The BBC website is doing a small piece of self-puffery—and why not?—by wondering:
The Shipping Forecast can be heard four times a day on BBC Radio 4, giving details of conditions in the seas around the UK, Ireland and beyond.
Each broadcast attracts hundreds of thousands of listeners, many of them with no connection to coastal waters – so what is its enduring appeal?
Malcolm notes that this is being done by Kevin Young, Entertainment reporter. The only link to this being “news” is an approximate anniversary:
The broadcast was already part of the Home Service when it was rebranded as Radio 4, 40 years ago this week.
The schedule for the first day of Radio 4, on 30 September 1967, has an entry from 2345 to 2348, describing a “forecast for coastal waters”.
The nearest thing to an explanation for the phenomenon is given by Mark Damazer, controller of Radio 4:
“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.”
The Shipping Forecast has a quite remarkable footprint in popular culture: as wikipedia will explain in full, it has appeared in lyrics by Blur, Radiohead, Tears for Fears, Chumbawamba, British Sea Power and Jethro Tull.
Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L’Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, ‘A haven,’
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.
There’s a lot going on here. Heaney had removed to Wicklow from Belfast, north to south, city to countryside. He acknowledges the duality of his own tradition: nodding equally at Paddy Kavanagh‘s sonnet sequence Temptation in Harvest (which marks Kavanagh’s removal from Monaghan to Dublin) and, in Sonnet X, Thomas Wyatt (the pioneer of the English sonnet). There are also references to Joyce (‘inwit’ in Sonnet IX), Shakespeare (inevitably, perhaps) and Wordsworth. The more Malcolm reads those lines, the more antitheses he finds: land and sea, Anglo-Saxon past (‘keel-road, whale-road’) and modern, morning and ‘closedown’, storm and shelter, ‘gale-warning’ and ‘clearing’, the French and the English names. Above all Heaney is reminding himself, then us, of the instabilities of life, particularly of emotional life, which perversely repeat into an eternal pattern of continuity.
Carol Ann Duffy uses the shipping forecast to illustrate and conclude her sonnet, Prayer (a bane in many a GCSE English candidate’s studies, inevitably juxtaposed with George Herbert, from which it borrows):
Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.
Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.
Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.
Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
Again the contrasts: ‘prayer’ but ‘faithless’, ‘console’ but ‘pain’ and ‘loss’, the anonymous simplicity and distance of ‘Grade 1 piano scales’ with the personal complexity and empathy of ‘the lodger looking out across a Midlands town’. It is held together by two conceits: the metaphor of ‘prayer’ as a natural, non-religious ritual, and the unexpected and ordinary universality of music.
Heaney … Duffy … and the shipping forecast’s appeal, according to Mark Damazer (above), is so “English”. Well, well.
Above all, we all seek a full-stop, a closure to each episode, to each day. And that is the wider signification of the post-midnight shipping forecast. It is a sonorous formula of some 350 words, which follows a ritualistic order. The shipping areas, as they are recited, form a clockwise pattern around the British Isles: the names visualised on a chart following a clock’s hands from 12 o’clock all the way round the face of the dial. It is delivered at dictation speed. It is comforting, especially in the warmth of a bed, while, however briefly, musing on the lot of all poor souls at sea. It is full of marvellous names, real and metaphoric: the mundane rivers (Tyne, Humber, Thames, Shannon) and the islands (Fair Isle, Wight, Lundy) rubbing along with the romantic (Hebrides, Trafalgar, Fitzroy — formerly Finisterre). And for the older contingent (including Malcolm) the mysteries: where did Utsire come from? where did the Minches go? the significance of ‘veering’ versus ‘backing’?
Malcolm’s father was a strict observer of the late shipping forecast, followed by the metronomic repetition of Sailing By, followed by sleep. As he became deafer, so the volume increased: nobody in the house would miss out. Dee-dee-dum-dum, de dee-dee-dum-dum, de dee-dee-dum-dum, de dee. So that was why Malcolm had it played as the fade-out music at the end of the crematorium service. And why, perhaps, in due course it will see Malcolm out, too.