Thursday July 24th and where better to begin The General Synopsis At Midnight than the Met Office? And where better in the Met Office than the desk where the Shipping Forecast is created?
Andy Yeatman is a thirty-year veteran of the Met Office. He has forecasted the weather, presented the weather and now, in his role as Deputy Head of Communications, has the unenviable task of explaining the weather to me. It’s all about dealing with uncertainty, he tells me. (That and understanding the Met Offices’ different audiences and their very different needs.) The Met Office HQ on the outskirts of Exeter – it moved to this purpose-built location from Bracknell some years ago – has the feel of a well-run and friendly small town. People are working in shared meeting spaces. Busy open plan offices spread out from a vast atrium. There’s a shop, a café, a gym. The Met Office employs 1,800 people at 60 locations throughout the world and on the Thursday lunchtime of my visit, it’s a busy spot. So despite what we in Ireland think, we’re not the only ones talking about the weather all the time.
Andy sits me down with Craig Snell, one of the team of Maritime Forecasters. The Chief Forecaster produces an overall forecast every six hours and it is Craig’s job to turn that forecast into the shipping briefing, using a computer model and a number of real-time information and observation sources such as ships and oil platforms. When the forecast is ready, he emails it to Radio 4 and the UK coastguard stations. He sits facing a triptych of screens. Today’s lunchtime broadcast on the desk in front of him and I am oddly thrilled at my one-hour-early preview of the Shipping Forecast. Craig’s job is to write a Forecast in as close to 350 words as he can (it goes up to 370 for the late night broadcast), giving as much information as is feasible, as clearly as possible. That information has to include sea-state, wind, weather and visibility but there’s only a limited palette of words he can use. No veering off into ‘a bit rough’ or ‘watch out there’ allowed. And yet he and the other Maritime Forecasters each have their own style and approach the information slightly differently. The priority in writing a forecast is to find what will have the most impact. As he puts it, ‘to concentrate on the things that would affect life.’ He suspects one of the reasons it’s popular with a generation older than his own is because they grew up with the Beaufort scale.
How many words are in his palette I wonder. Fifty-odd maybe? It reminds me of Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, the way Craig can make a word work so hard. It is this repetition, he thinks, it what creates the poetry of the forecasts. ‘South’ appears in a single sentence several times, yet has a different meaning each time. For example, ‘fog’ can have only three adjectives: Patches, Banks and Extensive. More Extensive is allowed, if the fog is covering over half the area. There are no pea soupers at sea. Imminent means the first six hours of a given twelve-hour period, Soon means the second six hours. Visibility can be nothing other than Good, Moderate, Poor and Very Poor. Imagine if life was that simple, I think as I sit next to him and he explains these codes. Imagine day-to-day experience being that easy to grade and anticipate – and even to understand. Life would be simpler, that’s for sure. Would it be more interesting?
Want to sea more? (Sorry) http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/public/weather/marine-shipping-forecast/#?tab=map
The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains it all. Honest, it does.