09 December 2013

Being English - The Shipping Forecast Ritual

Having spent some time in England recently, I have just finished reading a book ‘Watching the English – The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour’.  A strange bunch we English, I always like to try and find out what makes us tick. But the man or woman who finally claims to understand the English would deserve a Nobel Prize.

A good example is the shipping forecast. Which could be described as a quintessentially English national institution?  Broadcast immediately after the late evening news on BBC Radio 4 the shipping forecast is an offshore weather forecast with additional information about wind strength and visibility, for the fishing vessels, pleasure craft and cargo ships in the sea areas around the whole of the British Isles.

I remember listening to the shipping forecast as a child with my mother. She always insisted on listening. God only knows why as we lived in Nottinghamshire probably the most land locked county in England.

I am brave enough to say that none of the information in the forecast is of the slightest use or relevance to the millions of land locked non seafarers who listen to it, but listen they do, religiously, mesmerized no doubt by the list 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 something like this: ‘Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Fisher, Dogger, German Bight.  Westerly or south westerly three or four. Rain later. Good becoming moderate, occasionally poor. And so on and on the radio announcer would cover all of the thirty one sea areas with an unemotional tone.

Millions of English people still listen to the shipping forecast, most of whom probably have no idea where any of these places are, or what the words and numbers mean. But having listened to the forecast they can then sleep sound in their beds at night. In the book it was described as the ‘cold poetry of information’.

Listening to the shipping forecast, for the English, is like hearing a ritual prayer – somehow profoundly reassuring, even for non-believers. Like with most things the English can always turn it into humour and some people will talk back to the radio. e.g ‘Thundery showers good’. ‘’I don’t think so.’’ Would be the reply.
If anyone would like to take on the task of explaining all this to foreign visitors to the UK, please feel free, be my guest. The best of luck.

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