Intermittent Light Drivel

I’ve often wondered if anywhere else has a weather forecast that people write poetry, stories, comedy and songs about. The Shipping Forecast is a reading held so preciously by a nation that its announcers voices become embedded in collective memory and it makes its way into the Poet Laureate’s musing on secular prayers. When one of its voices jokes that the Forecast is read from an amethyst pulpit from the bowels of the BBC, it could well be believed. So what of this ‘strange salty fable’ as described in Lisa Knapp’s haunting but brilliant tribute or the ‘incomprehensible bedtime sea story’ as Alice Arnold introduced a remixed version ‘Pimp my Trawler’ featuring Zeb Soanes.

To give a flavour of it, I recently heard this as part of the general synopsis ‘A large and complex low will drift north eastwards across the United Kingdom as a filling feature during the next couple of days with the pressure pattern as a result becoming rather flabby. Then losing its identity’ a complex low, becoming flabby and an identity crisis could have easily described the state of the nation after what had been an unusually hot bank holiday weekend. Low Norwegian Basin, blocking High over Iceland or New low mid Atlantic also can make appearances. Around the time I was interviewed for the Churchill fellowship, there were rare violent storm 11’s in two areas. I reassured the panel that this would, by necessity be a summer trip. I was beyond excitement when invited to talk about my trip on the home of the daily broadcast, Radio 4.

My mum and dad were keen sailors and we had several trips across the English Chanel when I was young in what my dad called a ‘floating caravan’ that he’d borrowed money off his mum to buy. It was sold after a few years when the family grew older and lost interest for various reasons. My dad’s granddad had been a ship fitter on the Tyne and on my mum’s side there had been a captain of the Woolwich Ferry so some watery background at least. I remember listening to the Forecast on these trips and my parents used to fall asleep to it at home, something I continue to do now.

Although it has a real meaning for me, I am much more interested in its cultural context. The pinnacle of the daily broadcasts is the 00.48 reading. It is prefaced by a piece of music ‘sailing by’ by Ronald Binge which has a gentle rise and fall with strings and flutes, introduced initially as a sign to sailors that the Forecast was about to be on. It usually finishes with the announcer wishing listeners Goodnight with a peaceful and restful sleep then playing the National Anthem before switching to the world service at 1am. Returning for the 05.20 Forecast the next day. I normally switch it off as soon at the National Anthem starts as I’m not so interested in this flag waving form of patriotism. I love the idea of this sequence of events, running like clockwork and the nation gentle drifting off. I was very lucky to meet the brilliant English folk singer Eliza Carthy when I was on the radio and she had the best answer to a question of national identity and celebrating the things that make the places we call home special. 

My sister has been a huge support and has sent me the Spanish shipping forecast as I start to wonder if other countries have them too. Unfamiliar names like Romeo, Josephine and Gran Sol are featured. The Norwegian forecast overlaps with the UK but with a number other areas stretching up Norway’s long hunched spine. Iceland has a Forecast like the UK but with different areas obviously. It’s neatly divided into smaller areas close to the land and then much larger areas of open sea to the Greenlandic coast and the arctic. It sparks my imagination and I can’t wait to see the real places. 

When this idea for a trip entered my head in a small pub in Langton Matravers near Swanage on the beautiful Purbeck Coast, I was having a drink with friends. Having decided they wanted to see more of the UK coast, when asked which bits, they said ‘all of it!’ a circumnavigation of Britain followed and we were chatting about the most interesting bits of their trip. We often use the inshore waters Forecast when kayaking to get an overview, along with several other bits of more detailed info. I like the way it splits the coast into manageable chunks and after a few more years on the sea, I realised I had been to most of them. The idea grew into a bigger project and when I saw an call that the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust were looking for people to conduct kayaking expeditions overseas, the rest, as they say is history.

The week before the radio interview, I’ve been farting around the country between my work commitments. I’ve spoken at length with the producer and she’s asked many questions, including whether or not I have a beard. I’ve relaxed into talking about some of the reasons behind the trip and think I could explain the forecast if I needed to. I have a feeling of excitement as we follow the directions in the email and go ‘through the revolving doors’ into the inner workings of broadcasting house.  There is a plate of melon, blackberries and various pastries as we are guided into the Women’s Hour green room, by kind permission of dame Jenny Murray, apparently. It feels a bit like we’re going into the office cupboard. The building is largely deserted and the Eric gill statue over the doors to old broadcasting house still missing his vital part. It feels calm, the other guests are chatty and interesting. Our conversation sways from comic books to turnips, older people’s housing, fruit and the archeological finds of Dogger Land. 

We’ve been given a lanyards and security tags which I’m really happy about, I think it gives me a sense of belonging to be tagged. Give me a badge or a wristband and I’m happy, a lanyard or a hi viz and I’ll do almost anything. From the green room, we’re lead through a maze of corridors into what feels like the middle of the building. The walls are covered in acoustic panelling and then all of a sudden, we’re in the studio. I’ve read the guidance from the Churchill Trust, and I need to remember to get my points across early and be clear. This all goes out the window when we start chatting about beards. I am caught off guard with a direct question about the genetic condition that I shared with my brother. I feel later that I should’ve wrapped this up quickly and spent too long talking about the past. I must’ve  thought I was on Desert Island Discs, with a softly spoken Scottish woman asking probing questions about my past. I’m reassured in a message from British explorer Sarah Outen a few weeks later that yesterday’s news is often tomorrow’s fish papers. Having said that, it was great fun and I found the whole thing very exciting, I was given a generous amount of time to tell my story and I hope people found it interesting. Leaving new broadcasting house, one of my fellow guests points out the word ‘Rockall’ in brass letters set into the Portland stone paving. I look around and find  Finistere, Faroes, Plymouth, Jersey all laid out and now to be indelibly etched on me too. 

It’s my last morning at work before heading off for the start of the trip. I’m preparing a short talk about the the Music and poetry of the Forecast and discover a beautiful version of Blur’s ‘this is a low’ recorded at BBC Maida Vale Studios with a concert orchestra. I’ve listened to the song since I was a teenager and love it, the double meaning and familiar names drifting in and out of the narrative make it special. I’m a bit overwhelmed by it and get a touch emotional before realising I’m late for work and need to get a move on.


Blur at Maida Vale,This is a low is here

Lisa Knapp, Shipping Song is here

Snoop Doggy Dogger with Zeb Soanes is here

Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy reading ‘Prayer’ is here

Seamus Heaney reading his poem ‘Shipping Forecast’ is here

Jarvis Cocker on Desert Island Discs is here (around 37mins in)

Alan Bennet reading the Forecast is here

BBC symphony orchestra playing ‘Sailing By’ is here

Various comedy versions also online