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Attention all shipping! 50 shades of grey cloud ahead

September 18, 2012

Sat observing the reading habits of folks relaxing on their holidays recently, aside from the emergence of the Kindle as the must-have device, the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy seemed to be the de facto read of the summer. I won’t pass comment on the book’s literary merits, but it’s commercial success tells us something about word of mouth and viral marketing.

The other feature of the summer has been the weather. The north of England hasn’t emerged from a series of dull and damp April days, drizzle virtually everyday and visitors from the South confirming just how nesh they are. There have been 50 Shades of Grey Cloud endlessly filling the sky. What a great potential book on the weather this would be, a narrative on the formation and behaviour of clouds. Surely a best seller, and a radio play for sure. Ah, the radio, a throwback to days of nostalgia. I’m still an avid listener to the radio, especially Radio 4, there is something deeply comforting and at the same time uplifting listening to the radio news, a book at bed time, documentaries and afternoon short stories

As I mentioned in a recent blog post, one of my personal goals is to read The Shipping Forecast, a four-times-daily BBC Radio 4 broadcast of weather reports and forecasts for the seas around the coast of Britain. It’s produced by the Met Office and broadcast on behalf of the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, and has always held a magical romance for me. We all have dirty secrets – some people collect train and bus numbers, mine is the Shipping Forecast.

Last night I ended the day as I so often have over the years. Approaching 1am, I put my Kindle down, lights off, prepare to snooze and listen to the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4. I can’t imagine what it’s like being out in the open sea in really bad weather, day after day. My dad was in the Royal Navy during his National Service and I always think of him when listening.

Those potentially at peril on the sea rely on these bulletins. Sandwiched between Sailing By, a jaunty pan-pipes musical interlude and the National Anthem as the station closes down each night – as well as in three other slots across FM and LW – the forecasts are one of the BBC network’s self-defining gems, and one of its best-loved slots for urban listeners like me, who’ve only ever been to sea on a holiday pedalo. Especially at night, these forecasts, with their place names, terms and weatherly detail you never hear in the rest of life, and their hypnotically formulaic progression (area, wind direction, strength, precipitation, sea conditions, visibility), have a talismanic, haunting power.

The last of the four broadcasts is at 0048am and includes weather reports from a list of coastal stations at 0052am, and inshore waters forecast at 0055am, and concludes with a brief UK weather outlook for the coming day. The broadcast finishes at approximately 0058am, and is followed by a short goodnight message and the National Anthem. It’s then updated at 0520am, 1201pm and 1754pm, FM and LW. Classic radio for me! I’ve been addicted to listening for as long as I can remember.

Attention All Shipping! the opening line, just grabs you. Is there an announcement more dramatic? Even if you don’t consider yourself Shipping, you listen. It might be important. I find the repetition of the names of the sea areas hypnotic particularly during the night-time broadcast, but I also try to catch the early evening broadcast which has a different resonance when it’s daylight. It’s become a long-standing ritual, I find the names as magical as anything from Tolkein or Harry Potter.

The Shipping Forecast goes back to the 1920s and has continued except during the Second World War, when it might have helped the enemy. The names of the 31 sea areas have various origins: Viking, Forties, Dogger, Fisher, Sole and Bailey are all named after sandbanks, then Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Humber, Thames and Shannon after estuaries. Dover after the town, and Wight, Lundy, Fair Isle, Faeroes and South-East Iceland are all named after islands. And German Bight? A bight is a wide curve in a shoreline.

It’s hypnotic and mesmerising, especially if you’re listening warm and safe, snug under the duvet as the wind and rain lashes against the window on a dark, black night. To listen is a sensual treat, embellished by the pronunciation of the velvety Radio 4 voices that read the forecasts, and at the same time an unchanging, formal sign-off to the day. In this context, they can seem like a litany, especially in the dark if you’re half-asleep. If you’re wide awake, they have their gently comic bits too: Scilly Automatic always makes me chuckle. I think its about time they were read by a Lancastrian with a deep northern burr…and for them folks out in Channel, zip yer coat up to yer chin, ‘ells teeth its a bit raw but nowt to fret about, it’ll be crackin the flags for yer breakie and it’s ‘appen more wind up Pendle. It’s not just me. There are people who have named pets after the sea areas, writers, poets and musicians have all revelled in the forecast’s unlikely allure – Radiohead and Blur have both included references to it in their songs.

In the forecast, areas are named in a roughly clockwise direction. The forecast has a limit of 370 words, and has a strict format. It begins with And now the Shipping Forecast, issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at xxx GMT/BST today. There are warnings of gales in Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, and Fair Isle. This sometimes follows the opposite format (e.g. There are warnings of gales in all areas except Biscay, Trafalgar and FitzRoy). The General Synopsis follows, giving the position, pressure in millibars and track of pressure areas…Low, Rockall, 987, deepening rapidly, expected Fair Isle 964 by 0700 tomorrow. Each area’s forecast is then read out. Several areas may be combined into a single forecast where the conditions are expected to be similar. Wind direction is given first, then strength (on the Beaufort scale), followed by precipitation, if any, sea state and (usually) lastly visibility. Change in wind direction is indicated by veering (clockwise change) or backing (anti-clockwise change). Winds at or above force 8 are also described by name for emphasis, i.e. Gale 8, Severe Gale 9, Storm 10, Violent Storm 11 and Hurricane force 12. The word ‘force’ is only officially used when announcing force 12 winds.

Visibility is given in the format Good, meaning that the visibility is greater than 5 nautical miles (9.3 km; 5.8 mi); Moderate, where visibility is between 2 and 5 nmi (3.7 and 9.3 km; 2.3 and 5.8 mi) nautical miles; Poor, where visibility is between 1000 metres and 2 nautical miles and dog, where visibility is less than 1,000 m (3,300 ft). Beautiful, isn’t it. Here’s an example of a full area forecast, which I can recite from memory… Humber, Thames. Southeast veering southwest 4 or 5, occasionally 6 later. Thundery showers. Moderate or good, occasionally poor. Tyne, Dogger. Northeast 3 or 4. Occasional rain. Moderate or poor. Rockall, Malin, Hebrides. Southwest gale 8 to storm 10, veering west, severe gale 9 to violent storm 11. Rain, then squally showers. Poor, becoming moderate. Southeast Iceland. North 7 to severe gale 9. Heavy snow showers. Good, becoming poor in showers. Moderate icing.

I imagine tiny boats lost in choppy seas in far flung areas we’ll never visit and can’t spell (North Utsire?). The shipping forecast has all the qualities of the sea itself – deep, unknowable, lulling and able to shock – think Violent Storm 11 – it’s a collector’s item, although not one you’d ever want to collect. It has its own poetry, its own power. Where else would you find a nine-minute jargonfest that grips even if you don’t understand it? If we hear Occasional rain. Good. those of us who don’t speak fluent Forecast might ask: Is that good? I have no idea. It must be good for somebody. So we keep listening, engrossed by the fact that this matters, even though much of it is incomprehensible.

Unsurprisingly poets have best captured the feeling of listening to the forecast, perhaps because they too use language that can be very practical in a way that’s also magically figurative. Seamus Heaney’s sonnet The Shipping Forecast focuses on the union of soft voice and strong weather, while Carol Ann Duffy in Prayer cherishes the far-off place-names heard from home. Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer – Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

Just when sleep beckons but the mind won’t quite let you slip into its deep, still recesses, the sound of another human voice, familiar yet not intrusive, reciting this mantra is relaxing, unless its a really bad forecast. At first, I was curious, then entranced, the sound of this reassuringly forthright man or woman reading a jabberwocky of nonsense with the rocking lilt of a small wooden boat. So at night, my mind drifts off to the. Deep, dark swells and horizons of the North Sea, where fishermen are steering their boats with one hand and clutching a mug of hot tea laced with rum with the other, keenly listening to these oral hieroglyphs to keep them out of danger. I am safe, I hope they are too.

We all have habits, good and bad, and quirky idiosyncrasies which we’ve picked up over the years, which are part of our individual personnas and shape our character.  Most of life is habitual. You do the same things you did yesterday, the day before and every day for the last month. It’s estimated that out of every 11,000 signals we receive from our senses, our brain only consciously processes 40. In The Power of Habit,  Charles Duhigg explains why habits exist and how they can be changed, why some people and companies struggle to change, despite years of trying, while others seem to remake themselves overnight. There’s not a word about the Shipping Forecast, but the book narrates how the right habits were crucial to the success of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and civil-rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr.

What do these people have in common? They achieved success by focusing on the patterns that shape every aspect of our lives, and they succeeded by transforming habits, there are some interesting lessons for us all in the book. Whatever my other habits, a summer filled with 50 Shades Of Grey Cloud doesn’t really capture the allure nor the reality of the Shipping Forecast, and I’m happy to chat to anyone who will listen about my long-standing addiction to this radio curiosity. It’s funny how we get hooked on. I just hope this programme continues to be broadcast when we are forced to listen to digital radio, and only digital.

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