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5:02 pm
Mon December 16, 2013

The Shipping Forecast: From Britain's Seas Into Its Soul

Originally published on Thu December 19, 2013 2:29 pm

It is a bizarre nightly ritual that is deeply embedded in the British way of life.

You switch off the TV, lock up the house, slip into bed, turn on your radio, and begin to listen to a mantra, delivered by a soothing, soporific voice.

"Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger ...." says the voice.

You are aware — vaguely — that these delicious words are names, and that those names refer to big blocks of sea around your island nation, stretching all the way up to Iceland and down to North Africa.

Your mind begins to swoop across the landscape, sleepily checking the shorelines, from the gray waters of the English Channel to the steely turbulence of the Atlantic.

Somewhere, deep in your memory, stir echoes of British history — of invasions from across the sea by Vikings, Romans and Normans; of battles with Napoleon's galleons and Hitler's U-boats.

Finally, as the BBC's Shipping Forecast bulletin draws to a close, you nod off, complacent in the knowledge that whatever storms are blasting away on the oceans out there, you're in your pajamas, sensibly tucked up at home.

The fact that you know nothing much about the sea, and cannot tell a freighter from a futtock (part of a wooden hull), is beside the point.

For you, listening to the BBC's Shipping Forecast every night is about something else entirely.

You're paying homage to an institution that is as much part of the jigsaw that makes up Britain's national culture as drizzle and warm beer.

Why does the Shipping Forecast mean so much to so many in the U.K.?

For one, the weather still actually matters for many coastal communities, such as the tiny island of Lundy off southwest England, home to 28 people. There's the Tyne in the northeast — one of the 31 sea areas that feature in the forecast — once a maritime hub for Britain's mighty coal and shipbuilding industries where the "Geordies" are now striving to find a new role for their community. And in the ancient southern seaside town of Hastings, the same families have been fishing for centuries.

But for many Britons, the Shipping Forecast is much more significant than a weather bulletin for the fishermen and sailors who make their living from the oceans.

A very large number of regular listeners are landlubbers. They are, however, fiercely loyal.

BBC Radio 4 broadcasts the Shipping Forecast four times a day, but the late-night bulletin — shortly before 1 a.m. — possesses a particular mystique. It's not uncommon for listeners to ask for the music that introduces it — "Sailing By" — to be played at their funerals.

A few years back, when someone suggested changing the bulletin's timing by just 12 minutes, there were angry speeches in Parliament and indignant newspaper editorials.

Listeners brandishing banners demonstrated outside the BBC's London headquarters. The idea was eventually abandoned.

A Mysterious, And Inspiring, Appeal

Exactly why the Shipping Forecast is held in such affectionate esteem by the British public is a topic of considerable discussion in the U.K.

Many people compare the forecast with listening to poetry. The BBC's Arlene Fleming is one of the presenters of the forecast: "It is poetry! ... There is a natural rhythm to it," she says, "just like the sea."

This may help explain why the Shipping Forecast has enthused so many artists over the years.

It has inspired poetry by neighboring Ireland's late, great Seamus Heaney and also Britain's Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy. It arises in art; it's referenced in TV shows, movies and songs — such as Blur's "This is a Low," and Thomas Dolby's "Windpower," which actually ends with a sample from a broadcast.

A snippet from the bulletin cropped up in Danny Boyle's widely acclaimed opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Comedians aplenty have tried their hands at parodies of the forecast.

Peter Jefferson presented the Shipping Forecast on the BBC's airwaves for 40 years.

In his book And Now The Shipping Forecast, Jefferson offers this explanation: "There is something in many of us that likes the certainties of life and is averse to change.

"The Shipping Forecast is a comfort, a given, a sign that maybe, just maybe, everything is alright with the world after all — until the next day dawns, anyway — but that's a few hours of delicious sleep away! Time for the febrile mind to repair itself, rest, chill out, relax and take gentle stock of things."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Over the next few days, we're going exploring along the edge of Britain. The idea isn't to focus on seaports or fishing villages, but on the shipping areas off its coast. Britain is after all a maritime nation that once boasted the world's largest navy.

And, as NPR's Philip Reeves tells us, even the names of shipping areas in the surrounding seas are embedded in the British national psyche.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This is a story about a strange institution. The British call this institution a national treasure. It's not a painting or a palace or a prince. This treasure is made only of words.

ARLENE FLEMING: And now the shipping forecast issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency...

REEVES: For many Britons, the Shipping Forecast is woven into the fabric of life. The routine's the same every night. You finish your cup of tea. Put out the cat and lock up. Hop into bed. Switch on the radio and serenely drift off to this.

FLEMING: There are warnings of gales in Viking, North Uitsera, South Uitsera, Forties, Cromerty, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight...

REEVES: The British Isles are an archipelago measuring about 900 miles from top-to-toe. Plenty of people make a living from the ocean. Wild weather on the high seas matters to them. Yet many more Britons are landlubbers who know nothing of currents and tides. Plenty of them are also devoted listeners.

SALLY CROOKE: I definitely don't, you know, have any sort of natural affiliations with the seaside.

REEVES: Sally Crooke is from a farming family in the English county of Wiltshire. Wiltshire is landlocked.

Do you listen to the Shipping Forecast?

CROOKE: I do...

(LAUGHTER)

CROOKE: ...listen to the Shipping Forecast. Even in London, I listen to the Shipping Forecast, yes. You know, it is always the same places mentioned in the same order. It is soothing.

FLEMING: Forth, Tyne, northwest, backing west or southwest, five to seven, decreasing...

NICK HARKAWAY: We are a seafaring nation from the very beginning. We're an island country. And so it's all our gateways. It's everywhere that you can come into or leave the United Kingdom, the Shipping Forecast goes there and tells you what's happening there.

REEVES: Nick Harkaway is an author and a landlubber and a big Shipping Forecast fan.

HARKAWAY: I think maybe for the Brits it's a little like a Swiss watch. When you hear the ticking of a Swiss watch, you know that it'll continue to do that in this regular and perfect way forevermore. It's the symbolic British calm, perfectly predicting the sea moving out into the world, and so on. It's our - it's an identity.

FLEMING: Occasional rain later, good, occasionally poor: Wight, Portland, Plymouth, northwest backing southwest later, five to seven...

REEVES: That voice is BBC announcer Arlene Fleming. The BBC's Radio Four broadcasts four shipping forecasts every day. Fleming says it's the forecast in the quiet wee hours, after midnight that has an especially mystical quality.

FLEMING: There is a natural rhythm to it, almost a wave, a rhythm. You know, just like the sea, it's wonderful. It's almost like poetry to me. You know, and I have had so many people write in to me and say, you know, I like to listen to you reading it because you've got a lovely - there's a lovely rhythm to it. And I say I always think of it as a poetical work.

Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon; northwest backing west or southwest...

I have had a few cards, a few Valentine's cards, about the Shipping Forecast and things from anonymous people, which is very nice.

REEVES: Valentines to you?

FLEMING: To me...

(LAUGHTER)

FLEMING: ...about the Shipping Forecast.

REEVES: Saying how much they love...

FLEMING: Yes, indeed. Well, there was one just saying he'd gone to sleep listening to the Shipping Forecast and he awoke listening to it, and thought he'd died and gone to heaven.

(LAUGHTER)

FLEMING: And I thought, a bit over the top but how lovely.

(LAUGHTER)

FLEMING: Five to seven, increasing seven to severe gale 9...

REEVES: The Shipping Forecast covers 31 sea areas. That's a huge expanse of water.

ALISTER MCHARDY: They extend all the way up to - the furthest point is probably southeast Iceland, and that's the furthest northwest. And then we've got another area right down in the far south called Trafalgar, which goes all the way right down to North Africa.

REEVES: Alister McHardy of Britain's Met Office says that you can get the forecast these days on Sat Nav, mobile phone and the Internet. Yet seafarers still often tune in to the BBC.

MCHARDY: There's actually a piece of music which goes out called "Sailing By." The reason behind using music is it's an identifier for people tuning in on long wave. And if they're out in a vessel out on a wild windy night - say, in the middle of the North Sea - then they can tune in; if they hear that music, then they know they've actually got the right frequency and they can listen to the Shipping Forecast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SAILING BY")

REEVES: Back in their beds, Britain's landlubbers slide off to sleep to that same music. So ingrained is "Sailing By" in the lives of some that they choose it in death, too, to be played at their funerals.

PETER JEFFERSON: It is not an unusual request, which again is another way of sort of strengthening this hold which apparently the forecast has on so many people, that they even want it played after they're gone. (Laughing)

REEVES: Peter Jefferson was for decades the voice of Britain's Shipping Forecast. He read the forecast on the radio for 40 years, then wrote a book about it. He remembers when the BBC decided to change the time of the nightly forecast by just 12 minutes. There were demonstrations outside the BBC's London headquarters.

JEFFERSON: There were people even marching outside Broadcasting House. I mean it was that... (Laughing) ...that intense. With banners. It was quite an amazing sight really.

REEVES: The plan eventually had to be scrapped.

The Shipping Forecast is not always taken so seriously though. The Brits also find it funny.

STEPHEN FRY: South Uitsera, North Uitsera, Sheerness, Foulness, Eliot Ness...

REEVES: The weird and exotic names of the shipping areas seems to appeal to a British sense of the absurd and therefore to humorist Stephen Fry.

FRY: If you will, Often, Eminent, 447, 22 yards, Touchdown, Stupidly.

REEVES: Nick Harkaway, the writer, recently tried his hand at a spoof and posted it on his website. It went down rather well on Twitter.

HARKAWAY: Lloyd Harriott, Papal, Embuscades, Sheepcroft, four. Overall, there will be some nostalgia, fading later into tourism before midnight. There is no prospect of rain.

REEVES: British musicians have also drawn inspiration from the Shipping Forecast, says Jefferson.

JEFFERSON: There's something here from Blur's album which is called "Park Life," and a lyric from a track entitled "This Is a Low." Referring to, you know, a low weather system.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS A LOW")

BLUR: (Singing) And into the sea goes pretty England and me. Locked down...

JEFFERSON: And into the sea goes pretty England and me, Around the Bay of Biscay and back for tea. Hit traffic on the Dogger Bank, up the Thames to find a taxi rank. Sail on by with the tide and go to sleep when the radio says this is a low but it won't hurt you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS A LOW")

BLUR: (Singing) This is a low...

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULLS)

REEVES: No artist, though, has captured the baffling, mystical appeal of the Shipping Forecast quite like this man.

SEAMUS HEANEY: Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea...

REEVES: The late Seamus Heaney, the poet from neighboring Ireland.

HEANEY: Green swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux, conjured by that strong gale warning voice, collapse into a sibilant penumbra, midnight and close down.

FLEMING: Moderate or good becoming moderate or poor. And that's the end of the Shipping Forecast.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SAILING BY")

BLOCK: And tomorrow, Philip will take us to one of those exotic shipping areas, a place called Lundy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SAILING BY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.