Haunted radio

17.30, Monday 9 Nov 2020

The myth goes that the UK has four nuclear submarines, at least one of which is just out there at all times, patrolling the ocean, and the rule is that we don’t contact it and it doesn’t contact us.

What it does is listen to BBC Radio 4 which, to explain for non-Brits, is the news/speech radio network broadcast both within the UK and globally on long wave.

This nuclear sub: the story goes that if it doesn’t hear the morning news programme on Radio 4, the Today programme, for three days in a row, the submarine captain assumes that London has been destroyed, and therefore launches all its missiles at Moscow. Exact instructions are in a letter in a sealed envelope kept in a safe on the boat.

I mean, is there really a nuclear sub under the ice-caps listening to the morning headlines?

It’s a very Cold War game theory thing to do, a Strangelove-ian Dead Man’s Handle meets Mutually Assured Destruction.

I don’t know whether the Soviets took it into account, but Brits are primed to believe in this kind of stuff…

The BBC license fee is a bargain. About 160 quid a year, and for that there’s a ton of TV, radio, podcasts, all the news and original journalism of course, sport (including all the Olympics coverage), and so on.

The story goes that the license fee is enforced by “TV detector vans.”

These are vans that drive around and can magically tell if you’ve got a television set. Every so often you see such a van, and they’ve got “TV licensing” written on the side and a spinning device on the top, straight from the props department, and everyone has a friend-of-a-friend who’s accidentally seen in the back of one of them and the van is always completely empty.

I don’t even know how this would work. Something something resonance? Whatever. It’s almost certainly nonsense. Most of us pay our license fee none-the-less.

In the middle of the night, Radio 4 broadcasts the Shipping Forecast and this is ostensibly a terse update on the current and changing situation in 31 different shipping areas around the British Isles, succinctly spoken for the benefit of sailors tuning in. But it’s also beautifully poetic, an incantation of numbers and mysterious, distant names, and (I’ll share this experience with many Brits) it lulled me to sleep through most of my 20s.

Listen to an infinite Shopping Forecast here.

Bonus: here’s Pharaohs by Tears for Fears, an ambient remix of the Shipping Forecast from 1985.

Here’s a letter printed in The Telegraph in 2015, reproduced here:

The African student who thought that the shipping forecast was a coded broadcast to British spies might not have been far off the mark.

For years I wondered why the broadcast would always end with the phrase: “No icing in South East Iceland.”

This ending hasn’t been heard since the end of the Cold War. I listen to the shipping forecast every day in case the mysterious message makes a return.

William T Nuttall
Rossendale, Lancashire

No icing in South East Iceland.

What I find most interesting about these forms of haunting is that they’re not easily dismissed as ghost stories or conspiracy theories.

They’re not Flat Earth. Not Qanon. Nor the Black Knight. (The Black Knight satellite is a 13,000 year old object of extraterrestrial origin, in polar orbit around the Earth, covered up by Nasa.)

Instead they sit halfway between fact and fiction. I’m not prepared to fully believe… but I’m not prepared to fully discount. They seem to have a grain of truth.

But also I think the mode of haunting tells us something about radio itself. Broadcast radio is weird, and the nuclear subs and TV vans resonate with our efforts to understand it:

  • you listen, and there’s no way to know who else is listening – are you alone or in a crowd? If you’re in a crowd, who else might be there?
  • you listen, and there’s no way for anyone else to tell that you’re listening – a receiver is like listening at a locked door that can never be opened… but what if they can tell?

So what are equivalent hauntings of the internet? What stories do we tell ourselves?

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