Into the Sunset

"Sailing By" — Radio 4's Shipping Forecast theme.

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Last week, the BBC informed the world that many persons would like the music of AC/DC to accompany them in the act of shuffling off their mortal coils. This information came by way of a poll asking people in Britain what song they would like to have played at their own funeral. There were, of course, the usual religious songs—”The Lord Is my Shepard,” “Amazing Grace” —as well the expected classical such as like Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.”

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It’s the secular songs, though, that are more surprising. There is the aforementioned AC/DC coming in with “Highway to Hell,” Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” as well as Meatloaf’s “Bat out of Hell.” The secularists are, it seems, uncomfortable with God but on fairly good terms with Satan.

More surprising still are the difficult-to-categorize choices. It seems quite a few individuals would like to meet the hereafter with the solemn sounds of The Benny Hill Show theme. I suppose they are hoping that the next go around is at twice the speed and with bigger boobs.

But the most intriguing choice for funeral music is the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast tune. The Shipping Forecast provides information on the condition of the seas around the British Isles. It generally consists of information like the following from April 20, 2009: “Viking North Utsire: Southwesterly 3 or 4. Slight, occasionally moderate at first. fair. Good. South Utsire: Northwesterly 4 or 5, occasionally 6 in east. Slight or moderate. fair. Moderate or good.”

The music played just before the Shipping Forecast is a light ditty composed by one Ronald Binge, deceased. It goes by the title “Sailing By.” One would be hard pressed to classify it as anything other than “easy listening” or “elevator music.”

The primary significance of “Sailing By” for many Brits is that the broadcast comes on at just about bedtime, 0048 GMT to be exact. The music, in its saccharine but not entirely unpleasant arrangement, features tons of flute trilling and Binge’s signature “cascading strings” sound, meant to mimic the reverberation of live music in a concert hall or cathedral. It is sleepy-time music. Immediately after the song, the monotonous repetition of the actual Shipping Forecast will lull into slumberland those remaining subjects of the Queen not already done in by Mr. Binge.

So potent a cultural force is the Shipping Forecast that a literary figure as eminent as Seamus Heaney wrote a sonnet about it.

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:

Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux

Conjured by that strong gale-warming voice,

Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.

And so on and so forth. There is, though, something sweet, something melancholy in thinking of death in tandem with “Sailing By” and the Shipping Forecast. It is the gentle (if entirely unwarranted) hope that death is but an infinite sleeping. The Bard said it first in the mouth of his Hamlet: “To sleep, perchance to dream.” In the face of a sea of troubles, be they from Dogger, Rockall, Malin, or the Irish Sea, wouldn’t it be better just to slip away into an endless dreaming? The desire is to keep hold of consciousness just a little, while accepting the fact that one will never wake up again. It is the recognition that sleep is a little death, a dip into the shadow world between being alive and its other. That is the comfort of “Sailing By” and The Shipping Forecast. It is death as something that we’re already friends with, filled with flute scales and the reassuring repetition of the names and places that will always be there, even if we’re just sailing by. • 22 April 2009