This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on Zoe Ball’s BBC Radio 2 breakfast show:

I grew up in Liverpool, by the sea. Even though I now live in Yorkshire – between the coasts – I can still smell the salt in the air and listen for the sound of seagulls enjoying target practice on unsuspecting children. Somehow it’s like a memory muscle that takes me straight back to the smells and sounds of my youth.

I remember being taught sea shanties at school and putting them in the same bracket as other hey-nonny-no folk music – something that didn’t appeal when I was discovering Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. It was what we used to call ‘sandals and socks’ music. So, I have ignored them for decades until – yes, you’ve guessed it – Nathan Evans sang one called ‘Wellerman’ on TikTok and it all kicked off. Now, just to add to my surprise, I keep seeing big names like Gary Barlow and Ronan Keating picking them up and doing their own.

What is going on?

Well, I think it’s brilliant. Not only have loads of people been getting together virtually to sing these old songs, but they’re also discovering a rich part of our tradition as an island people. Sea shanties aren’t merely romantic ditties about abstracted emotions. No, they’re rooted in and emerge from the working experience of ordinary people in local places. They’re about everyday things. They’re sometimes romantic in substance, but always coloured by the stuff of communal work and colleagues and hard lives.

In other words, they sing of what they know. And the singing has a raw authenticity because it’s drawn from the depths of real life with all its edges unrounded.

I think this is why I have rediscovered sea shanties with surprised joy. I come from a tradition which is sunk in poems and songs and stories of everyday life, human experience in all its richness and agony: the Psalms; Jesus telling stories and using images that people could relate to (usually called parables) because they emerged from normal life. And people got stuck in – together – talking, singing, playing.

Why don’t you try it? Sing along with a shanty and your spirits rise. And I still have no idea what a wellerman is.