With many false intimations of spring, it has been a rough winter in London. The sky is still the colour of chicken bone. Now, I am lapsing into the familiar English habit, however clichéd this seems, of weather-moan. Talk of English weather “invokes its demonic double –the heat and dust of India”, muses a cultural critic originally from Bombay.
Weather-speak, I discovered in my student years, in these isles is little more than a discursive device to fill up the famed English reserve. As true today as in 1758, Dr Johnson records: “when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.” It is among the most ingenious of props and facilitators deployed here to overcome inhibitions. Given to caprice and fitfulness, the weather guarantees that there is always something to agree or moan about. The Hungarian humourist George Mikes advises that if you want to observe English etiquette “you must never contradict anybody when discussing the weather”. “Still raining, eh?” is not an invitation for metereological data, but a simple social filler.
Rain Later, Good is an instantly recognisable national phrase despite its contradictory, almost meaningless, metereological promise. With a seascape on its cover, the book with that arcane title was published in 1998 and has run into 3 reprints. The phrase refers to the daily Shipping Forecast issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Office. Cadenced recitation of names of sea-areas is followed by wind information, then weather, then visibility. The qualifying words (wind, weather, visibility) are left out such that you get: FitzRoy, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea. Westerly or southwesterly 6 to gale 8, but 4 or 5 at first in Irish Sea, increasing severe gale 9 for a time. Very rough or high, but rough or very rough in Irish Sea. Rain or showers. Good, occasionally poor.
The Shipping Forecast is in particular something of a national institution. It is not only a lifeline for freezing fishermen struggling on the nation’s storm-stirred seas. It is also an assuaging addiction for listeners tuning in to BBC Radio 2 or 4 at 12.48 am or 5.20 am, 12.01pm, 5.54 pm. It is of no relevance to these millions, and most of them know little of what the names or numbers mean. The bewitching quality of the forecast partly arises from the captivating theme tune ‘Sailing By’ by Ronald Binge; the poet Sean Street calls it ‘the cold poetry of information’. Have a listen here.
Equally enticing are the poetic place names that can ear-worm into your brain. It does not matter that we don’t precisely know where these places are. German Bight –cuddling in the curve of the Northern European coast, between Germany, Denmark and Holland. Rockall –the extinct volcano jutting out of the North Atlantic. Malin –north of the Irish mainland. Dogger, Viking, Forties, and Fisher are all named after sandbanks in the North Sea where shipping must avoid getting caught in them. The names together form a ponderous maze of erratica in the seascape.
In a book And Now the Shipping Forecast–A Tide Of History Around Our Shores, the weatherman Peter Peter Jefferson pays homage to the history of this BBC forecast in existence since 1924. Jefferson manned this announcement in his tuneful voice for almost 40 years. On remarrying his wife six years ago, the vicar felt obliged to compose his own Wedding Forecast for Jefferson: “Knuckles WIGHT, palms sweaty, hands joining to form new partnership, moderate, becoming good, FORTIES –you wish . . .” to gales of gaeity from the gathered guests. The abbreviated metereological language can be sharply seducing: the aim, says the forecaster, is clarity, economy, but distinction: “Words can be saved by grouping sea areas together, so long as no vital information is lost. So you can say, ‘Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth: moderate with fog patches becoming good, except in Humber and Thames”. If a wind is ‘veering’, it’s altering path in a clockwise course (for instance, moving from north-westerly to north). If it’s ‘backing’, it’s doing just the opposite.
To those of us who have not the foggiest this can seem aerial applesauce even as it leaves the islanders here strangely reassured. Seen as a marker of Englishness and/or Britishness, it is taken seriously enough to breed parodies. The Chicken Forecast and the Fishing Forecast are brilliant examples and like the original they are better listened to than read. A listener reports: “On a particularly gloomy Sunday morning, don’t know why but this makes me proud to be British”.
And, it’s still raining.