Thirty years after the Brixton and Toxteth riots, and coming up to the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, it may seem odd that a travel book researched and written in those inflammatory early 80s years can offer so much cause for reflection as Jonathan Raban's Coasting (Lond: Picador, 1987). But then one of the purposes of travel may be to search for the meaning of home, and Raban's account of his precarious journeys round the British coastline in a small boat has exactly that object in sight.
Raban sets his journey in a self-deprecating context, remembering a stifling childhood as the son of a vicar and the victim of a public school education: parents and school reports alike chided him for 'coasting'. He admits the charge, describing writing as 'a good coaster's occupation' (though by 1982 he ahd already received two significant literary awarrds, and would win more in later years). His aim in Coasting is to 'emerge... as a domestic Columbus, the true discoverer of a doorstep empire'; in other words, Britain. Raban confesses that he is the latest in 'a long queue of certifiable obsessives' who have attempted the same thing over the centuries.
Britain is, of course, not an island but a collection of them, so it's appropriate that Raban's account of his findings begins in earnest on the Isle of Man. He meets an 'exiled Englishman' of a landlord who tells him: 'We're thirty years behind the times... And we mean to keep it that way.' Raban visits a casino and an antique shop and is barraged by locals' quotations from their favourite Manx poet TE Brown. Despite Brown's position as a Manx hero (ironic, as he studied at Oxford and taught at an English public school), his 1880s verse 'with its nostalgia for old days and folk ways, its foursquare localness, its constant undercurrent of xenophobia' seems to Raban to symbolise late 20th century British attitudes. Meanness, and the compulsion to cut down those who get 'above themselves', is everywhere, in pubs and yacht clubs alike.
Raban's arrival in Plymouth coincides with the outbreak of the Falklands 'Conflict' (it was not officially described as a war at the time), arising from what the author describes as a 'silly diplomatic comedy'. The bareness and remoteness of the Falklands, he believes, enables the British to invest them with meaning as 'a perfect symbol of themselves'. As so often in Coasting, Raban portrays himself as being ambushed into conversations - in this case with grotesques such as the 'florid man with fierce grey handlebar moustaches - ex RAF, ex assistant sales director, I decided, and probably called Wilcox', who stands in a hotel bar blaming Britain's ills on the ending of National Service. 'Wilcox', Raban concludes, makes less sense than the macaw which shares the bar with them.
Sharp vignettes of encounters with world-weary fisherman, and glimpses of life as an amateur sailor, alternate with snatches of autobiography - until, that is, Raban brings his past into the present by visiting his parents in their retirement in Southampton. Nearby Lymington where Raban lands, 'genteelly frugal' in the 1950s, is now 'awash with had cash', with 'mean-eyed boats' in the marinas giving clues as to 'the profits still to be made in Mrs Thatcher's England' in property, money markets, oil, 'silicon chippery and the legerdemain of tax accountancy.' Raban's parents live in an 'aggressively English' terraced house, in a 'red light district' part of Southampton - in contrast to their former rectory home. Old childhood certainties are reversed, as it transpires that his father now goes on anti-war protest marches; in the midst of an argument with his mother, Raban hears his own voice as 'the wittering accent of a 1950s cleric in full cry'.
While Lymington may have shed what Raban sees as its 1950s character, his next destination Rye has changed in different but equally alarming ways. Rye, it seems, does nothing and makes nothing, and has been 'in decline for so long that the picturesque business of slowly crumbling on its hill had become its only form of conspicuous activity.' The town is slowly turning into a museum piece, a fate which the author believes may befall anything which doesn't work, as the service industries eclipse Britain's manufacturing traditions.
After a brief interlude in London - in which he joins a tour party briefly and with mixed feelings - Raban head sup to Hull, where he took his degree, and to Aberdeen. Hull relied on 'The Fishing', but that has long gone, leaving the atmosphere of a town abandoned, taking refuge in graveyard humour. Raban meets Philip Larkin, whom he knew as an undergraduate (Larkin worked in the university library), for an oddly charged evening of food and drink in which the poet demonstrates his ability for 'nailing the unbearable truth'.
The book concludes on a hopeful note: Raban finds a cottage on the Essex coast, in an area free from recession and 'that troubled, inward English look', where he can write and plan future maritime adventures.
This is a skilful book in its depiction of time and place. While Raban makes his views clear, they are not devoid of nuance. For all his contempt for the 'insular' nature of the Falklands War, he cannot stop himself weeping as he sees the taskforce leaving British shores; and his nostalgia for times and Britains past is distinctly double-edged. The abiding tone is of loss, regret and uncertainty, on a personal and national level: 'between the Festival of Britain and the Falklands War, there had been so much heavy weather, thick fog, leeway lost and tidal streams left uncalculated, that it was impossible to work out where we were.' The overall conceit of interweaving the Falklands War with Raban's reminiscences and encounters works well. There are few weak points, although a short diversion to Yorkshire in 1984 to join a flying picket during the miners' strike seems a contrived and needless addition; and we learn nothing of any Welsh or Irish locations which the author may have visited.
And now the nation finds itself in choppy economic waters once again, with riots breaking out and the chatterati agonising about what it all means. The chroniclers of Britain in the 2010s will not, it seems, include Raban, who moved many years ago to Seattle and now writes mainly about America and its politics. Nonetheless, this book - which, belying its name, shows its author with his powers at full throttle - remains as a powerful personal vision of Britain, as relevant today as it was 30 years ago.