Thursday, December 29, 2005

Bully's London Book Club #2: Attention All Shipping

If you're a regular listener to the BBC (and if you are, you can be my friend!), you've probably heard at one point or another the bewildering (if you're neither Jack Aubrey nor Popeye) Shipping Forecast. This several-times daily seafarer's weather update is one of the most delightful and mysterious bits on the BBC: for me it's an ultra-relaxing way to wind down a long exciting day. Its smooth signature tune "Sailing By"...

...and the relaxing and hypnotic rhythms of the actual Shipping Forecast report (you can listen to an example here, or the actual most recent broadcast here) put this little stuffed bull to a gentle and happy sleep, dreaming of smooth sailing voyages and faraway places.

Yes, but what are those places? The Shipping Forecast reports upcoming weather in exotic regions most people have never heard of: far-away places with strange sounding names like Fitzroy. German Bight. Fastnet. Doggers. I've been to Banbury Cross, but I've never been to Forties. Where in the world are these places, and why is the weather so important there?

For the answer let's go to the BBC Shipping Forecast Page or check out the official Shipping Forecast map below:

Shipping Forecast

Ah ha! Or, as I should say over here, crikey! The map makes the mysteries of the Shipping Forecast a little clearer: each of the mysterious names mentioned so melodically over the medium-wave is a specific sea region surrounding the British Isles, an area of great importance to freight and shipping (and leisure) sea travel around Europe. That might address the mystery of the Shipping Forecast but not the magic: why does this short, pointless-for-the-most-of-us daily radio broadcast inspire so many thoughts of adventure and romance in its listeners? Charlie Connelly journeys to find out why in another fantastically entertaining book I've picked up on this trip, Attention All Shipping.

A tongue-in-cheek, light-humored, doesn't-take-itself-too-seriously travelogue that reminded me of Round Ireland with a Fridge (one of my fave travel narratives of the past few years), Attention All Shipping begins with Charlie's own personal infatuation with the romance and mystery of the Shipping Forecast since a small boy: where are these amazing-sounding places? As an adult he vows to discover exactly that: by visiting every single one of the Shipping Forecast's uniquely-named regions.

The book's light and fun—there's little grand social commentary and a lot of self-effacing humor—and is a wonderfully quirky voyage to various sea ports and communities around the various areas, visiting its peoples and places. A chapter on visiting the amazing Principality of Sealand is a stand-out, but he's just as chatty and entertaining popping down to Dover or Hamburg. Connolly doesn't take himself too seriously and in fact he's refreshingly casual about his goal: when a couple regions prove inaccessible, he settles for nearby areas that don't qualify "by the book" but certainly fill the bill thematically and spiritedly. In short, he travels the way I like to travel: with an itinerary in mind but the ability to change course at any time in search of something interesting. And in the end isn't that what the Shipping Forecast radio broadcast inspires in us all?

I give this book two hooves up; I could hardly put it down and if you like light armchair travel, you'll eat it up like saltwater taffy.

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