02 July 2006

The English Shipping Forecast Ritual

Our peculiar affection for our weather finds its most eloquent expression in our attitude towards a quintessentially English national institution: the Shipping Forecast. Browsing in a seaside bookshop recently, I came across an attractive large-format picture-book, with a seascape on the cover, entitled Rain Later, Good. It struck me that almost all English people would immediately recognize this odd, apparently meaningless or even contradictory phrase as part of the arcane, evocative and somehow deeply soothing meteorological mantra, broadcast immediately after the news on BBC Radio 4.

The Shipping Forecast is an off-shore weather forecast, with additional information about wind-strength and visibility, for the fishing vessels, pleasure craft and cargo ships in the seas around the British isles. None of the information is of the slightest use or relevance to the millions of non-seafarers who listen to it, but listen we do, religiously, mesmerized by the calm, cadenced, familiar recitation of lists of names of sea areas, followed by wind information, then weather, then visibility – but with the qualifying words (wind, weather, visibility) left out, so it sounds like this: 'Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Fisher, Dogger, German Bight. Westerly or southwesterly three or four, increasing five in north later. Rain later. Good becoming moderate, occasionally poor. Faroes, Fair Isle, Cromarty, Forties, Forth. Northerly backing westerly three or four, increasing six later. Showers. Good.' And so on, and on, in measured, unemotional tones, until all of the thirty-one sea areas have been covered – and millions of English listeners,* most of whom have no idea where any of these places are, or what the words and numbers mean, finally switch off their radios, feeling strangely comforted and even uplifted by what the poet Sean Street has called the Shipping Forecast's 'cold poetry of information'.

* Not just the nostalgic older generations: the Shipping Forecast has many young devotees, and references to the Shipping Forecast have recently turned up in the lyrics of pop songs. I met a 19-year-old barman recently with a dog named Cromarty, after one of the sea areas.
SOURCE: Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior, by Kate Fox (Hodder, 2004), pp. 34-35 (For what it's worth, George Walden in New Statesman hated the book.)

What better way for this American to mark July 4th than to take a light look at my heritage, which is mostly English – with all the reticence and clumsy ritual that implies – although the soothing weather incantation I grew up with was hare, tokidoki kumori 'clear, occasionally overcast'.

No comments: