Charlie Connelly, Attention All Shipping

Four times daily, BBC radio broadcasts the shipping forecast, naming thirty-one separate regions in about three minutes and providing both current and projected conditions of sea and wind for each one. The forecast has been running (with different frequencies and regions and so on) since 1924, so I imagine it to be rather like a place-based version of the CBC's 10 a.m. Pacific use of the National Research Council time signal (Wikipedia: "Canada's longest running but shortest radio programme"). The names and the rhythm and the music snuggle down deeply into British psyches, at least among households that have the radio on much, or the ones that used to etc - insert lament here about pace of modern life.

Three and a half years ago, I picked up a copy of Charlie Connelly's Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast, and for the life of me, I can't figure out why I kept not reading the thing. That's not because I'd heard such good things about it: I bought it on a whim and had never heard of it before. And then when I loaned to a 70-ish Englishwoman who I thought might appreciate something about this BBC institution, she wasn't the least bit excited about it afterward. "Hmm," I thought, "must not be as good as I hoped." As it happens, it isn't as good as I'd hoped, at least not all the way through, but even if it was excellent, she wouldn't have liked it anyway. Too much time spent in pubs for her, and too much late-30s angst from our humble narrator: never should have loaned it to her.

Anyway, there are good things about this book, and I enjoyed it, but I'll open with the bad news and get it out of the way: Charlie Connelly here comes across as something of a cut-rate Bill Bryson, and the book's achievement is distinctly inconsistent. I love a little good self-deprecating humour, for example, or "self-depreciating" as more than one student inexplicably wrote this year in essays for me, and Connelly can play that note well at times, but the book could stand to have a few other notes to it. Some of the chapters had precious little hold on me, too, without enough intimacy with the places and people he encounters, and yet also without the interestingly complicated history-telling that makes some chapters so very pleasant.

At his best, Connelly shows a genuine passion for the places and people, made more compelling because it seems so unlooked for. He goes at the project of touring all thirty-one regions within a calendar year in a quite cavalier manner, not unlike that of Tony Hawks's surprisingly enjoyable Round Ireland with a Fridge (apparently a most UNenjoyable film, though I haven't seen it and hence shouldn't say anything about it). Connelly's self-castigating rant on the Isle of Man about his unprepared bicycle tour of the island's often-fatal motorcycle racing loop applies equally well to the book as a whole. He didn't take the project seriously to begin with, and this comes back to bite him with depressing frequency, but this means you believe him when he gets impassioned about something, and he often does get passionate, geekily so. I really liked that contrast, even if I wanted to punch him occasionally for making yet another predictably, damnably stupid travel decision.

From Attention All Shipping I've learned a startling amount of stuff about remote, nearly uninhabited chunks of rock around the fringes of Great Britain, and I've got even more respect than I did previously for lighthouse keepers, marine rescue personnel, and small-town folk generally. It's a fun book if you've got any interest in any of those things, or if you like your travel-writing to feature as many pubs as possible. Not what a 70-ish respectable Englishwoman might want to spend time with, but how many people reading this blog are likely to fit that description, anyway?

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