Next week, a new name will enter our national consciousness, enter even our very homes. It's a distinguished name, a 19th-century name, a name you may not have heard of, but one that will grow ever more familiar in the weeks and months to come. It's the name of Admiral Robert Fitzroy.
A Victorian aristocrat sailor, and a direct descendant of Charles II, Fitzroy began his life in privilege, and rose to real eminence, though he ended it, alas, in suicide. His eminence was a double one: he led Charles Darwin on his voyage to discover evolution, and he invented weather forecasting. For either of those not insubstantial matters he might well be widely famed, wouldn't you say? Yet his is hardly a household name.
From Monday, he will be. From Monday, Fitzroy's name will join 30 others that have irremovably lodged themselves as a group in the British national psyche. They are names that have come to stand for a wild landscape of the imagination, yet whose daily radio recitation much of the country seems to find obscurely comforting. They are that strange, beguiling, beloved litany of sea-area names that make up the shipping forecast.
Finisterre; Biscay; Sole; Plymouth; Lundy; Fastnet. Southerly 6 to gale 8. Rain at times. Moderate or good.
The bulletin broadcast every six hours on BBC Radio 4 is, in intention, merely informative: it is vital information for mariners, for those in peril on the sea, giving the wind strength on the Beaufort scale, the general weather and the visibility. Yet it has taken root in some curious recess of our national mind as something much more than that, as a regular aural ritual that people warm to, as if finding reassurance in the 31 evocative names and their unfailing repetition.
Forties; Cromarty; Forth; Tyne; Dogger. Southwest 6 to gale 8, backing south or south-east 7 to severe gale 9. Rain. Moderate or poor.
From Monday, Fitzroy joins them. In a piece of organisational tidying-up by the meteorologists of several countries, the name is replacing Finisterre for the vast tranche of the Atlantic that spreads out northwards and westwards from the north-west tip of Spain. Finisterre itself, from the Latin finis terrae, the end of the earth, is a wild cape in Galicia (not to be confused with the French départment southern Brittany). Spain has a sea area of its own called Finisterre which only partially coincides with the British one; the waters are largely Spanish; and with some other boundary realignments being worked out, it was felt appropriate that the British area name should change.
Change? The shipping forecast? It will be noticed at once by many thousands of people, caught immediately by the late-night and early-morning ears of that most particular and pernickety audience, Radio 4 listeners, as a small but unmistakable irregularity. What? What'd he say just now? Fitzroy?
For there is no disputing that the shipping forecast and its litany of the waves has captured the affection of that segment of the British population that enjoys the life of the mind. Over the 75 years of its broadcast existence, and in particular in the half-century since it took its modern form, it has featured in novels, in plays, in satires, in poems, in songs and in memoirs – now deployed as mood music to suggest a quintessential understated Britishness, now as metaphor to suggest the varied sea-areas of the spirit, as it were. Here is Alec Guinness, once a sailor himself, in his diary (My Name Escapes Me, 1997): "For my taste the best thing on BBC radio (Ch.4) is the shipping forecast. It is romantic, authoritative, mesmeric and understandable. The girl who speaks it has a good, clear, unaffected voice, and she treats all areas with total impartiality. Today we had, among many excitements, 'Finisterre, intermittent rain, visibility one mile, and rising slowly.' There was no moral judgement in her voice when she added, 'Dover, visibility 10 metres, falling rapidly.' I love this tour of the seas around our coasts, and the information about what is happening in the Bay of Biscay and Spanish waters. My imagination provides me with stinging spray and I think I hear breakers and the clanging bell of a buoy."
Here is Jonathan Raban in his novel Foreign Land: "At 5.50, the shipping forecast gave the low in Finisterre as moving slowly east and deepening. You can say that again, George thought, feeling the pressure in the air sinking round him as he listened. Perhaps he should go anyway. Maybe a testing gale was just what he needed. Indeed, as endings went, there were worse ways of going than being lost at sea. He poured himself two thumbs of whisky and watched the estuary below darken from grey to black."
Foreign Land is a book infused with the shipping forecast. But you can find it in rock music, you can find it in poetry. Put on Blur's Parklife album and in the track This Is A Low you will find an extended metaphor using seven of the sea-area names. Dig out your Seamus Heaney and you can find a sonnet that actually begins:
Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea –
Green swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning
What's the secret? What exactly is the appeal? It is clearly complex, but we might well say the first attraction is simply the sound, the incantatory nature of the long roll-call of seemingly hallowed place-names, each one followed by a tiny but decided pause which adds a sort of reverberating tension to the reading of the list as a whole (it is the locus classicus of the semi-colon).
Humber; Thames; Dover; Wight; Portland. South-west 6 to gale 8, increasing severe gale 9. Occasional rain. Good, becoming moderate.
Entirely functional though the list is, it can be listened to almost as concrete poetry, like the phonetic poems of the Dadaist Hugo Ball, say (only more far more resonant for us), just as the famous and entirely functional map of the London Underground – drawn in the 1930s by Harry Beck, a young electrical draughtsman – could in its simple bright colours and strict geometry have come straight from the studio of Mondrian.
A second key part of the appeal is surely the medium of delivery. Radio brings intimacy into the room: there is the voice; there are the names; there are no other distractions. With the shipping forecast, you cannot look at the weatherman and feel you don't like his tie. You are alone with the litany.
Thirdly, there is the mystery and wonder of the places themselves.
Viking; North Utsire; South Utsire; Fisher; German Bight. South-west 6 to gale 8, decreasing 4 or 5 for a time, perhaps increasing severe gale 9 later. Rain or showers. Moderate or good.
Where's Viking? Where on earth's Utsire, never mind the north bit or the south bit? Where's Fisher? What seascapes are to be found there? What images of the ocean?
What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
It is easy to hear literary echoes, for the imagination to take flight. The photographer Mark Power was so taken with these almost mystical place-names that he spent four years trying to capture images of them all, to crystallise them out, to make them visible and tangible, and he succeeded strikingly, although for some their greatest resonance will surely remain in the mind.
Fourthly, there is what we might call the listening-in-bed effect.
Shannon; Rockall; Malin. South-east veering south-west, severe gale 9 to violent storm 11. Rain then showers. Moderate or poor.
If you know your Beaufort scale, you will know that with a force 3 the whitecaps are just starting to show; with force 11 almost the whole sea is white. God almighty, you wouldn't want to be out in that, you think as you switch off the radio and snuggle down under the duvet. And some poor sod undoubtedly is.
"I do wonder what it's like out there," says Peter Jefferson, doyen of the dozen or so Radio 4 continuity announcers whose job it is to read out the shipping forecast four times a day. "I've got today's forecast in front of me now: general gale warnings in all areas except Trafalgar, Fair Isle and Faroes. Pretty scary, really."
It is carefully written by the Met Office to fill a specific time – three minutes – and there are no rules or standing instructions for reading it, he says, other than to be precise, "to make sure the sailors know what areas you're talking about." He acknowledges the strange affection in which it is held. "It's like nothing else that goes out on Radio 4 or any other station. I think people find it mesmeric. Soothing."
Mr Jefferson has been reciting the litany of the waves since 1974, and last year he read out the Seamus Heaney sonnet quoted above at the memorial service for his late announcer colleague Laurie Macmillan. His voice is very familiar – speaking to him for the first time bizarrely feels like talking to an old friend – and it has a peculiar timbre which may explain the final part of the shipping forecast's attraction.
Its voices are the voices of authority. For 40 years we have been retreating from authority, in the family, in schools, in the workplace and in the structure of society, and much of the change was welcome and long overdue, but there does remain in many people that which longs for an anchor, for the reassurance of certainty. The voice of the Radio 4 shipping forecast is authoritative – British in the old way. But it speaks not of the authority of a ruling class or a patriarchy, merely of a set of weather predictions whose accuracy is important for everyone, and so to even the most radical ear its authority remains legitimate, while to conservative ears it is a positive comfort. It feels like a slight but definite marker of continuing normality: the world might be going to hell in a handcart, but as long as those same names flow out of the radio in the way they do, civilisation is enduring.
Hebrides; Bailey; South-East Iceland. South-west backing south-east for a time, 6 to gale 8, increasing severe gale 9 or storm 10. Rain then showers. Moderate or poor.
Finisterre will be missed, but Fitzroy will quickly become part of our mental lives. The admiral's name was suggested by a senior forecaster in the Meteorological Office, and it is not hard to see why: a sailor very much of a scientific bent, eventually a Fellow of the Royal Society, Fitzroy was the man who set up the Met Office in 1854, and invented modern weather forecasting. Today, however, when Charles Darwin has dethroned Marx and Freud as the supreme modern intellect, Robert Fitzroy has an even greater claim to fame: as a young man he was the captain of HMS Beagle, the survey ship on which the young Darwin sailed round the world from 1831 to 1836 and made the observations that set him on the road to the theory of evolution and On the Origin of Species.
Fitzroy went on to become an MP and Governor-General of New Zealand, but in the 1860s his mental health gave way, a condition thought to have been aggravated by guilt at his role in helping Darwin reach his then-heretical views on the origins of human beings – for the admiral was a convinced Christian creationist. Attacks on his work at the Met Office further destabilised him, and in 1865 he killed himself.
It was a life full of achievement, and he does not have much of a memorial: a small tombstone in the churchyard of All Saints, Upper Norwood, in south London. But on Monday that changes.
Fitzroy; Biscay; Sole; Plymouth; Lundy; Fastnet. Southerly 6 to gale 8 . Rain at times. Moderate or good.
Step this way, Admiral Fitzroy, if you please. Welcome from us all, sir, to the litany of the waves.Reuse content