Jonathan Raban

Jonathan Raban is still working on his years overdue, untitled memoir, which he hopes to deliver to his publishers in August.

War is noise: Letters from My Father

Jonathan Raban, 17 December 2020

Anzio​ is about 120 nautical miles from Salerno, on the west coast of Italy, and in January 1944 a convoy of 374 Allied ships took 25 hours to get there, at an average speed of barely five knots. They crawled towards their destination, trying to make as little giveaway whitewater wake as possible, and allowing for the blunt, roll-on, roll-off bows of so many of their number. They were lucky...

Belt, Boots and Spurs: Dunkirk, 1940

Jonathan Raban, 5 October 2017

Trying to keep track of my father and his troop as they move through this momentous sequence of events is like trying to keep one’s eyes on a single small fish in a vast migrating shoal of pilchards. Now you see it, now you don’t, and you never will again. Other people were watching him far more closely than I possibly can, and they noticed that he was cool under fire, shouldered responsibility when responsibility was thrust on him, spoke like a gentleman, and could play a decent hand at bridge. He was earmarked for early promotion.

Granny in the Doorway: Sheringham, 1945

Jonathan Raban, 17 August 2017

Sheringham in the early summer of 1945 was trying to return to normal life as a fishing village and genteel holiday resort. Along the beach, the rusting coils of barbed wire, wooden stakes and concrete blocks were mostly cleared, and the anti-tank ditches were being filled in. Snipers’ pillboxes and signs warning of unexploded mines remained, and so did the now-fading self-importance that comes to a place taught to think of itself as being on the front line of imminent invasion.

Cameron’s Crank: ‘Red Tory’

Jonathan Raban, 22 April 2010

I suppose everyone has a duty to plough through Red Tory. Blond writes a kind of polytechnic prose in which the various jargons of philosophy, sociology, economics and theology are churned together as in a concrete mixer. His method of argument is to connect strings of unrelated assertions with the words ‘thus’ and ‘then’ and ‘hence’.

Summer with Empson: Learning to Read

Jonathan Raban, 5 November 2009

My mother taught me to read in the summer of 1945, between VE Day and VJ Day, when I was turning three. Time lay on her hands: my father, a major in the Territorials, was away in Palestine, battling Irgun and the Stern Gang in the latter days of the British Mandate, and wasn’t due to be demobilised from the army until the end of the year; and I was a pushover for her deck of home-made...

Following the great parliamentary expenses scandal from afar has been to view my home country through the wrong end of a telescope: so many scuttling figures, comically diminished in scale, like poor, tiny Douglas Hogg, with his flat cap and backpack, breathlessly hurrying down the street pursued by a giant fuzzy insect in the form of a microphone. ‘That is not correct. That is not correct,’ he told the insect, like a pedantic character in Alice in Wonderland. ‘The schedule was not a claims schedule, it was a letter.’

Sarah Palin has put a new face and voice to the long-standing, powerful, but inchoate movement in US political life that one might see as a mutant strain of Poujadism, inflected with a modern American accent. There are echoes of the Poujadist agenda of 1950s France in its contempt for metropolitan elites, fuelling the resentment of the provinces towards the capital and the countryside towards the city, in its xenophobic strain of nationalism, sturdy, paysan resistance to taxation, hostility to big business, and conviction that politicians are out to exploit the common man.

As Barack Obama never tires of saying, America is a country where ‘ordinary people can do extraordinary things.’ In January 2006, Neil Entwistle, a seemingly ordinary 27-year-old Englishman with an honours degree from the University of York, who had been living in the US for barely four months, shot dead his American wife, Rachel, and their baby daughter, Lillian, with a long-barrelled Colt .22 revolver borrowed from his father-in-law’s gun collection. By the time the bodies were discovered in their house in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, huddled together beneath a rumpled duvet in the brand-new four-poster bed bought by the couple just ten days before, Entwistle was home in England, living with his parents in Worksop, as if what had happened in America was a violent dream from which he’d woken to reality in his old back bedroom at 27 Coleridge Road.

Diary: I’m for Obama

Jonathan Raban, 20 March 2008

For the last few weeks, I’ve left the blue-sheathed national edition of the New York Times out in the yard, where it’s tossed over the gate at 3 a.m. each morning, and gone straight to the paper’s website, because news printed nine or ten hours ago is too old to keep up with the fast-moving course of the Democratic nomination battle. As an Obama supporter, I tremble for him as one trembles for the changing fortunes of the hero of an intensely gripping picaresque novel. What does the latest poll say? Has his campaign, usually sure-footed, stumbled into some damaging foolishness? Has another skeleton been uncovered in his closet? Has his vanity got the better of him again, as when he delivered his smirking line, ‘You’re likeable enough, Hillary’? Are the cloyed gazettes finally tiring of him?

Planes, Trains and SUVs: James Meek

Jonathan Raban, 7 February 2008

James Meek’s last, bestselling novel, The People’s Act of Love, published in 2005 to great critical acclaim, was set in 1919, in ‘that part of Siberia lying between Omsk and Krasnoyarsk’. Anglophone readers who can locate ‘that’ part of Siberia without a good atlas deserve spot prizes. The historical date and exotic location gave Meek a fictional and cultural space in which extraordinary events and people could seem believable, when placed inside a landscape rendered in exact and first-hand detail. Things are possible between Omsk and Krasnoyarsk in 1919 (as they used to be in first-century Palestine) that would raise eyebrows were they reported now in, say, Camden Town or Virginia. It’s a tribute to Meek’s skill as both a realist and a determined unrealist that he could seemingly invent a strange Christian sect of self-mutilated castrates and a cannibal who takes along a green companion on his journey lest he run short of food along the way, and then reveal in an afterword that such practices were well documented in the Russia of the time – which is rather like finding a footnote to One Hundred Years of Solitude directing one to a peer-reviewed article about inexplicable ascensions by means of bedsheets in Colombian villages.

Martian Arts

Jonathan Raban, 23 July 1987

In 1972 the final issue of Ian Hamilton’s Review was given over to a symposium on ‘The State of Poetry’. Only fifteen years on, it has the flavour of a yellowed historical document. The symposium’s tone is embattled: it finds enemies and traitors on every bookshelf, with the whole future of English poetry threatened by sinister forces. ‘American Poetry’ is seen as the big, bad colonial influence by more than half the 35 contributors, few of whom bother to make it clear whether they mean Robert Lowell, or Allen Ginsberg, or the Black Mountain imitators of William Carlos Williams. ‘The Liverpool Poets’ are regarded with a mixture of fear and derision. ‘The ranks of the illiterate raise puerile and rhythmless voices,’ wrote Roy Fuller. ‘Infantile simplicity is all,’ wrote Julian Symons.

From The Blog
12 April 2010

I just got off the phone with a helpful guy called Fernando from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). The local bank where I have a chunk of my savings on deposit is in deep trouble and liable to be closed any day now, and I was concerned that my status in the US, as a permanent resident but not a citizen, might disqualify me from FDIC coverage. No problem, Fernando said. Everybody’s covered – immigrants, legal and otherwise, foreigners, citizens, whatever. An account with a single name on it is insured for up to $250,000, but as you add more names (of partners, family members, trusted friends) to the account, the greater the number of $250,000 tranches are protected.


Beastly to Canute

23 July 1987

SIR: Something should be done to rehabilitate the reputation of King Canute. Perhaps a ‘hands off Canute’ movement. He was a very intelligent, able and successful king, but the only purpose for which he is mentioned now is to illustrate the sort of ignorant obtuseness, joined with vanity, which he was seeking to combat on that famous tidal occasion. Presumably his courtiers got the message,...

Eliot at Smokefall

24 January 1985

SIR: Barbara Everett is being a shade disingenuous when she attributes her phrase ‘behind Harrods’ to Eliot’s ‘behind the pig-sty’ (Letters, 21 March). She also seems to have a rum command of London’s social geography. In Angus Wilson’s short story, ‘More Friend than Lodger’, a Belgravia hostess explains exactly where ‘behind Harrods’...

Your life depends on it: Jonathan Raban

Thomas Jones, 19 October 2006

Jonathan Raban’s first work of fiction, Foreign Land, was published in 1985; his second, Waxwings, in 2003; Surveillance is his third. A gap of almost twenty years, and then two novels in fairly...

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When the hero of Jonathan Raban’s new novel is scolded for living in a world of his ‘own construction’, the implied rebuke falls flat: this, for Raban, is the whole point of...

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Funny Water: Raban at Sea

Frank Kermode, 20 January 2000

Jonathan Raban is afraid of the sea, saying it is not his element, which is probably why he spends so much time on it. He does not claim to be a world-class sailor, though he is obviously a...

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When Dad Came Out Here

Stephen Fender, 12 December 1996

‘I am not a travel writer,’ Jonathan Raban said in a recent interview. ‘For me, “travel writer” means someone who samples other people’s holidays – you...

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Some More Sea

Patrick O’Brian, 10 September 1992

The last few years​ have been rich in Oxford Books, and I have read three of them: 18th-Century Verse and 18th-Century Women Poets, both edited with great skill and...

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Thank God for John Rayburn

Mark Ford, 24 January 1991

‘Travelling,’ Jonathan Raban once remarked, ‘is inherently a plotless, disordered, chaotic affair, where writing insists on connection, order, plot, signification.’ Even...

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Tracts for the Times

Karl Miller, 17 August 1989

There can’t be all that many people who are willing, in the presence of others, to call themselves intellectuals. There may even be those for whom intellectuals are a fiction, like fairies....

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Out of the jiffybag

Frank Kermode, 12 November 1987

Here begins a review of two books which are largely collections of reviews, and some readers, reviewing it, are sure to ask whether this flea-on-flea process is desirable or even tolerable. My...

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Gentlemen Travellers

Denis Donoghue, 18 December 1986

‘I am assuming,’ Paul Fussell said in Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars (1980), ‘that travel is now impossible and that tourism is all we have left.’ To...

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Costa del Pym

Nicholas Spice, 4 July 1985

In a letter to Robert Liddell dated 12 January 1940, Barbara Pym speaks well of her progress on a new novel, Crampton Hodnet, which she finished later that year, but which has only now surfaced...

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Gentlemen Travellers

D.A.N. Jones, 15 September 1983

The cool, courteous Alexander Kinglake and the hot, contentious George Borrow are two of the best-liked and most influential travel writers of the 19th century. They were contemporaries for much...

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An American Romance

Edward Mendelson, 18 February 1982

Old Glory – the book written by Jonathan Raban – is an altogether different book from the Old Glory that was praised in the reviews, but it is no less wonderful for that. The book the...

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