I thought it was a while since we’d heard from Jonathan Raban — his last book, Driving Home, appeared in Britain in 2010 and I hadn’t seen any journalism from him lately — but I had no idea he had had a stroke in 2011 until I saw an interview with him by Andrew Dickson in the review section of The Guardian at the weekend. I was sad to learn that. Raban has long been one of my favourite writers, and I came to admire the man as well as the work after he went out of his way to introduce me to his adopted city of Seattle when I was there for The Daily Telegraph.
The stroke has done irreparable damage to the right side of his body and put him in a wheelchair, but his thinking, says Dickson, is “as restless and ambulatory as ever” and he’s now searching for a way to write about the experience; to “braid [it] with the other skeins of his life”.
During the interview, there’s mention of Jan Morris, who, in common with Raban, bridles at the description “travel writer” (her argument — an odd one to me — being that she doesn’t write about journeys). Another thing they share is a fondness for Eothen, a book about the Middle East written by Alexander Kinglake, an Old Etonian, in the 1830s. In Ariel, his recently published literary life of Morris, Derek Johns says it is Eothen, above all other books, that “she considers the inspiration for her lifelong career of writing about places”. Raban singled it out, too, when I asked him to contribute to a series, “Companion Volume”, in which writers chose their favourite travel book. (Morris, who, I think, added her contribution later and was perhaps trying to avoid repetition, went for Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey.)