Home Away From Home: Jonathan Raban moves to Seattle

The Seattle Times
May 26, 1991
By Alex Tizon

JONATHAN RABAN — author, traveler, fancier of bridges ­— eases his 32-foot tubby sloop down the dark green waters of the Lake Washington ship canal. Just ahead, looming like a broken piece of property, is the Fremont Bridge, its two halves raised to make way for the sailboat’s mast, and exposing its machine-works underbelly for Raban to peruse as he passes.

“It’s kind of pretty,” he says, eyes almost glinting. Has anyone lately called the Fremont Bridge pretty? Squat, yes. Functional, yes. A traffic bottleneck for commuters, definitely. But pretty? This guy Raban (pronounced RAE-bun) must be from out of town.

He is. From way out of town. From London, in fact, and presumably here to stay. After criss-crossing the continental plateau like a vagabond in search of America’s soul, the 48-year-old author, widely considered among Britain’s finest, decided last May to make Seattle his home. It’s a move that has the city’s literati whispering excitedly.

He is regarded among the best of a genre of writers who observe and interpret, with a highly personal and literary voice, slices of the natural world. Raban is author of “Arabia Through The Looking Glass,” and “Coasting.” He is most known in this country for “Old Glory,” a bestseller about his journey down the length of the Mississippi River.

His latest book, “Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America,” released this month, has been compared to de Tocqueville’s expansive commentaries on the U.S. Through the experiences of modern-day immigrants, Raban explores places like New York City, Guntersville, Ala., and the Florida Keys, subjecting each to his probing imagination. The book ends with a long and insightful chapter on Seattle, reflecting not only on the Korean immigrant boom in the city, but on his own reasons for moving here.

These days he is comfortably nestled in a modest duplex on Queen Anne, which he shares with a female companion. His den looks out to a large, overgrown garden, nurtured by a record wet spring. Much of his attraction to Seattle has to do with its “wateriness.”

“It’s absolutely rooted in water, and it’s a very great consolation,” he says, in the syncopated inflections of a British native. “Any city which is as much muddled up in its surrounding water as Seattle has to have some element of profundity in it. The depth of the water compensates for the relative shallowness of the (city’s) history.”

There is little of the most-livable-city fluff in Raban’s descriptions, yet his language is laced with an affection he can’t seem to, and doesn’t want to, hide. He says there is a European broodiness about Seattle. It is bookish, contemplative, and deeply private. In a soon-to-be published magazine piece, he writes:

“The hills and the water gave everyone a blessed distance from their neighbors, yet at the same time, there was something lonely in these spaces, especially at night, when the lights of distant hills showed across the Sound and the lakes, and so one wanted to build bridges to make connections.”

Ah, yes, the bridges. He loves them in a way that only one can who appreciates their metaphorical dimension.

After passing underneath the Fremont Bridge, Raban steers his boat through the center of Lake Union toward the downtown skyline, which looms like a promised city. Standing windblown and grasping the wheel like a man on a great adventure, he seems infinitely far away from his early, former lives as a professor of English literature, radio and television playwright and magazine freelancer in Britain. All sedate stuff compared to this.

He still has a professorial air about him, brought on partly by the pipe and the tweed jacket underneath the parka, and those wild, bristly eyebrows that insinuate so much wisdom. Then there’s the hat. His trademark green felt hat that hints at Indiana Jones, another professor/adventurer. He claims no motive for buying it. “It’s just an American Western hat made in London.”

Raban radiates like a man who has sloughed off his old identity and taken on a new life in a new city. His energy is that of someone on a voyage of discovery. Maybe Seattle will learn something about itself along the way.

Will he stay here for good?

With one hand on the wheel, he maneuvers a finger onto the edge of a bench. “I’m touching wood,” he says, eyebrows bristling, mouth stretched into a broad, toothy smile, and eyes glimmering with visions of things to come.