By Natalie Whittle
Published: May 15 2009 13:13 | Last updated: May 15 2009 13:13
|Gavin Pretor-Pinney: ‘It’s all very turbulent and chaotic’|
Gavin Pretor-Pinney looks shocked. I have just made the mistake of saying, innocently enough, that I don’t see many interesting clouds where I live in London.
“That’s because you’re not looking. You’re not looking!” He blinks at the offence. Clouds are Pretor-Pinney’s passion, and after a few hours in his company I am careful to make a thorough scan of the sky before making any rash statements.
Pretor-Pinney is a polymath and proselytiser, a designer, writer and sometime television presenter who, in 2004, founded the Cloud Appreciation Society, an online forum and club for people whose gaze drifts upward to observe “the last wilderness” of the sky and the extraordinary things that form there.
Sitting in the kitchen of his Somerset home, Pretor-Pinney reaches for his recently finished book, The Cloud Collectors’ Handbook, and leafs through impatiently to find a picture of a fallstreak hole cloud, also known as “hole-punch clouds” for their puncturing appearance in the sky. “I’ve seen fallstreak holes in London,” he says, shaming me further. “You see these pileus clouds sometimes, which are like little caps, or a cloud hairstyle or a beret. They only appear very briefly on top of a large building – kind of like a teenage storm cloud.”
In Pretor-Pinney’s world, there is a rich and endless discourse about the puffs of air and moisture that most of us take for granted. The basic science of clouds is easy: when air rises, it expands and (as with any gas) cools, and when it cools, some of its moisture condenses. The advanced science, and the interactions of clouds with landscape, weather cycles and humans, is fraught with complexity. “The problem is that it’s not a contained system,” says Pretor-Pinney. “These air masses are interacting with each other and it’s all very chaotic and turbulent. So actually pinning down what is happening, what’s moving and how it’s changing in temperature is quite complicated.
“Each cloud is unique, and is part of a fluid system. If you were a little fish in a bathtub, and you’re trying to work out how the bubbles of the foam form on the surface of the water, it’s all chaos. Just one little swirl of the water makes them change.”
The bathtub metaphor seems odd at first, but in Pretor-Pinney’s study, a pile of notebooks bound by a rubber band with “Waves” written on the front cover gives a clue to this new preoccupation. He is preparing a book on undulations in all forms, from the human hand-wave to Mexican waves and surfers’ fantasy breaking rollers.
He admits he hasn’t quite figured out how the book will work yet. But like his other projects, it will doubtless show a distinct kind of scholarship. “I’ve always found clouds intriguing. Perhaps one reason I like them is that they chime with the feeling that I’ve always been somewhere between science and art in perspective on the world. I never really felt I was comfortable in either.” Pretor-Pinney studied philosophy at Oxford, but pursued a career in design. He designs the Society’s annual calendar and also laid out his new book, with a fastidiousness equal to the detail he applies to his knowledge of clouds. (He fought hard to get rounded corners on the book, for example.)
As president of the Cloud Appreciation Society, Pretor-Pinney charges £4 for life membership. This gets you a certificate, a badge and “an occasional newsletter” when he has time to write one. The main focus is people’s pictures of clouds, posted on the website for discussion and admiration.
|Gavin Pretor-Pinney with Natalie Whittle under a Somerset sky|
Today is a cumulus cloud day. “But it’s not cumulus humilis – the cotton wool clouds or little sheep you see on a sunny day. You see this one down here [he points towards the horizon], it’s building up quite nicely. It’s got quite a crisp top, which means it’s vigorously rising. In the right conditions, that could grow into a large cumulus cloud.”
Next month, Pretor-Pinney will be giving similar instruction to guests at a cloud-spotting weekend organised by the School of Life which will attempt to show why “contemplating clouds is the perfect antidote to the stresses of modern-day life”. He’ll also be pursuing the philosophical tangent to cloud spotting. Clouds, he writes in The Cloud Collectors’ Handbook, “embody the impermanence of the world around us”. But even if they form and pass quickly, they are open to all.
“They never happen when you expect them to,” he tells me. “One of the good things about clouds is that you don’t have to be somewhere special – they’re there for everyone. You just have to have a view on the sky. It doesn’t have to be somewhere spectacular – it could be a tower block in the middle of London.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009