Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 3, 2010

Theroux and Raban Circle Britain

The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around Great Britain, Paul Theroux (1983), Washington Square Press, 433 pp.

Coasting, Jonathan Raban (1986), Picador, 301 pp.

In preparation for their book projects in 1982, Theroux traveled the British coastline by train, bus and foot clockwise; Raban sailed it counter-clockwise. They met in Brighton, each aware of the other’s book project and, according to Raban, neither very happy about the competition.

Yet two books on the same topic couldn’t be more different. Theroux tells us right off that he won’t be doing the touristy things. Instead, he focuses on the people he meets along the way and giving us long stretches of dialog from a variety of momentary companions. Historical information appears only as parenthetical quotes from guidebooks:

I crossed the grassy patch from Deal into Walmer, beside the low shore (“generally believed to have been the first landing place of Julius Caesar in Britain”).

Scenery is hardly worth noticing; description is kept to a minimum:

Glasgow was pleasant — not broken, but eroded. The slums were gone, the buildings washed of their soot; the city looked dignified — no barricades, no scorchings [such as he had seen in Northern Ireland].

But Theroux has a knack of attracting odd characters. On the train north from Glasgow, a slightly wacky octogenarian carries on a mostly one-sided conversation punctuated with occasional screams of rage about some modern scheme.  Just past Chatham, a crowd of skinheads fill Theroux’s railcar with profanity and violence, while the other passengers pretend that nothing’s amiss. In Whitby, a woman sits down next to him and shifts topic from house prices to the latest serial killer in the space of twenty words.

Throughout, Theroux is sometimes cranky, but I couldn’t help identifying with his impatience with a country that seemed to value the wrong things, closing down lovely train lines while building hideous coastal communities.

Theroux takes us almost step-by-step along his tour. Raban, on the other hand, weaves toward and away from the journey like a ship tacking in a fierce headwind. He digresses to his own autobiography, to long stories about other sailors, and to explication of nautical charts and navigation. Because he loses sight of land so frequently, it should be no surprise that the focus of his book shifts elsewhere, with the boat and sea as his constant companions.

I sailed for Rye in a pacific offshore wind which was doing no more than crimp and tease the sea. In the immediate vicinity of the boat, the sunshine was hard and bright, the small neat waves were razor-edged and the water was a bold powder-blue. It looked as if one should be able to see for miles and miles, yet headlands which were marked on the chart as quite near at hand kept on vanishing cleanly away behind me into an empty sky.

Both authors were traveling when the Falklands War was brewing, and Raban happened to sail alongside part of the UK fleet leaving Portsmouth for the South Atlantic. The contrast of the writers’ circuit of Britain with the soldiers’ tour of duty adds a solemn undertone to these mostly bright, if sometimes cranky, books.

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