The Shipping Forecast
Every night the entire nation of Britain fall into the envelope of sleep serenaded by the softly spoken cadences of The Shipping Forecast….a tiny transistor radio on their bedside table transmits the comforting voice of the BBC, telling them that worse things happen at sea, and otherwise everything is alright with the world.
This statement is somewhere between a truth and a lie.
It is true however that what is basically a weather forecast has become a cultural icon beloved of people all over the British Isles. In the midnight hour as the nation goes to bed it gently permeates the airwaves, warning the ships at sea, from ocean liners to tiny boats, just what the elements are going to throw at them during the night. But in a voice calm, steady and reassuring, regardless of the oncoming possibility of a storm. And the people of Britain, as they slip into a slumber, are reminded that they are an island nation, surrounded by the sea in all its capricious rage, beauty or even calm.
The different areas of the body of water which surrounds the island (indeed islands) of Britain have magical names, conjuring images of faraway places…Viking, Fair Isle, Biscay, Dogger, German Bight. One imagines a lonely yacht bobbing quietly on an empty horizon, with only seagulls for company, or a fishing boat struggling in the north sea against a squall, in torrential rain and wind.
The Shipping Forecast is always presented in a measured, formal and restful, almost serene, manner. This is the key as to why the locals love it so. Even the landlubbers are seduced by the gentle intonation.
The Shipping Forecast was a response to the terrible and regular loss of life at sea during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was initially the brainchild of one Captain Robert Fitzroy. He instigated the issuing of ship’s captains with instruments to collect data on wind, temperature and atmospheric pressure. He invented a ‘Fishery Barometer’ and had a hundred of them installed in harbours and lifeboat stations around Britain. He even went so far as to write rhyming couplets to help sailors understand the information they were getting…’When rise begins after low, squalls expect and clear blow.’ In 1925 the BBC began broadcasting it with their powerful transmitters, and has done ever since, (with the exception of during the second world war).
Because of the specific rhythms of the forecast, and for the way it inspires the imagination, despite being in essence very prosaic, it has often been compared to a performance of poetry. Literary scholars have made comparisons with Pinter! As spoken word it dovetails nicely with music.