Ashy Pet. An Irish phrase originally applied to anyone who back in the peasant days hogged the fireside, refusing to brave the omnipresent rain outside to undertake the necessary spud-hunting, wake-attending, poitin-brewing or whatever it was they did in those days. Gradually, the saying became applied to a particular type of child, the type who didn’t go out with the other children on healthy outdoor pursuits like climbing trees, setting things on fire and tormenting the neighbourhood mentalist, the sort who instead stayed indoors, developed an unhealthy pallor and hung around with their mothers instead of having friends. Being a weakling child of sickly constitution and cowardly disposition, I was one such creature. Confined within the walls of a terraced house in the ironically-named Rosemount area of Derry, entertainment became a precious commodity. One form of blessed relief was an old record player that had longwave radio and impressively could pick up radio broadcasts from thousands of miles away. Obsessed with listening in to foreign channels, I’d spend hours listening to the distant mysterious voices speaking and singing in Flemish, Norwegian, Catalan, all the more enthralling because I had no idea what they were talking about. In hindsight, they were probably discussing gardening, ads for pile cream or debates about interest rates but to this listener they were impossibly poetic ciphers, arabesques and hieroglyphs. Nor did I realise they were intentional. Due to the fact that the radio occasionally picked up passing British Army patrol transmissions, I was under the illusion that the radio was entirely a spying device and I was privy to secret conversations from Bolshevik Vladivostok to Islamic Medina. Even the theremin-esque noises and static in between the channels was some extraterrestrial interference. I’d enthral my parents with tales of what I had heard and they’d have conversations when I left the room of whether or not to have me exorcised as some kind of demon child or put forth arguments in favour of just driving me out into the country and leaving me there (“it’s no good, he’ll find his way back”).
The only English language broadcast that intrigued as much as these was the BBC’s Shipping Forecast which remains to this day a thing of great mystery and beauty. Its influence has permeated down the generations. It’s been adapted in song to varying degrees by Blur, Radiohead, British Sea Power, Gavin Bryars and in verse by Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney. It’s been sampled by Beck and Terence Davies, all seeking to capture some of its curious haunting essence.
What is it that gives what’s essentially a glorified weather report a seeming magic?
Firstly, it’s the tone. Traditionally, it’s been delivered in the formal Received Pronunciation of the BBC (which, far from the correct way to speak it was, and still is, regarded as in some quarters, we took for a charming relic of Victoriana), but read in a slightly languid, near mournful way. Its accompanying theme tune, ‘Sailing By’ by Ronald Binge is often characterised condescendingly as a piece of light music when it is in fact a gloriously evocative and timeless treasure. Then there is the inherent poetry in the place names that inevitably set the mind to wandering with their associations (Viking, German Bight, Fastnet, Cromarty, Forties). Combined with the facts that the entire meaning alludes to all but seasoned sailors and there is a repetition of certain directional and meteorological phrases, the effect is hypnotic, like some strange sacrament or ritual being intoned. To listeners, particularly those living in inner cities, the effect was enchanting (a friend recently told me that as a child, the football results on the same channel had the same effect for him with the names seeming impossibly exotic, Queen of the South, Red Star Belgrade, Dynamo Kiev, Deportivo de La Coruña). If the reality of a maritime warning system regarding gales, fog and sea conditions was not quite as colourful as the visions of Leviathans, Hong Kong junks, Nazi U-boats, sunken Spanish galleons and Barbary Corsairs navigating by the stars, this half-witted Derry child had dreamt up, the locations of the Shipping Forecast are still surprisingly fascinating. There’s the Dogger bank with its dinosaur bones (once the highlands of the now lost Doggerland), Portland and its drowned battleships, the crooked bay of Cromarty, the storms of Biscay, Finisterre (now FitzRoy) perched at the edge of the world, the buried crusaders and pirates of Lundy, the disputed desolate Rockall and the melancholy of Fastnet. And nearest to ourselves; Malin Head.
The most Northerly part of Ireland, Malin Head has exerted a fascination for me since camping there as a teenager, reactivating a hornets nest of memory, imagery and guilt with each mention on the forecast. The brief setting for a misspent youth. Desolate though it is, it’s easy to find; just keep going north until you run out of Ireland. My grandfather, a former fisherman now bedridden, of burly Donegal stock with hands like shovels and a foghorn voice, knew the spot well. He passed on stories about his crew almost drowning in storms so bad some of them wept (none of them had ever saw fit to learn how to swim), about treacherous rocks with names like the Dutchman and about old guys who’d died fifty years before I was born but whom he aggressively believed I should know (“you know Tommy Deaney? Aye, fer fuck’s sake, sure he only died in ’58, ah well fuck ye then”). Inveterate wimps with no desire to have our bones pulverised against the rocks, my friends and I had stuck to the dry land, enacting a debased coming of age version of Stand By Me. Displaying the full stupidity of youth, we’d set out camping there with a cheap flimsy plastic tent made in the Warsaw Bloc, plentiful drink in place of food and hitched our camp upon the teetering edge of some exposed promontory directly in the firing line of the gales sweeping in from the ocean (being in the process, perhaps the first people in Europe to be battered by these advancing low fronts). To prepare ourselves for a Jim Morrison-esque mystical journey, we’d ingested magic mushrooms on the bus down which led to nothing more transcendental than bowel spasms and gut-wrenching nausea. We chose the location having been chased away from our favoured spots of Swan Park in Buncrana by a criminally insane horse (reputedly someone had wrenched their own finger off on a fence trying to get away during one of its episodes) and having been flooded staying in the Meegees (no relation). We were thus driven to the edge of the world.
“In 1945, members of the Johns Hopkins Physics Laboratory named the four corners of the earth as being in Ireland, south-east of the Cape of Good Hope, west of the Peruvian coast, and between New Guinea and Japan,” according to The Independent. Approaching Malin Head, you get the feeling you drew the short straw in terms of the four. The Romans had the good sense to halt their empire before coming to the island (centuries later, Giraldus Cambrensis warned against visiting these shores as his Ireland was apparently filled with wildmen and werewolves). It’s a landscape Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brian would have recognised, reminiscent of the harsh land of The Great Hunger and The Poor Mouth . Not far from here, as the crow flies, Peadar O’Donnell the writer, poet and professional revolutionary would hide out in the hills between launching bandido style raids against Derry’s courthouse. There is a scattering of houses, hermit ruins, famine dwellings, a cottage filled with curios and a smattering of public houses. Beyond that the wild ragged headlands and beyond that Iceland, North America or the Arctic depending on the angle. Down the coast at the stunning Five Finger Strand, giant ship-wrecking breakers roll in. It’s blindingly cold, even at the brink of summer but the sea seems to boil, frothing against the rocks, goading any kamikaze surfers to take their chances. Exposed to the elements, the wind seems to never cease, one of those places where the trees are deformed by prevailing winds and stoop and you half-expect the natives to be similarly afflicted, their spines bent in a south-easterly direction as they cackle toothlessly at the halfwits who’ve chosen to spend their holidays here by mistake.
In reality, the locals are friendly, with the hardiness that is essential to surviving in such a place and view marauding Northerners with barely concealed but justified suspicion. They display none of the small town madness inherent in much of Donegal and Derry; the embodiment of the old phrase “if god invented the country and man the city then the devil created the country town.” There are places where boredom drives the mind to malevolence and legion are the tales of escaped horses breaking up drug-feud-pitched-battles in village squares and cars ending up in ditches with old men, leaning on spades, silently shaking their heads. Instead, places like Malin Head have a rawness that seems to breed sense and the survival instinct.
At the absolute north, there’s Banba’s Crown, named after the pre-Christian Irish goddess of war and fertility who was supposed to protect the island from invasion (and, given successive waves of Milesians, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, Scotsmen and priests, didn’t do a great job). Scattered across the rocky outcrop are hollowed-out concrete naval lookout posts and towers. Below, years of visitors have left messages in the form of collected rocks, with Eire prominently marking the land out, presumably for the ghost of Amelia Earhart. Out at sea, there’s the abandoned island Inis Trá Tholl (translated as “island of the bloody beach”) and in the thrashing sea between its lighthouse and the coast, there laid countless wrecks and oceanic graves.
Three times I suspected I would die here. The first, whilst camping in a storm, our pegs blew loose causing the tent to blow away with us in it and in a vain attempt to save us from the elements, I ventured out in the tempest, like King Lear on the heath, trying to bash them in with a rock, weeping and howling at the heavens while my esteemed colleagues slept on blissfully oblivious. And as I crawled in to the wreckage of our hovel, I spent the rest of the endless night wondering how conductible tent poles were as lightning flashed overhead.
The second when a bunch of jocks escaped from some teenage 1950’s greaser film and drove up, illuminating our tents with their headlights, and proceeded to launch rocks at us, laughing all the while, for the 45 longest minutes of my life as I clung to a sleeping friend in frenzied and silent desperation as he snored bastardly through it all.
The third occasion requires a confession, the unburdening of a wretched guilty soul. One morning, I awoke foggy-headed from the drink, to find strange lumbering shadows gathered ominously around the tent. It was cows. It wasn’t just the fear that they would flock or whatever they do and trample the tent with us lying in it. It was the fact that they had just appeared overnight with no explanation in a previously empty field. As if they had just grown from the soil. Our fates seemed intertwined during that excursion, the cows and I. That night, my friends and I retired to a cave on a nearby beach with a tape player for some festivities. During the session, a friend returned to the camp to pick up some beers and found that the tent door had been left open and a cow had walked inside it and was effectively wearing the tent, dragging its contents around the field. Eventually, by the end of four days of drinking and insomnia, none of my former friends were speaking to one another and would have happily, in that moment, left the scene and never seen each other again but we were trapped in a locale which buses only pass through once a day and we’d already missed it. To relieve the monotony and repressed rage, I found a large rock, the size of a small child, and launched it off the cliff face on the edge of which we had wisely camped. Almost the instant it left my hands, I spotted the cow, an unusual enough sight in itself, scuttling around on the rocks below. The rock took flight, revolving in slow motion, and then plummeted onto the cow’s spine. For the next three days, I could barely piss straight for fear that the farmer would appear and kill us all with his bare hands for murdering his livestock. I’d seen The Wickerman, I knew the way these things worked.
What the fuck does this have to do with the Shipping Forecast, you may well ask? The answer is I’m not sure. Perhaps, the genius of the Shipping Forecast is that, it retains the splendour and mystery of these places but blows away the mundanities, replacing harrowing memories, involuntary bovine slaughter for example, with thoughts of what might be…