New Year’s Day, 1924. Wreckage from the French airship Dixmude, which had exploded over the Mediterranean before Christmas, begins to wash up on the coast of Sicily. Rain-deluged Paris is on flood alert as the Seine inches further upward with each tide. Laszlo, a noted Hungarian spiritualist, is unmasked as a fraud (the ‘spirit faces’ that manifest themselves during his séances turn out to be goose fat smeared on cotton wool). And pipe-smoking is banned in Bulgaria.
Britain is in the grip of a foot-and-mouth outbreak, Scotland are about to lose to France at rugby and a concerned Duke of Northumberland is leafing through the newspapers to confirm his remarkable diatribe warning of the ‘great danger’ posed by the rise of socialism has been published on the letters pages (it has).
Most importantly, however, at nine o’clock on this cold, wet, foggy London new year morning, from a room inside Adastral House, the headquarters of the Air Ministry at 1 Kingsway, the very first shipping forecast is broadcast.
It’s called ‘Weather Shipping’ and is sent through the Ministry’s powerful GFA transmitter, flinging it far out into the storm-spun North Atlantic at a range of up to 2,400 miles. There will be another ‘Weather Shipping’ broadcast at 8pm, and thus begins a daily ritual that makes January 1st 2014 the ninetieth birthday of a much-loved and fiercely-protected iron horse of British culture.
Occasional gale warnings had first been transmitted to the north-eastern Atlantic in 1911, but after their suspension at the outbreak of the First World War it wasn’t until 1921 that weather forecasts were sent out again, from a wireless station in Cornwall, with barometric pressure readings and wind speeds issued in code.
But it was in the fledgling hours of 1924 that the shipping forecast began in the form we know today and there have been few changes in style and content in the intervening ninety years. There was a comprehensive subdivision of the sea areas in 1949 and there has been only a handful of minor tweaks since – most recently the renaming in 2002 of area Finisterre as FitzRoy after the man who started it all – meaning that as it enters its tenth decade the shipping forecast has changed remarkably little since that first soggy London morning ninety years ago.
It’s doing pretty well for a nonagenarian, too. In fact the shipping forecast is arguably more popular than ever: Alan Bennett read the shipping forecast to the nation recently and I’m still asked to speak to groups and at events all over the country about my journey around the sea areas ten years after Attention All Shipping was published. Everywhere I go the affection for the forecast is the same: from ancient mariners to insomniac landlubbers there’s a common bond of appreciation for this most ancient of broadcasting rituals.
Most importantly however – and it’s all too easily forgotten among the cosy nostalgia – the shipping forecast continues to save lives. That is what it’s for, after all. Every now and again some nitwit will suggest we don’t need it any more: we have GPS and satnav and the internet. But as this piece from the BBC website shows, the forecast is as necessary now as it ever was.
When that first Weather Shipping broadcast was made on New Year’s Day ninety years ago, nobody could have foreseen what a vital institution it would become. It’s outlived wars, disasters and governments – not to mention the Bulgarian pipe-smoking ban and Laszlo the iffy spiritualist – and looks set to continue, relentlessly, solemnly, rhythmically, thankfully, for a long time to come yet.
So happy ninetieth birthday, old girl. May your synopsis remain general and your visibility good for as long as there are ships on the sea and a BBC to broadcast to them.