Books and authors various have sailed in and out of my radar recently, but one especially, Jonathan Raban.
I’m sure a lot of you will know this feeling. It’s quite odd but I love it when it happens; an author you have vaguely heard of, then a friend mentions that he/she has written the best book she has ever read about whatever (in her case Bad Land) and then you see him/her quoted in an article, maybe another mention on the radio, then the final nail... the publishers put some intriguing pictures of the books on their Instagram feed. I realise I might do this to you all the time, so please be comforted by the fact that others do it to me as well, I’m as un-immunised to temptation as the next person.
I ordered a couple of books in the newest Eland Publishing editions, Coasting and For Love & Money, and with that sense of excitement for books arriving at the breakfast table in the post, and have to say they are real keepers.
I was fortunate enough to meet John Hatt (who had set up Eland in 1982) at the launch of the books about James Ravilious last year. He had funded the publications sensing that James Ravilious must not be forgotten, and we had a good chat about the book world and all its foibles, and John very kindly authorised the prize draws for the books that we had at the time. Eland has been taken over by Barnaby Rogerson and Rose Baring and in an interesting interview here this quote popped out at me and I have warmed to my purchases even more strongly...
What makes you decide to publish one writer, and not another?
ROSE: Readability, truthfulness, extent to which it conveys the essence of a culture.
BARNABY: We look for books that have been written with inner conviction and truth about the world. We want them to observant of others, capable of summing up a spirit of place and catching the moment on the wings – aside from such everyday literate skills as being funny, wry, intelligent, human, universal, self-deprecating and idiosyncratic – plus the whole book has to be held together by a page-turning gift for storytelling.
It's a fine ethos coupled with the fact that the books are of that variety that I would never part with. Distinctive but subtle livery and good quality paper, like Little Toller, books to collect and enjoy. I have started with Coasting and am an immediate convert to the writing of Jonathan Raban. He somehow balances the serious with the self-effacing, intellect with observation, wry with humorous and gets it right. He definitely doesn't take himself too seriously either.
It is 1982, and having coasted through his life to date and been a general disappointment to his father, an Anglican vicar, our man decides to take to the seas and sail around the coast of Britain. This with minimal sailing experience, and with no thought to leaving anything behind or being in any way inconvenienced, he refurbishes and furnishes the Gosfield Maid with an extensive library, oil paintings, a sheepskin rug and as much comfort as he can muster...
'It looked less like the launching of a boat than the eccentric submersion of a thatched Tudor cottage.'
Having spent two weeks at sea with a retired naval commander and taught himself navigation out of books, Jonathan Raban then sets sail from Fowey in Cornwall and heads out into the English Channel, the waters frequently slightly more treacherous than he had realised. But this is 1982 and he is moored in Plymouth when he discovers that the Falklands War has been declared, and as the Task Force sails past headed for the Southern Ocean he casts his wry eye on the proceedings...
'Her Majesty's Navy was a seaborne industrial estate of displaced tenements and factories: it looked as if Slough, Milton Keynes and Newark NJ, had taken to the water for the day.'
I have strange recollections of the Falklands War. I was twenty-eight, Offspringette had been born the year before, I had given up work and put my HV career on hold, as many of us did then, and I well remember that feeling of vulnerability and a sense that the end of the world as we knew it was nigh. We would watch the news bulletins and listen to the M.O.D updates with a sort of unwanted addiction and utter horror; never in our lifetime had we expected to witness this, and of course so many of the Naval and Royal Marines servicemen were based locally, people we knew, making the fear even more acute and the tragedies very personal.
Jonathan Raban skewers the warlike intent and the hysteria in some of the national press with a very astute eye. I had forgotten a great deal and it was slightly embarrassing to read of the Argy-bashing and then this...
STICK IT UP YOUR JUNTA
This was the Sun's illuminating ray, cast on the peacemaking efforts of the American Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, who had spent the last week shuttling between London, Washington and Buenos Aires. It was the tabloid newspapers' view that the United States was now behaving like a soppy spoilsport. The editorial writers had a best-selling war on their hands, and they were not going to be cheated out of it by a sleight of yellow-bellied diplomacy.'
I cringed with embarrassment at being reminded, I really did, yet I welcomed the reminder.
Coastings a book that segues perfectly with my June read of Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey at a book a day too. I am completely besotted with Homer (at last). Coasting a journey of self-discovery, a sea voyage, war, its all there and I am enjoying it immensely. It really does fulfil Eland's aim to 'catch the moment on the wings' but I really wish I hadn't looked here.
Meanwhile I am sure plenty of you are way ahead of me on this so all thoughts and recommendations about Jonathan Raban most gratefully received.