Four times daily, at 0048, 0535, 1201 and 1754, BBC Radio 4 airs the Shipping Forecast, a weather prognostication for each of thirty-one geographically well-defined but more or less arbitrarily designated and sited maritime areas surrounding the British Isles. What may be incomprehensible code to the uninitiated listener is actually a simple and frugaly worded forecasting statement divided into four parts: area name, wind direction and strength, weather conditions, and visibility.
The forebears of English author Charlie Connelly, a sportswriter of several books chiefly about European soccer, led lives touched by the sea. Yet, beyond a few ferry trips, Connelly, to his self-admitted embarrassment, was notably landlocked. Thus, to make up for his landlubberliness, he vowed to visit all thirty-one of the shipping forecast areas, or at least those that had peripheral or inclusive terra firma to stand upon, in a calendar year. In ATTENTION ALL SHIPPING, he tells us all about it via a congenial and humorous narrative.
Obviously, the book is more about interesting and/or out of the way places than the Shipping Forecast itself, though, by the end of chapter two, one has learned all that's necessary about the history, evolution, and value to sailors of the forecast, which dates, in its current form, back to 1924. In the eleven chapters that follow, Connelly makes landfall in twenty-five of the areas. Five (Viking, Forties, Dogger, Bailey, Rockall) he only flys or sails over. One, Trafalgar, down off the southwest coast of the Iberian Peninsula, he almost entirely neglects for no other reason than it's mentioned in only the 0048 bulletin. Otherwise, his meandering journey takes him to:
North and South Utsire: Utsira Island (Norway)
Cromarty: Cromarty (Scotland)
Forth: Arbroath (Scotland)
Tyne: Whitby (England)
Fisher: Hanstholm (Denmark)
German Bight: Sylt Island (Germany)
Humber: Cromer (England)
Thames: the Principality of Sealand
Dover: Dover and the White Cliffs (England)
Wight: the Isle of Wight (England)
Portland: Portland peninsula (England)
Plymouth: Plymouth (England)
Biscay: St-Jean-de-Luz (France) and Bilbao (Spain)
FitzRoy: Finisterre (Spain)
Sole: St. Mary's, St. Agnes, Tresco, and Bryher islands (Isles of Scilly, England)
Lundy: Lundy Island (England)
Fastnet: Cork and Cobh (Ireland)
Irish Sea: the Isle of Man
Shannon: Kilrush (Ireland)
Malin: Malin Head (Ireland)
Hebrides: Barra and Eriskay islands (Outer Hebrides, Scotland)
Fair Isle: Mainland and Fair Isle islands (Shetland Islands, Scotland)
Faeroes: Torshavn (Faeroe Islands, Denmark)
South-east Iceland: Heimay (Vestmannaeyjar, aka the Westman Islands, Iceland)
Charlie succeeds in making all his destinations interesting by sharing facets of each locale's history, events, or famous residents. For instance, Whitby was the hometown of Captain James Cook and Cromer that of Henry Blogg, renowned as the greatest lifeboatman who ever lived. Heimay was evacuated during a volcanic eruption. The oddest place is perhaps the Principality of Sealand, which was originally one of four World War II heavy gun platforms constructed in the Thames Estuary. After being abandoned by the British military, it was purchased by a private citizen who subsequently proclaimed it a sovereign state, a claim that, surprisingly, has been upheld by British courts. At the other extreme of novelty is Hanstholm, the Danish ferry port so excruciatingly boring that it's Connelly's account of fending off tedium for two days that is in itself droll. Even area Rockall, an expanse of open sea which Charlie doesn't visit for obvious reasons, contains Rockall "island", a mid-ocean protrusion of rock 89 feet in diameter and 72 in height that occupies a place of honor in the pantheon of the world's ludicrous territorial and political squabbles.
The author's commentary is so engaging that he can be forgiven the occasional factual misstatement. Charlie asserts that the lighthouse on Spain's Cape Finisterre is at "the end of the finger of land that is continental Europe's westernmost landfall", when, in fact, that honor belongs to Portugal's Cape Roca. Later, Connelly writes that "Fair Isle is actually Britain's remotest island community" when, actually, Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic is not only the most isolated British island community but also the most far-flung archipelago in the world. Regarding Fair Isle, I suspect that the author meant to say that it's the remotest community within territorial waters contiguous with the home islands.
ATTENTION ALL SHIPPING deserves 5 stars because it transports me in fine style to places that I shall likely never visit but, after reading this fascinating travelogue, wish I could some day. Then perhaps, I could express something similar to Charlie's experience:
"I was sorry to leave Scilly, a special part of the United Kingdom. Sit on the front at Hugh Town and look out beyond the palm trees across the clear azure water to the white sandy beaches of Tresco beyond and it's hard to believe that you're less than thirty miles from the English mainland ... when I think of that Hugh Town vista and then look out of my window at my south-east London Victorian terraced beehive of a street as I write this, I know where I'd rather be."