Politics.co.uk Blog

Monday, 7 March 2011

The beauty of the shipping forecast

John Prescott, or as we're forced to call him now, Lord Prescott, is set to become the first non-BBC presenter to read the evening shipping forecast, in a stunt for Red Nose Day. But what is it about the shipping forecast that so beguiles the middle classes, most of whom have never listened to it at sea? Why have we, as a nation, developed such a strange, reliant relationship with it?

Everyone refers to the pacing of the forecast, with its slow, meticulous tempo offering listeners a hypnotic, sleep-inducing effect. It comes at just the right time, being followed by the national anthem and then, finally, bed. You'll notice that BBC presenters delivering the goodnight on Radio 4 seem to have some sense of their responsibility as the new high priests of reassurance. There's a lot of emotion put into that goodnight on Radio 4.

That strange timing, the unique tempo, is actually rather difficult to mock with the appropriate intuition and affection. The best effort by far came from Stephen Fry. "Malin, Hebrides, Shetland, Jersey, Fair Isle, Turtle-Neck, Tank Top, Courtelle: blowy, quite misty, sea sickness," he said. "Not many fish around, come home, veering suggestively."

Pop culture has seized on the forecast as a shorthand for a particular kind of Englishness. Blur's 'This Is a Low' brilliantly combined it with scenes of modern England in one of the bands many attempts to put their finger on the collection of modern and archaic qualities which give this island its character. "On the Tyne, Forth and Cromarty there's a low in the high 40s," Damon Albarn sang. "Hit traffic on the Dogger bank, up the Thames to find a taxi rank."

And it's in these strange words, rather than pacing, that the real effect of the shipping forecast lies. People don't know where the Viking, FitzRoy or Rockall sea areas are. But these words have two unique qualities which are almost impossible to find in everyday language: they are at the same time familiar and alien. This combination is the closest any of us get to a return to childhood. The world of our parents was undecipherable but unthreatening - a strange and inexplicable place, but one which was as safe as any we would ever know.

It's that childlike sense which the shipping forecast delivers to the British middle classes just before bed time, the poor dears. One imagines they would quite literally march on parliament were anyone to suggest changing anything about it. In an ever-changing world, it's one thing you can rely on. As Orwell said, we're all "sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England".

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