The Shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4, whose antecedents date from 1861, is an extraordinary marker of British identity (cf. The Archers and Desert island discs, among many posts under The English, home and abroad). To be fair, Radio 4 listeners may not quite be representative of the whole population (You Heard It Here First), but still…
The forecast is replete with the abstract, poetic litany of
North Utsire, South Utsire, Viking, Cromarty, Forth, Dogger, German Bight…
southwesterly veering northwesterly five or six, decreasing four. Rain then showers. Moderate with fog patches, becoming good.
In a perceptive chapter on “weather rules” from her brilliant book Watching the English, Kate Fox notes the power of this “arcane, evocative, and somehow deeply soothing meteorological mantra”:
None of this information is of the slightest use or relevance to the millions of non-seafarers who listen to it, but listen we do, religiously mesmerised by the calm, cadenced, familiar recitation of lists of names of sea areas.
Mark Damazer, Controller of Radio 4, attempted to explain its popularity:
It scans poetically. It’s got a rhythm of its own. It’s eccentric, it’s unique, it’s English. It’s slightly mysterious because nobody really knows where these places are. It takes you into a faraway place that you can’t really comprehend unless you’re one of these people bobbing up and down in the Channel.
Zeb Soanes, a regular Shipping Forecast reader:
To the non-nautical, it is a nightly litany of the sea. It reinforces a sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past. Whilst the listener is safely tucked up in their bed, they can imagine small fishing-boats bobbing about at Plymouth or 170ft waves crashing against Rockall.
Like Fran in Black books, perhaps:
Charlie Connelly, in his engagingly nerdy book Attention all shipping: a journey around the Shipping forecast (2004, complementing the 1998 picture-book Rain later, good), notes the subtleties of reading the forecast at different times of day.
The late-night broadcast is particularly evocative (as in the old joke “Drink Horlicks before you go to sleep—otherwise you’ll spill it”). It’s perfectly crowned by the healing aural balm of Sailing by (1963), by the splendidly-named Ronald Binge, creator of Mantovani’s “cascading strings” effect [Persontovani, please!—Ed.]:
In case you’re still mystified as to what the forecast is for, click on the YouTube icon and note the BTL comments there.
As reader Jane Watson comments, the forecast is “comforting for people at home, because they’re tucked up in bed and they’re hearing that it’s absolutely blowing a gale somewhere out at sea”—which might sound rather like Schadenfreude.
As with most ritual traditions, the language is slow to change—how I would love to hear the suave tones of Charlotte Green announcing
Pissing down. Bummer.
Among many parodies, most brilliant are Les Barker’s version as read by Brian Perkins:
and Stephen Fry (1988):
Back at the real script, Alan Bennett (“occasionally moderate”) read it for Radio 4’s Today at the inspired request of Michael Palin—taking on a quite different tone, both sinister and hilarious:
Talking of British identity, the forecast waxes philosophical in the phrase “losing its identity”—precisely the paranoid fear bandied by Brexiteers.
Stellar lords of the Northern Dipper, from the chanted Litanies for Prolonging Life
(Yansheng chan 延生懺) manual, copied by Li Qing, early 1980s.
Radio 4 listeners, bless their cotton socks, defend the ritual fiercely: there was a “national outcry when the BBC had the temerity to change the time of the late-night broadcast, moving it back by a mere 15 minutes (‘People went ballistic’, according to a Met. Office spokesman).” When the name of sea area Finisterre was changed to FitzRoy, “Anyone would think they’d tried to change the words of the Lord’s Prayer!”
Needless to say, such formalistic language reminds me of the long litanies of deities and pseudo-Sanskrit mantras that punctuate Daoist ritual (e.g. here, under “20th May”), whose efficacy for the devotee is also unsullied by mere cerebral comprehension.