elliot Bay, Seattle, Washington, 2007

Twenty years after following a woman to Seattle, the English writer Jonathan Raban is still unsure if the rainy city with its occasional glimpse of Mount Rainier is the place he was meant to call home. He likes the big trees, the “raw and bloody” sunsets, and the erratic tides—the “wateriness” of the place. But some things about the city irritate him—the way dinner parties are organized, for one thing. There are too few, in Raban’s view. Invitations go out weeks in advance. The guests don’t really know each other. Table talk tends toward the “serial monologue,” not the lively exchanges over “national politics, new books and plays, [and] salacious gossip” that Raban prefers.

Seattle, Raban found, is a city of exercise fanatics and early risers. Yawns appear soon after dessert and everyone is back on the street before ten. Raban came of age with the spirited talk of bibulous London where the exchange continued into the small hours with second and third bottles of wine. He misses that convivial place, or perhaps only his spent youth.

Raban says little about the land and life he left behind in Driving Home: An American Journey, his new collection of occasional pieces published in magazines and newspapers, loosely connected by their American settings. It’s clear that he was ready for a radical change in 1990, the year he departed, but the reasons must be pieced together from casual asides. Part of the explanation was Britain itself, grown damp and spiritless in the age of Margaret Thatcher. “In England, all land looks owned,” Raban remarks, and by owned, it is clear, he means worked, changed, controlled, and domesticated—“a country where the wild things were rabbits and foxes.”

But the big reason was the end of a marriage. “At forty-seven I felt cracked and dry,” he reports. From London, the Pacific Northwest seemed the “far-western stronghold of the second chance, second family, second career.” Raban’s explanation for removing himself to American shores is slyly suggestive of Ishmael’s rationale for withdrawing to the watery part of the world. Ishmael said it was his way of driving off the spleen; for Raban it was a middle-aging writer’s response to a moment marked now or never.

Raban’s dislike of Margaret Thatcher maps his place on political questions. He’s a late-night talker who dislikes Tories. Call him a liberal. A number of the pieces in Driving Home are about American politics—the night of Obama’s election, for example, when Raban’s “tear ducts did their job” and he concluded with relief “that, after eight years of manic derangement, America had at last come to its senses.” The manic derangement, in Raban’s view, all began with the shock of the terrorist attacks a decade ago. The Tory approach, adopted by President Bush, was to gear up to rid the world of the Islamic threat by any means necessary. In “September 11: The Price We’ve Paid,” published in The Independent on the fifth anniversary of the attacks, Raban quotes Vice President Cheney’s husky-voiced pledge to work “the dark side,” to act “quietly, without any discussions,” to embrace the “mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business” of tracking down terrorists and killing them. Down that road, Raban notes, lay “the peculiar institution of Guantánamo Bay.” (Note “peculiar institution”—a fine example of Raban’s ear for picking phrases with resonance.)

In Guantánamo, Cheney’s taste for dirty business conducted out of sight came to full flower, an emblematic example, in Raban’s view, of the price Americans have paid for giving President Bush carte blanche to decide why we were attacked, who attacked us, and what we ought to do about it. Raban does not address the Islamic threat, which fades in its capacity for harm compared to the manic derangement that sent American armies into Afghanistan and Iraq, both now teetering on the edge of chaos. The really shocking thing about the whole episode, in my view, and I am guessing in Raban’s, was the sudden uncritical readiness of the American Congress, media, and people, taken in the large, to trust President Bush to shut US borders, violate the Constitution, abrogate the Geneva Conventions, and invade Iraq without cause on borrowed money. Any late-night talker who dislikes Tories has probably got a dozen items at tongue-tip that he or she would like to add to the mounting due bill of September 11.

But disliking Tories is not the whole of Raban’s politics. He’s a devoted listener as well and the reader will meet a wide range of talkative Americans in Driving Home, from writers in Missoula, Montana, and a fly fisherman casting for steelhead trout on the Snoqualmie River to the crowd of Tea Party malcontents who showed up in the 18,000-square-foot Tennessee Ballroom a year ago last February. Disguised as an ordinary malcontent who “had my own quarrels with big government,” Raban talked and listened his way through the crowd, which, he found, was “a loose congeries of unlike minds.” Raban met Tea Partiers who felt guilty about missing a march on Washington when they were traveling the Amalfi Coast in Italy, Tea Partiers who slipped out of meetings “because they’d taken offense at the copious prayers,” Tea Partiers who thought the Birthers were stupid and maybe even “a liberal plant,” Tea Partiers who regretted the no-wine-at-dinner rule of what they had begun to see as a spoilsport Tea Party Nation.

Raban was glad to find this range of attitudes, but went to Nashville to get a clearer sense of what to worry about, and he found plenty. The big thing wasn’t the fact that the Tea Partiers liked Sarah Palin and he didn’t. It was the mood, the tone. He was struck by one man’s remark—“delicately balanced between eagerness and regret”—that came at the end of a dinner-long back-and-forth on the groups undermining America. When all else failed, the man said, “It may still come to shooting.” In those words, and in the Tea Party generally, Raban found something ominous that reminded him of a lynch mob as sundown approached. The partiers called Obama “the idiot” or “that nitwit.” They said he was “a committed socialist ideologue” and stressed his middle name—Hussein! They called him a Kenyan impostor and likened his administration to “the Third Reich” (following FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society). They said he was leading America toward “socialist totalitarianism.” The something that held these people together, Raban found, was generally angry, racist, and dotty.

Escaping the “long, despotic, and intransigent reign” of Margaret Thatcher was only a proximate cause of Raban’s departure for Seattle. The move was in fact a logical next step in a life tantalized, fascinated, and irritated—in some degree even obsessed—by America. The central work of Raban’s life might be described as an effort to determine what America is like, and his approach was by water. At the age of seven he was introduced to the Mississippi River in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which he read stretched out on the floor of a garret room in the vicarage at Hempton near Norwich. A short walk down the road from Raban’s childhood home took the boy to the trouty pool below Banham’s Flour Mill on the Wensum River, a tame introduction to the watery world, compared to the mighty Mississippi of his imagining. But the river and Huck Finn both lodged in Raban’s mind and the boy with his fishing pole and corncob pipe, as well as the novel, was the subject of one of Raban’s first works, a forty-eight-page pamphlet of literary criticism published in 1968, when he was in his mid-twenties.

A dozen years later he tackled the river itself in an aluminum boat with an outboard motor; experienced rivermen said both were too small for the dangers he could expect to encounter, including the wake of giant tugs pushing barges, and sudden storms. “You’ve got to watch the sky,” Raban was told. “You ever see anything queer about it…you get off the river.” By the end of his journey, Raban understood why it was hard to explain what to look for. Queer is unspecific. But when you saw it you needed to move.

In Old Glory, published in 1981, Raban described not only nature’s vast riverine wonder, but the American populace along the Mississippi banks, who kept one eye always on the river, which took lives and sometimes whole towns. The people were barely getting by, for the most part. Raban found them split irreconcilably less by circumstance than by mood, between the cheerful and the sour. Half the people he met in the rundown river towns, abandoned by industry and commerce, were thoughtful greeters who loved to talk with a stranger—liberals, in fact; and the other half were mean-spirited monologists, brimful of complaint—Tea Partiers in the larval stage. Their preferred subject was the people who were ruining America. Raban took note of their anger and resentment, and several pieces in the new book return to this dismal theme.

Many of Raban’s seventeen previous books involve the watery part of the world, including Old Glory, a commercial success so robust he moved for a time to the Isle of Man to escape taxes; Coasting (1986), about a small-boat cruise along the shores of England made while Raban was rethinking his life; and Passage to Juneau (1999), in which the author sailed a thirty-five-foot ketch up the tricky Inside Passage to Alaska, a trip also made at a time when he had plenty to think about—the death of his father and the end of the marriage that brought him to Seattle in the first place. You might worry that these sorrows will get in the way of the small-boat adventures, but instead they drive the narrative. The word “adventure” implies risk, and risk quickens us when it threatens someone we care about. Raban doesn’t overdo it; there’s just enough of him in his books to give the reader a companion, to whose fate we cannot be indifferent.

Raban came to writing early in life, to sailing late, but he took it up seriously and three of the pieces in the new book are about famous solo voyages. Francis Chichester circled the world in 1966–1967 not to enjoy himself, but in an impossible bid to best the times of the great clipper ships of the nineteenth century. During an around-the-world solo race two years later, Donald Crowhurst only pretended to compete, dawdling about the South Atlantic and faking his log entries. As the race neared its end and the moment of truth approached, Crowhurst drowned himself. Both men interest Raban mainly because they were crazy. His admiration is reserved for the extraordinary journey undertaken in 1895 by Joshua Slocum in the Spray, a onetime oyster boat that Slocum rebuilt from scratch. It’s not hard to see what drew Raban to Slocum’s story—his triumph in sailing the thirty-seven-foot, gaff-rigged sloop around the world, something never previously done; and Slocum’s reasons for setting out alone.

Small-boat sailors are amazed by Slocum’s feats of navigation. The usual (and easy) way to measure longitude requires a chronometer set to Greenwich Mean time, but Slocum had only a tin clock missing its minute hand. So he did it the hard way, as Raban describes, by using a sextant to measure the transit of the moon across the night sky, then filling a page or two with higher mathematics. (Raban provides a fuller explanation in Passage to Juneau.) Sailors marvel at Slocum’s ability to cross a vast stretch of ocean to strike a tiny island, spot on, when a miss of a few miles would spell doom. But Raban admires even more Slocum’s serene trust in the ocean itself, which the sailor thought “much maligned.” He spent his time reading, or cooking his dinner, or watching birds and fish, or in untroubled sleep as the Spray made its way unerringly toward the next landfall with its helm lashed. Twenty-seven hundred miles in twenty-three days with only three hours at the wheel? Many have doubted this could be true, but Raban is not among them. He trusts Slocum as much as Slocum trusted his boat.

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