Book Review: Attention All Shipping

Attention All Shipping by Charlie Connelly (Little, Brown)

The shipping forecast is a  national institution. In a former life I heard it regularly on getting home late after working the evening Box Office shift, or more usually getting home late after the after work drinks. I’d dream of a simpler, less hectic, seaside life and drift off to the poetry of “Forties, Fisher, German Bight…”.

I have, it turns out, stood on shore and looked out over most of the shipping areas. This made me feel quite intrepid, though not as intrepid as Charlie Connelly who decides to visit each area over the course of a year and write about them. I have a fondness for the forecast. I’ve also had this book on my shelf for a long time. Pining for the sea even more than usual while locked down, this seemed a good time to read it. Salt spray and sea breezes by proxy, and for a long while yet I fear.

Connelly’s trip was not a leisurely olden days “gentleman’s tour”. It feels from the writing more like many weekends away, carefully budgeted for, cramming as much as possible into the short time he has in each place. I found this felt really honest – its how most people do their travelling after all. The result is “Attention All Shipping”, a hugely enjoyable read, informative and funny (and though most of the football analogies and jokes were lost on me I got over it).

In the way of all great travelogues the reader is treated to information about each place in such a way as to feel you’re having a great chat with an enthusiastic friend just back from an exciting trip, someone who makes you feel as if you’d been there with them, rather than a lecture from a travel bore. We’re drawn in to the slight weirdness of Finistere, the otherness of the Isle of Man, and the unexpected beauty of a shore moored oil rig at night as we accompany Charlie (and his grandfather, in photograph form) around the coast and across the sea, on small planes and queasy boat trips to fascinating communities, and wonders both of nature and of human imagination, intelligence and skill.

Attention All Shipping delivers us not only historical back story about each area, we hear of Admiral FitzRoy, who invented weather forecasting which led to the shipping forecast. Of hugely heroic RNLI crew (I’m a bit more obsessed than ever with the RNLI due to the excellent BBC programme “Saving Lives at Sea”) and the building of lighthouses. We learn how the coastal and island communities within the shipping forecast areas cope with living in what are often extreme conditions; from the excitement of getting a Sunday paper on a Sunday (Scilly, area Sole) to the ethics of whale hunting (Faeroe) or the destructive power of nature (South East Iceland). I have to say I’d rather live on Scilly (area Sole) than Sealand (area Thames) though Fair Isle or the Faeroes sound pretty attractive at the moment. Maybe I’m getting too used to isolation.

As these enjoyable travellers tales go there are also the bits where the teller has maybe not had such a great time. Connelly gets totally soaked in Reykjavik, finds there are no flights so weathers a most horrendous boat journey that it turns out was worth it to see inside a youthful volcano. I very much sympathised with him as a fellow vertigo sufferer on reading the effects of going up to the top of the Plymouth Hoe lighthouse (when I went to Portland with my lot I sent the husband and child up the lighthouse while I took arty photos of it looming from the mist, my feet firmly at ground level).

I realised while reading this I hadn’t heard the forecast for ages, having been less “London night owl” and more “early night reading in bed” for some time now. Yet I can still hear the calming tones of the announcer clearly in my mind. It turns out you don’t even have to stay up now to hear the late night forecast, or the slightly spooky undulations of it’s theme tune ‘Sailing By’, as it’s on BBC Sounds. I checked out this morning’s forecast, “issued by the Met Office on behalf of The Maritime and Coastguard Agency at double O one five on Friday the 26th of June[…]Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties. Easterly or South easterly three to five, occasionally six later…” So familiar, and so weirdly comforting.

If you’re pining for the sea too, this book and a listen to the forecast may help.

Charlie Connelly also has a lovely podcast called Coastal Stories (complete with waves from his local beach) which is definitely worth hearing. He has a new book out now too, about The Channel which hopefully I won’t wait 16 years to read (!).

Please support independent bookshops if you feel moved to buy any sea themed books!

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