Rain Later, Good is a remarkable book by the artist Peter Collyer. Inspired by a singularly British institution - the shipping forecast - and first published fifteen years ago, it has recently been brought up-to-date for a third edition. Earlier this month, the artist spoke to The Island Review about following a very special forecast to capture the British Isles in paint.
We have something in Britain called the shipping forecast. It’s a three minute-long weather forecast for ships at sea in the waters surrounding our islands, which the BBC broadcasts four times every day to the whole country. Over the decades the forecast’s enigmatic quality, a kind of meteorological mantra, has enabled it to work its way into the national psyche, reminding us that we are an island nation. For me and many others safely tucked up at home in Radioland Castle, it speaks volumes about what it is to be British; the drawbridge is up and here’s the weather for the moat: Dover, Fair Isle, Albion Avalon…
In the 1990s it occurred to me in one of those light-bulb moments that, as a landscape painter interested in the coast and the sea, I ought to visit all the places featured in the forecast, which most people only know of as names, to paint them and thereby, somehow, hope to give them a life and demystify the forecasts.
Those travels instilled in me a longing for islands and since then I have been travelling ‘Offshore’ (the title of one of my books about those travels) to visit many more.
Scattered around the island of mainland England, Scotland and Wales are no fewer than 6,288 islands. Most of these are little more than pieces of rock permanently protruding from the sea that have, over time, acquired the status bestowed by the granting of a name. Only 803, a little more than 12.5 per cent of the total are grand enough to be bounded by anything that could reasonably be described as a coastline and only half of these have a land area worth mapping. They make up 43 per cent of Britain’s coastline, but are home to only one per cent of its population, despite the fact that one of them is the most densely populated urban area in England outside of London.
Today we think of islands as being isolated, remote, out there somewhere, on the fringe. But in Celtic culture the sea was the highway and islands were the crossroads. Movement and trade were almost exclusively by sea, being safer and easier than by land, where there was little rule of law and few roads. Island inhabitants were not on the fringe, they were at the heart of things. These coastal settlements were their equivalent of our modern-day cities.
The word island evokes a sense of mystery and fascination. In Britain we all live on an island, but those of us on the mainland are unconscious of the fact most of the time, possibly because it is the eighth largest island in the world. Our shared island experience is something taken for granted and goes largely unexpressed, but strangely, when an advertising agency conducted a survey to gauge peoples’ reactions to headlines, the one word that grabbed our attention the most, enticing us to read on, was ‘island’. Whether we realise it or not we are all, it would seem, spellbound by the sea-bound.
Why this subliminal pull towards islands? Why are they so deeply ingrained in our psyche? Is it because we are, uniquely, a large island surrounded by so many smaller ones? Is it that we are more able to understand these islands because of their size, each an identifiable whole, more human in scale than the mainland, where we can be the metaphorical single cartoon figure sharing a mound of sand with just a palm tree and surrounded by water?
How interesting that the word preceding subliminal in the dictionary is one I found myself wanting to use so many times in the course of my travels – sublime.
You can listen to the shipping forecast here: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qfvv
Peter Collyer is a landscape artist, who has published four books of his work. According to Libby Purves, Collyer is "not only a marvellous, delicate draughtsman and watercolourist ... but a dryly observant writer and amateur naturalist".