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Long reads shortened

A hypnotic ode to the sea

Bell Rock Lighthouse by JMW Turner (1819)

To help me sleep at night, says Grace Linden in The New York Times, I’ve started listening to compilations of the Shipping Forecast. Although each broadcast lasts only a minute or two – the maximum is 380 words, apparently – when you play lots in a row they become “poetic and hypnotic, a free-form ode to the seas”. You start in Viking, an area of the sea up near the Orkney islands, then go on “a kind of audio tour” around the British Isles. The phrases take on an oddly rhythmic quality: “Wight, Portland, Biscay”; “good, occasionally poor, becoming very poor at times in Plymouth”; “low southeast Iceland, 1,000, losing its identity by the same time”.

Much of the maritime language is of course “indecipherable” for non-experts like me. Who knew that “backing winds” move counter-clockwise, but “veering winds” go in the other direction? Or that there’s a big difference between a storm coming “soon” (which means within the next six to 12 hours) and being “imminent” (within six)? The other thing I enjoy about the Shipping Forecast is its sense of scale. Like the sea itself, it’s a “reminder of the larger, more elemental forces at play, those things that are much more powerful than any of our individual worries or wants”. It all adds up to one of life’s simplest but most enjoyable pleasures: lying in bed, like the ancient mariners, “falling asleep to the mysteries of the deep”.

🏝📻 First put out by telegraph in 1861, the Shipping Forecast is “older than the BBC itself”. Radiohead alluded to the broadcast on their 2000 album Kid A. Judi Dench chose it as one of her recordings on Desert Island Discs. And the former poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy concluded her poem Prayer by referencing its locales: “Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer – / Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.”