Friday 7 January 2011

Meanwhile in Dogger...

It is a wonderful thing that England's cricketers have won the Ashes - and won them convincingly, trouncing a clearly inferior Australian team. Almost as wondrous is the fact that each of the three Test victories was, for those listening to Test Match Special on Radio 4 longwave, lost to the Shipping Forecast, as the network switched (as it is obliged to do) to its mesmeric recitation of sea areas for the benefit of mariners. Thus one cherished radio institution trumped another, transporting longwave stalwarts out to sea then, having missed the clinching of victory, back to the tumult and the shouting as England (and the increasingly tiresome Barmy Army) celebrated victory.
Seamus Heaney, in a famous sonnet, caught the poetry - and the utility - of the dear old Shipping Forecast...

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warming voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L'Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, 'A haven,'
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.


  1. With you on the shipping forecast, Nige, but I must defend the Barmy Army here from your little, dare I say it, ill-informed swipe.

    1) were it not for them, almost no bugger would watch Test cricket live outside England. Have you seen the attendances on the subcontinent? They keep major Test touring alive and that's proper creekit: they don't even bother with tweny20 bish bash.

    2) They have responded to the main criticisms: they have a 'no-repeats' song policy these days, and restict the most annoying one ('Everywhere we go'...with its monotonously chanted 'Barmy Army') to a max of 3 outings per day.

    3) They're incredibly well-organised and do a lot for charidee (eg. McGrath Foundation).

  2. There was something about the Shipping forecast, a comfort blanket, a set of worry beads, as long as it rang out loud and clear from the wireless and the ravens remained then all was well in this world, Britannia ruled, Madge was our main man, Johnny foreigner was just an out of focus mass on the distant horizon, the fuzzy wuzzies kept in their place with cold steel, they don't like it up 'em you know. Doctors and lawyers deemed to be pillars of the community, yes, honestly,

    Then along came Harold Wilson.

  3. I guess the shipping forecast is the equivalent of the slave whispering in the emperor's ear at the triumph. What's not to like?

  4. interesting choice of words nige - "mesmeric recitation of sea areas for the benefit of mariners." As far as I was aware, there is nary a mariner anywhere who uses the shipping forecast these days as they all have their own super-accurate electronic systems these days. The shipping forecast is maintained for the "benefit of people trying to go to sleep", and the sort of people that write purple-inked letters of complaint whenever you try and change any long standing institution.

    I love the shipping forecast, although I have noticed that in the last few years it's not always as somnolent as it was, as frequently they have reedy voiced youngsters reading it and it sounds all wrong. It should be read out in the style of a funereal foghorn sounding quietly through the dark.

  5. But why is it so mesmerising? Something to do with the solemn, almost liturgical repetitions, I suppose -- but also the way those names evoke vast storm-lashed solitudes, making your own bed seem so much more safe and comforting by contrast?

    The Heaney poem is splendid but there's an equally famous sonnet by Carol Ann Duffy that captures something of this:


    Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
    utters itself. So, a woman will lift
    her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
    at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

    Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
    enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
    then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
    in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

    Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
    console the lodger looking out across
    a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
    a child's name as though they named their loss.

    Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
    Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.