Because I’m short on ideas tonight, I’ll share a nice passage from the book I’m reading now, In Forkbeard’s Wake by Ben Nimmo. It’s the sort of book I like to discover, a sailing memoir involving the seas I describe (as a rank landlubber) in my Viking novels. Here Nimmo writes about the Norwegian island of Utsira, where (as it happens) one of my great-great-grandmothers was born:
It’s one of the peculiar facts of history that many of the world’s most moving poems aren’t actually poems at all. The King James version of I Corinthians 13 (faith, hope and charity) and the Third Collect in the Anglican Evensong are hymns without tunes; the closing paragraphs of The Lord of the Rings are the final chords of a symphony…. As far as I’m concerned, though, the most bewitching use of words ever penned comes in the Radio 4 shipping forecast.
It reads like an incantation. No matter that it’s a simple and practical way of identifying sea areas by their outstanding geological feature. No matter that every word of the forecast has a precise and numerically defined meaning: the mysterious rune ‘Dogger, Fisher, German Bight: southwest four, a thousand and two, rising more slowly, fair, moderate to poor,’ simply means that the wind over the central North Sea and the Danish and German North Sea coasts is blowing from the southwest at between eleven and sixteen knots, atmospheric pressure stands at 1002 millibars and has risen by between 0.1 and 1.5 millibars in the preceding three hours, and that it’s not raining but that surface visibility is fluctuating between five nautical miles and a thousand metres. The shipping forecast is music in words.
Viking. The Viking banks, northeast of Shetland. Dogger. The Dogger bank, so overfished that it’s the only British bank worth less than Barings. German Bight, the German bay. Rockall and Malin, Trafalgar (early mornings only) and Finisterre, Portland and Dover, the cliffs and capes. Humber, Thames, Forth, Tyne, the rivers. Biscay and Irish Sea, the bays. Faeroes and Southeast Iceland, Fastnet and Scillies, the islands.
North Utsire and South Utsire.
Norwegians call it Utsira, with the stress on the first syllable: Ut-sira. It’s an island. Just one island, a lumpy rock a mile and a half long and two miles wide, nine miles off the Rogaland coast, surrounded by long chains of spray-washed skerries. In, as it were, skerried ranks. Its eastern and western flanks build up into brooding granite howes like the Lakeland peaks, frowning across the water. Between them a broad green valley runs north to south, plunging at each extremity into a rock-edged channel where the breakers burst in foam. The prevailing winds here are northwest and southwest. To the southwest, the next land is Shetland, over two hundred miles away. To the northwest, it’s the Arctic. When the northwesterly gales drive the waves onto the rocks, the whole island seems to shudder.
I’ve got a photo of waves breaking at a harbor entrance on Utsira as the desktop on my computer at work. It’s just the kind of grim, sea-lashed beauty that speaks to my blood.
I’ve got to visit there someday.