Journeys to the edge of the world

Ghosts follow English writer Jonathan Raban whereever he goes; on his journeys, whether by boat or car or foot

Ghosts follow English writer Jonathan Raban whereever he goes; on his journeys, whether by boat or car or foot. In his waking moments. In his dreams, should he ever really sleep. They persist throughout his reading, which is extensive and as thorough as his writing - he was once an academic. His spirit people converse with him as he writes and they feature in his books. This doesn't surprise Raban. "The dead vastly outnumber the living" intones the rector's son in him. His best conversations take place in his head or on the page. This is a highly cerebral man who has learnt to match his intellectual, history-based flights of the imagination with daring feats of seamanship - daring that is, for a late vocation sailor whose natural instinct is to hug the shore, and whose talent and survival to date owe far more to an extremely valuable fear of the sea than to his obvious love of its mysteries. That being said, the carelessly assembled, loose-limbed character with the tombstone teeth, faintly mad grin and grubby baseball cap goes further in explaining the mystery of the sea than writers who have specialised in the subject. Raban is a wonderful talker, his conversation veering between the random and schoolmasterish exactitude. Physically he is slightly adrift, a restless human airship, all limbs and temperament, tethered to his chair by force of will and old-style English politeness.

A self-confessed misfit who has made a career of his outsider personality, Raban would agree he is a walking disaster area: "It's quite deliberate that this new book begins with a big lummox walking along the dock and ends with another - me". He enjoys describing himself as hopeless. "I had an upper class upbringing, except we lived in poverty. That was very difficult. I have this accent, and mixed with boys who were rich, while I was poor. At home we ate our watery mince and instant mashed potatoes off heavy silverware embossed with the family name. My mother is a great believer in ritual. We were impoverished gentry living among the relics of wealth." He sighs at the burden of memory. "It all seemed, somehow, wrong."

Clearly ill-suited to even pretending he finds life easy, the friendly if sparky Raban, for all his personal complexities, is a natural writer, with a genius for elegant, relaxed prose. Comic observation, which is hilariously perceptive without being cruel, is blended with superb meditative reportage. With Old Glory, Hunting Mister Heartbreak and the heartbreakingly profound social history Badland - An American Romance (which chronicles the doomed homesteading attempted in East Montana, and is his finest book to date) he has written three of the best books ever written about the US, as it really is, not as it is imagined.

His latest, Passage To Juneau, initially planned as an account of a voyage from Seattle up to the Alaskan Panhandle, coincided with serious personal trauma. It is two books linked by the trials of an unpopular late 18th century British sea captain, Captain Vancouver, who may well have gone crazy in the pursuit of more territory for the Crown. As Raban's journey was broken in the middle, did it prove a difficult book to write? "Well considering my father died and my marriage broke up. I would say it wasn't easy." That was actually what I meant - there is a touchy toughness about Raban. For all the relaxed grace and civilised pace of his books, which are more personal memoir than travel, he is hard and detached, a true loner shrouded in an aura of personal chaos.


Above all, he is a professional writer, capable of hearing his three year-old daughter respond to the news of his trip with ominous fortitude: "I don't mind. I won't miss you. I love Mommy more than you." Yet he still set off. Raban's argument is that he had a book to write, and the book depended on the trip. Now that marriage, his second, is over and he sees his daughter "exactly three and a half days a week". Did he suspect his relationship was in trouble? "No, not at all. I was completely taken by surprise." Sitting in a Dublin hotel, he looks cheerfully haunted. His sonorous actorly voice draws glances of curiosity which change to bewilderment on locating the bedraggled source of the upper class drawl. He seems far too awkwardly made to be comfortable in the confines of a boat but its tiny space has become his refuge, his "narrative vehicle", his floating study.

Born in 1942, the eldest of four sons, Raban's problems appear to have begun when his father returned from the war and challenged his small son's exclusive right to his mother's attention. As a sickly child he early acquired the need for constant attention and soon saw it as his divine right. Major Raban, his father, decided to switch careers and began studying for the Church in his 30s. His flocks tended to be poor.

Raban's childhood included a year spent on the Isle of Man. School was Kings School, in Worcester -Elgar country. Nostalgia does not temper his neutral remark: "I passed through it in a long daydream." Even so, he managed a county scholarship which brought him to Hull University at a time when Philip Larkin was librarian, preoccupied with poetry and avoiding students. There is a memorable portrait of the poet in Coasting, Raban's account of travelling around Thatcher's Britain at the height of the Falklands War. Larkin emerges as detached, prematurely aged and wary of even examining Raban's boat, as such a visit would amount to an adventure. Dismissing himself as a diligent student, Raban is however quick to point out that "I must have been OK, I spent four years as a university lecturer."

By 1969 he had become a full time writer, producing quality journalism and reviews. Soft City, his first book, a study of cities, primarily London, was published in 1974 and was followed five years later by the exotic and traditional Arabia with its hints of the style to come. Both were well received. By book number three, Old Glory, Raban had made it clear that his unique blend of observed reportage and memoir which evokes individuals and atmospheres was defying genres. Clearly he is not a travel writer.

"I agree" he says and seems pleased, "I think Americans are more open to this blurring of genres. I'm always surprised when I hear that `oh he's a travel writer'. I'm not. I see myself writing close to fiction. Fiction is about shaping character. I like this exploding of genres." Speaking of which introduces the subject of WG Sebald's masterpiece, The Rings of Saturn. Raban the critic and reader takes over. That book excites him. "It is a book I admire but I would not set out to copy it." He also praises Magris's Danube and remarks of books in general, "they are a way of helping us find out who we are. They are responses to ordinary life", which is certainly the way he sees his, although Raban makes no secret of the fact that every sentence is carefully crafted.

Old Glory was the result of a long-held ambition, to sail down the Mississippi. Having first read Huckleberry Finn at the age of seven, Raban became fascinated by the mighty river. "For days I lay stretched out on the floor of my attic room, trying to bring the river to life from its code of print. It was tough going. Often I found Huck's American dialect as impenetrable as Latin, but even in the most difficult bits I was kept at it by the persistent wink and glimmer of the river." More than 30 years after that first reading, he was to sail down the Mississippi in a skiff fitted with an outboard motor.

HUCK remains important to him. "The other week I was on a Canadian radio show, on a panel talking about our favourite books. My two were The Wind in the Willows and Huckleberry Finn." While Raban's highly descriptive, observed narratives are close to fiction, the one actually published to date as a novel is Foreign Land (1985), the story of an Englishman who returns to his country after 40 years in Africa and does not recognise its new aggression. Nor can he make sense of his now adult daughter. In it, Raban for once, does not call upon his comfortable first person voice. "The first person narrator always gets it wrong," he says brightly, recalling a meeting between himself and fellow writer - and friend - Paul Theorux, which took place when both were researching respective books about England. "Paul's (book) came out first of course" and the meetings were "completely different." Several parallels exist between Foreign Land and Passage to Juneau; both George, the central character of the novel, and Raban, find themselves increasingly engaged in conversations with ghosts while alone at sea, these sessions are particularly intense as conditions disimprove. In both books there is the sense that he is aware of becoming his father, of acquiring his father's face, long before the old man died, midway through work on Passage to Juneau.

Age began to preoccupy Raban relatively early. Losing his hair has amounted to no less than a personal outrage. "I felt my mother's distress at finding a gaunt man in his fifties as her son" he records in Passage. As early as Coasting, Raban is reporting his father's reaction to his son's baldness, "Gave me a bit of a shock, seeing it like that." Raban's aside is typical, " `Me too', I thought: I wouldn't much like to wake up and find myself the father of a bald son."

Hunting Mister Heartbreak (1990) builds on his obvious rapport with the US. It is also hilarious. In it, he attempts to set up an individual new life in four very different places: New York; Guntersville, Alabama (where he recruits a fat Labrador bitch as a body guard); Seattle and Key West. While its thesis is emigration, the book is a celebration of American speech and cultural diversity as observed by a slightly bewildered narrator.

Why does he like Seattle? "I first went there for six weeks in 1989." He describes going into a shop. "Everyone was very polite, almost formal. They were wearing funny masks. "I thought to myself, `This must be how they dress here', then I realised it was Halloween. Americans take Halloween very seriously,' he says with mock gravity. In the new book, in a scene at the airport on his return from England after his father's funeral, he reports: "I was happy to be back in the American language."

Asked about this, he stresses "I love England. When I went I felt I was home, but then it closed in again." While of course very English, Raban has an affinity for the US. While he still regards it as another planet, he has become alert to its nuances, particularly humour. In Seattle, that city of hyperreality and a floating population from somewhere else, "I'm usually seen as an Australian". In England now, his friends see him as different. More American? He still sounds very English, but he is more relaxed. "More direct. I tend to say what I think."

JUST as he describes the sea in his various books with a painterly eye, in Montana he looks towards the "vacant blue" sky and observes the plain, conceding the impossibility of photographing either. It is a beautiful book, a lament about that most romantic of endeavours, the expansion of The Great Northern Railroad and the hope to justify it by populating the empty prairie. It was a failure. Among the many marvellous ghosts in that book is pioneering photographer Evelyn Cameron. In the new one, his father eventually replaces its initial ghost, Captain Vancouver, an unfortunate fat unhappy man who finds himself in charge of a crew of young gentlemen who despise him for his low birth. "Just as Vancouver dies, my father steps in," remarks Raban.

Now divorced again, Raban became a father for the first time at 50. Julia, who was seven in November, has given him a base. When asked does he expect to remain in Seattle, where he moved in 1990, he says "Probably for the next 10 to 15 years. That's where Julia is." As a reader he likes to "experience" at least a page of Waugh a day. Books have always been a lifeline for him, and he is in the happy position of having all his books in print. He is also regarded as one of the finest writers alive. If he seems self-absorbed, he is certainly not complacent, and his rampaging curiosity make him an ideal companion, particularly on the page.

"I have a distinct ambition. To sail from Seattle to Hawaii with a good companion, not with some woman I think I'm in love with." The last said with the determined impatience of one who has had enough of that rubbish. "But to do that. . . " a wild boy's smile of contentment sweeps across his face. How far is it? "2,800 miles. It's a serious trip."

In another life Jonathan Raban might well have been one of the tough little survivors in Golding's Lord of the Flies. Now more than ever, at 57, he has come to resemble George the displaced central character of Foreign Land, a man ultimately only at home on the thin skin of the sea. Not that home, any home, not even his trusty ketch, could contain the restless Raban. Living in the US seems the best thing to have happened to him. Perhaps it's finally made him at ease with his Englishness which may in the past have proved too much in England, but is acceptable in Seattle, "where anything seems to go". It's even provided him with that ever elusive thing called identity. "Look, I'll show you" he announces like a happy schoolboy about to introduce his pet rat. "They gave me this in the States." It is a small rectangle of plastic which sums up Jonathan Raban. Underneath the usual "wanted poster" passport or driver's licence photograph are the words "Resident Alien". "Isn't it wonderful? It makes me sound like I'm from outer space."

Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban is published by Picador £16.99 in UK.

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times