Travels. Britain by boat, and other journeys

Coasting: A Private Voyage, Jonathan Raban. New York: Simon & Schuster. 302 pp. $17.95. TO some degree the traveler is always an outsider. For the travel writer this poses a risk: There are journeys where he never gains entry; his account is that of a stranger in a land he doesn't understand. Yet it can also work to his advantage: The very detachment of being an outsider can serve to sharpen his perceptions and observations.

In ``Coasting,'' Raban plays the outsider's role wonderfully as a traveler in his own land. In 1982 Raban, a British travel writer (``Old Glory: An American Voyage,'' ``Foreign Land'') sailed around the British Isles, stopping at various ports. His goal was not to escape but to come to terms with Britain's identity and his own. Stocking his boat, the Gosfield Maid, with books on British history, geology, flora - ``an explorer's, not an exile's library''; on his wall a photo of Margaret Thatcher with clenched fist - ``a reminder that this voyage wasn't going to be a holiday from life''; he set off to visit familiar places and record how they had changed.

``Coasting'' is partly about Britain, partly about the author, and the two themes are nicely balanced, pivoting smoothly on the figure of Raban's father. The Britain that Raban finds is in decline. At Hull, where he attended university and taught school, the once bustling fish dock is abandoned, the fishing dead; Blyth is beset by the miners' strike, Rye by tourism, the whole country by the improbable Falkland Islands war.

Yet even though Hull is ``doleful,'' Blyth ``tense,'' and Rye ``packaged,'' the book ``Coasting'' is not pessimistic. Raban provides a lively counterpoint by his sense of humor; by the sea and its dangers, which he survives; by the people he meets - the ``insular'' Manx, the marvelous Philip Larkin, and Raban's father, who in retirement has found a new life. To Raban, his father - a vicar in the Church of England, a war hero, conservative, austere - was England itself. He now finds him a Labour-voting, ``cheerful ... bearded, radical debunker,'' and reflects at some length on how the vicar, like the church itself, has adapted to the times. One comes away from this affectionate, upbeat portrait, and from the book, with a sense not of stagnation but of motion, of tides, of a country and a people in flux. Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople from the Hook of Holland: The Middle Danube and the Iron Gates, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. New York: Elisabeth Sifton Books, Viking. 248 pp. $18.95.

When Patrick Leigh Fermor set out for Constantinople in 1933, at 18, his very aim was to become an outsider - ``a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight'' - to ``listen to new tongues that were untainted by a single familiar word.''

``Between the Woods and the Water'' is the second volume in a projected trilogy by this highly regarded travel writer. The first volume, the award-winning ``A Time of Gifts'' (1977), really must be read to appreciate this one - especially the introductory letter, which acquaints us with our engaging, rather offbeat young guide.

This volume takes up where the first left off, moving - always in Hitler's shadow - through isolated regions of Hungary, Transylvania, and the Carpathians to the Iron Gates. At times, Fermor is the tramp, sleeping out with Gypsies; at times, he is the errant scholar, visiting the well-appointed houses and libraries of the gentry, whose hospitality he attributes to ``a general kind feeling towards the young and the broke,'' ``a soft spot for England,'' and affection for his joyous attitude to life, which ``resembled a sea lion's to the flung bloater.'' Fermor, we may assume, was wonderfully intelligent and charming. A passion for history, geography, and English prose infuses his detailed descriptions of the landscape and a way of life that, though the boy could not know it, would soon be destroyed.

A fascinating aspect of these books is their layering of time. Fermor is writing half a century after his journey. To what the boy observed and recorded in journals, the older man adds a wealth of information and the perspective of war and loss. What Fermor gives us is a journey undertaken in youth and fulfilled in maturity. Across China, by Peter Jenkins. New York: A William Morrow/Sweet Springs Book. 343 pp. $18.95.

Compared with the two other books, ``Across China'' is an external view of a country to which the author never gained access. The book is really two in one: One part tells the story of a Mt. Everest expedition, which Jenkins accompanied partway; the other traces Jenkins's own trip through Tibet, to Mongolia, and China, recording what he saw, and didn't see, due to China's travel restrictions.

Jenkins, author of the best-selling ``A Walk Across America'' and ``The Walk West,'' is very much the ``average guy in China.'' He does not seem to have studied up beforehand, admits to missing Big Macs, calls his family often, and writes colloquial, even ungrammatical prose - as, when homesick, he says: ``I wanted to look out across some rolling hills like I could do on our own farm.'' His book is unpretentious and readable.

But there are major flaws with this book and its approach to China. Jenkins rightfully deplores China's travel restrictions, censorship, propaganda, the Cultural Revolution. But his patriotic responses - ``I felt a renewed and powerful appreciation for our government's laws enforcing everyone's freedom to believe and live as they so desired'' - seem inappropriate, smug, and after a while not too different from the propaganda he despises. Moreover, uninformed about China, his observations lack depth, his criticisms lack perspective. When his Chinese-American translator points out that certain traits for which he blames the Communists have a long tradition in China, he accuses her of defending her motherland. One cannot help feeling that Jenkins himself, as much as the government, restricted his access to China.

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