RIP Jonathan Raban

Jonathan Raban obituary, The Times

“Seafaring, quixotic and nomadic writer whose genre-defying books…”

So begins the obituary in The Times, which I sketched as a way to spend a bit of time thinking about him.

I loved Raban’s writing – the range of it, and the beautiful sentences. In my first published book, about my time at school, I confess to having stolen a hardback of Raban’s book Coasting from WH Smith in Notting Hill.

I’m not proud of that, but I mention it here to give a sense of how much I admired him. (I still have that hardback.)

One of his books, For Love and Money, is a collection of journalism – literary journalism, mostly, plus occasional feature writing and reportage.

In it, he looks back on his experiences in a way that seemed thrilling to me as a young man. Now that I’m older I can hear more clearly the cautionary overtone that I’ve picked out here in these edited highlights:

By comparison with other English editors, [the Radio Times editor] was as rich as Mr Toad. He could pay up to £400 for a piece of 1800 words in the middling-1970s. [This] would settle the gas bill, the phone bill, the electricity bill and the month’s mortgage all in one.

Assignments [in Monte Carlo, Los Angeles, the Euphrates and some perhaps less glamorous places, such as Barnsley] came not as work but as escapes from work; liberating breaks from the long spells of solitary confinement that more serious writing demands.

It’s easy to be seduced by journalism’s promise of instant distraction, instant publication, instant payment. The most damaging aspect of feature journalism is the way it turns life into a series of larks.

[Journalism] forces the writer into a purely professional relationship with his subject. Emotional disengagement, self-conscious observation, the capacity to turn a muddle of not very deeply felt sensations into a neat and vivid piece are part of the necessary equipment of the writer as journalist.

Too many such commissions, lightly assigned and lightly taken on, are likely to teach the writer secrets that are better not learned.

He’ll learn how to tart up a dull landscape [and] convey the illusion of easy intimacy with someone he’s spoken to for all of 15 minutes.

He’ll wake up one morning and discover that he’s not a writer but a forger.


Much of this rings true. But few, if any, British publications can offer anything like so much money now. The purchasing power of that £400, in 2023, is approximately equivalent to £4,400.

So perhaps serious authors are less likely to be spoiled, today, by occasional journalism assignments?

For what it’s worth, my own experience was to be slightly different.

It’s true, alas, that I produced many stories I didn’t much care about. The cumulative effect probably was unhealthy, and probably did tend towards neat and vivid forgery.

But some stories mattered intensely to me. I might have been put onto them in the first place by an editor, or I may have stumbled on them myself and struggled, not always successfully, to get the interest of an editor. But I really did care.

So I don’t agree that journalism forces a writer into a purely professional relationship with the subject. But it probably helps if you don’t do it all the time.