Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
At 0048 hours every day on BBC Radio 4, the Shipping Forecast is read out; slowly and precisely, with all care that one might give to a precariously balanced vat of nuclear waste suspended above a box of sleeping kittens. Every day, this almost minimalist stream of words, which is no longer than about 500, is read by the last announcer of Radio 4 before they hand over the airwaves to the BBC World Service for the night. Before the pips finally announce the shutdown, the British National Anthem is played as though to say that all is right with the world and the British public can go to sleep.
Although it comes on BBC Radio 4 at twelve minutes to one in the morning, because I live on the other side of the world; in the far flung elements of what used to be empire, the Shipping Forecast comes on just before it is time for morning tea. The experience of listening to the Shipping Forecast in the morning is vastly different to what people in Britain get and so, I've spent the last fortnight or so listening to it just before I go to bed; just as Aunty Beeb intended.
I imagine that for domestic BBC listeners, the Shipping Forecast is mostly irrelevant. The usefulness of hearing the various wind forces, directions, visibility and air pressures is precisely nil if you happen to be tucked up in your jim-jams in a terrace house. As a listener in Australia the usefulness of the Shipping Forecast is doubled - twice nothing is still nothing. The various place names and weather readings mean three quarters of diddly-squat in all honesty. So why bother? For the same reason as domestic listeners in Britain do. There is a profoundly odd entertainment value to it.
Place names like South East Iceland, North Utsire and South Utsire, Rockall, Biscay, Cromartie, Viking and Forties, don't sound real. In truth they're all named after rocky outcrops, sandbars, geographical landmarks and legendary sea captains. The force numbers on the Beaufort Scale sound quaint and twee until you remember that "storm 10", "violent storm 11" and "force 12 hurricane and higher" are sea conditions where the waves are taller than ships, where if sailors are washed overboard there is really no way to rescue them and where even the wind itself might be battering down at 80 miles an hour; accompanied with rain and sleet. When you begin to imagine those things, which is what the Shipping Forecast is actually describing, then not only do you enter the theatre of the mind but you really do get a sense that there is peril on the sea.
After the descriptions of conditions out in the deep ocean, the forecast turns to fixed weather stations and readings. Names like Greenwich Light Vessel Automatic, Stornoway, Ronaldsway, Liverpool Crosby and my personal favourite Scilly Automatic, start to sound like actual places instead of vague ideas and they're almost always calmer. The Inshore Waters report which tails off the 0048 broadcast sounds tame in comparison to the chaos announced earlier before the announcer wishes everyone a goodnight before presumably leaving BBC Broadcasting House and driving home through a quiet London. Quite often and in a stunning turn of events, it will be raining in England.
In the same way that the football scores are read out on Sunday, the Shipping Forecast has its own distinct rythym and metre to it. If you combine that with the deep melodious Caribbean tones of Neil Nunes, then the result is something special. Tumbling, rolling and almost mesmerising, the Shipping Forecast is a symphony of sound which would be at home as much at Radio 3 as it is at Radio 4.
I think that for British listeners, the Shipping Forecast is a reminder of the nation's seafaring past. I mean, if I wasn't familiar with history, it would seem absolutely daft and absurd that the island nation, which was overrun by the Romans and the Vikings, and which stands like a pathetically timid rocky outpost set against the mighty unforgiving Atlantic Ocean, should be home to a people who conquered vast areas of the globe and turned maps pink.
The Shipping Forecast is a reminder that even though King Cnut (who paddled his own canoute) who tried to impose his maritime law, the Rule Britannia; which says that Britannia rules the waves, couldn't hold back the sea with pitchfork - not even kings can do that. Even though Britannia might have been able to rule and dominate the ships upon the waves, the waves and indeed the sea itself can not be tamed.
For as calm as the announcer might be, when they say "Dogger, South by Southeast, Gale 8, Fog, 989 and falling" all the information that's contained in those few words, is more than enough to tell you that you really do not want to be out there. Your bed is warm. Your bed is dry. Your bed is cozy. Go to sleep.
But be mindful that there are people out there, in peril, on the sea.