Jonathan Raban: I felt pretty happy that I was still alive
The author on his recovery after a stroke and his fears for a dis-United States
On 11 June 2011, a few days before his 69th birthday, Jonathan Raban was sitting with his daughter Julia at home in Seattle. Hed felt foggy and out of sorts since waking. Having reheated a casserole, he looked down to see that, try as he might, he couldnt make the knife in his right hand touch the food on his plate.
His voice lifts in remembered surprise. It was very strange. I said to Julia: I think Im having a stroke.
He was. A few hours later, Raban was in a hospital in the north of the city, looking at scans of his brain. The stroke was haemorrhagic, and massive: the damage to the right side of his body would be impossible to erase.
Carefully balancing a glass of red wine with his good hand, he gestures down at the wheelchair he now uses. Not quite instantly, but within a very few weeks, I was transformed into an old man. A second later, he concedes gruffly: I did feel pretty happy that I was still alive.
Appropriately for a man best known for his nautical writing, Rabans home feels rather like the upturned hull of a boat, with coffee-coloured redwood beams and a clutter of charts, sailing photos, engravings and mock-ups of the covers of his books. Every so often theres the drone of a seaplane coming in to land.
As soon as he got home from rehab,Raban did what he has always done: he began to write, and to research accounts of other peoples strokes (mostly unreadable, he grunts), English social history, his parents letters; searching for a way to braid the experience with the other skeins of his life.
I remember a doctor came to the rehabilitation ward, about my age, and said: Oh, youre the one who used to be a writer. I told him: Im still a writer, and I intend to write about this.
Raban talks in unhurried, intricately woven sentences, languid vowels barely touched by two decades in the US; it feels a little surreal to encounter him here in the Pacific Northwest. But Seattle, he goes on to explain, is as close to a home as he has found. Born in Norfolk in 1942 and educated at the University of Hull where he became friendly with Philip Larkin he started out as an academic. But as his anthology-cum-memoir For Love and Money (1989) attests, he lasted only a few years, writing fiction and journalism during University of East Anglia vacations and trying to gain a ticket of entrance to the city at the end of the line. He launched himself as a freelance writer in London in 1969, lodging with the poet Robert Lowell and becoming part of the bibulous in-crowd that centred on Ian Hamiltons magazine New Review.