Gavin Pretor-Pinney, "The Cloudspotter's Guide"

Co-founder of The Idler magazine has written a charming book full of science, myth, wit and nuance. Thankfully more of an artistic, spiritual, and cultural history, than a mere guide to identify types of clouds.


Cloud Appreciation Society / Idler

Gavin Pretor-Pinney was asked to do a talk on clouds at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival and, perhaps to add official-sounding credibility to his presentation, decided to bill himself as a representative of The Cloud Appreciation Society. To his surprise, loads of people showed up, many of them asking how to join the society, which he then felt obliged to go away and actually create. It is now possible to obtain a certificate of membership, and they have a regularly updated website, full of superb photographs (unlike the book, unfortunately), merchandise (cloud cufflinks, no less) and various shades of poetry, none more shady than my own.

Unless consumed by masochism or absolutely intent on literally cloudspotting, grant yourself permission not to use this book to memorize the Latin names of cloud formations, or for recognizing any of their distinguishing features. Furthermore, there's no need even to bother looking for things in clouds. My daughter once yelled "Look! A leopard!" as we walked along a country path and I braced for an attack, only to discover that she was pointing into the sky. Later it dawned that whereas seeing other likenesses in cloud formations can be alarmingly cute in a child, such ability is less delightful in adults; especially when they claim that a piece of toast looks just like Jesus, a potato resemble Elvis, or a cow pat is the spitting image of Mother Theresa.

If the cover art of The Cloudspotter's Guide has a visual appeal it is one similar to the old RAC touring books; the kind that conjure a time when driving, at least in the UK, wasn't the congested ordeal it has become, and getting stuck behind some determinedly slow codger in a cloth cap and leather driving gloves didn't inspire the kind of frothing, fatal, blind overtaking that Sir John Betjeman describes in his Meditation on the A30. To be on the safe side though possibly the best places to enjoy this book are on a plane, train, as a passenger in a car, while lying on a hill, or whatever local equivalent you have of looking up through James Turrell's square stone viewing square, Tending, (Blue) at the Nasher Sculpture Center.

Pretor-Pinney combines 16th Century cloud pornography, Trumbull's special effects created for Close Encounters, at least one military triumph, lava lamps, elephants, religious expansion, phytoplankton, gigantic cloud harps, umpteen gods, lexiconographic tendencies, Roman coins, earthquake prediction, the holy grail of clouds, and a good deal more. It's almost as if The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy were crossed with The Observer's Book of Weather.