Katy Guest: The shipping forecast: cocoa for the ears

Never mind mariners, poets and popstars need it

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In a small treat for Surrey vicars, fans of Victoria Wood and those who get excited when they find a pattern on their kitchen roll, middle England was last week offered an exciting glimpse of what Radio 4 listeners sound like when they are outraged. The populations of Dogger, Fisher and German Bight were up in arms; someone was even heard to tut. And all because of a terrible mishap with the Shipping Forecast.

Only one, sharp-eared listener spotted the mistake in the forecast: "Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth, Biscay: south-westerly gale eight to storm 10, occasionally violent...". It was the previous morning's forecast, accidentally repeated.

Thank heaven for the attentive Mr David Newton of Easter Ross in the Highlands, who notified Radio 4 – once he had brewed a pot of Darjeeling and composted the last of his tomatoes, one hopes.

Is there a medal for this kind of selfless gallantry?

Radio 4's presentation editor David Anderson fell on his sword, telling listeners: "All I can say is that I am most terribly sorry we got that wrong. This was a big error on our part."

But the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) was more sanguine. Well, you have to be pretty stoical when you're backing south-easterly over South Utsire four times a day. It was extremely unlikely that shipping safety was jeopardised, said a spokesman, since fishermen do not actually rely on Radio 4 for news of severe gale nine, perhaps storm 10 later. Rather, they receive their weather updates directly from the MCA.

At this bombshell, some crazy reactionaries were heard to ask: why broadcast the Shipping Forecast at all, in that case? But this is sorely missing the point. From Faeroes to Trafalgar, the fractious are daily soothed by the gentle rhythm of this secular prayer.

Insomniacs rely on its atavistic cadences; Jarvis Cocker chose the cascading strings of its theme tune, "Sailing By", as one of his eight desert island discs, "as an aid to restful sleep". And musicians including Blur, Radiohead, Jethro Tull, British Sea Power and The Prodigy have sampled it or quoted it in their songs.

Read properly, in an old-fashioned BBC accent, the rise and fall of its "five to seven, perhaps gale eight later, squally showers..." recalls the rhythm of a Sunday stroll along a Hampshire chalk stream.

It is an echo of a childhood that one never had. And once one knows that it is sometimes read by Alice Arnold, the partner of BBC Sport and Trooping the Colour's Clare Balding, it becomes almost purr-inducingly cosy. Perhaps Alice reads it in slippers in a deep leather armchair. Perhaps Clare is handing her an Ovaltine....

Poets, too, have immersed themselves in the archaic rhythms of its general synopsis at midday. Seamus Heaney wrote a sonnet called simply, "The Shipping Forecast". It starts:

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:

Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux

Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice,

Collapse into a sibilant penumbra...

The Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, ends her poem "Prayer":

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer –

Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre."

For devotees of the Shipping Forecast, it would hardly matter if the same one were read every night. The important thing is to hear it, warm in bed, while some poor bugger is out there becoming cyclonic later in Biscay.

And to sleep safely in the knowledge that, as long as there's a Great Britain, there will always be Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea....

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