Thomas W. Hodgkinson

I wandered lonely

Literary Review, June 2006

On a cloudy afternoon in the summer of 1959, Lieutenant-Colonel William Rankin climbed into the cockpit of his jet fighter for a routine navigational flight from Massachusetts to North Carolina. That’s what it should have been. Unfortunately for Rankin, his engine conked out when he was flying directly above a monstrous cumulonimbus, more commonly known as a storm cloud. These behemoths of the troposphere are estimated to contain as much energy as ten Hiroshima-sized bombs. The largest of them, measured from top to bottom, can be considerably taller than Mount Everest. On his dashboard, the decorated Korean War veteran was horrified to see the bright red ‘fire’ light flashing urgently. When he pulled the lever for the back-up power supply, it came away in his hand. He was at an altitude of approximately 47,000 feet. The temperature outside was -50ºC. Rankin had no choice, however, but to yank the ejection seat handle behind his head, explode out of the cockpit, and begin his plummet into the waiting cumulonimbus.

Clouds needn’t be boring. Certainly, when gazed up at from miles below by the prostrate idler sucking on a blade of grass, they can seem fluffy and harmless, even soporific, but in the words of Constable, who believed the sky to be ‘the chief organ of sentiment’ in his landscape paintings, ‘we see nothing truly till we understand it’. That is the motto adopted by Gavin Pretor-Pinney in his relaxed, intelligent and surprisingly funny book (don’t be put off by the geeky title), as he sets out with a quasi-evangelical fervour to help us see. First he has to dispense with our prejudices. For example, I had been on the point of calling his prose style ‘clear’. I had been going to say that he ‘elucidates’ his subject. But then the disapproving genie of Pretor-Pinney loomed over me, warning that these are examples of our Western predisposition against all things cloudy. The bias may seem rather arbitrary to an Indian farmer, for instance, praying for a good monsoon. It’s a similar assumption to our idea that ‘high’ is a term of approval, as opposed to ‘low’, or ‘light’ as against ‘dark’.

In days gone by, we should remember, the clouds were associated with divinity: cloudy though they may have been, they were also high and white, if not exactly light. Islamic esotericism holds that Allah was in a nebulous state before his manifestation. When Jupiter wanted to ravish the beautiful Io, he naturally turned himself into a cloud in order to do so: a moment racily captured by Correggio in what Pretor-Pinney calls ‘the first – and sadly the last – example of sixteenth-century cloud pornography’. Some Westerners wrestle with Seasonal Affective Disorder during the winter months; the Eastern version, the author tells us, more commonly occurs in the summer, in response to cloudless skies – which put me in mind of a similar phenomenon recognised in Greece (John Fowles refers to it as the ‘Aegean blues’, I think, in his introduction to the revised 1976 edition of The Magus). In Iran, meanwhile, if you want to describe someone as lucky, the apposite phrase is dayem semakum ghaim: ‘your sky is always filled with clouds’.

Pretor-Pinney’s real achievement here is to serve up hefty amounts of technical information without boring us stiff. Employing a range of tricks and stratagems, he keeps a more or less firm grip on our interest while taking us through the various divisions and sub-divisions of clouds, their shapes and sizes, behavioural patterns, provenance, and so on and so forth. Take it on trust, for example, that he wouldn’t dream of writing anything so drab as that last sentence. In his book, the most basic of facts turns out to be unexpectedly diverting: the idea that even the fluffiest of clouds is no more a collection of floating particles than I am – that it is in fact a mêlée of water molecules falling through rising air, destined to turn into ice, and thence combine to form hailstones too heavy to be borne. In a fully formed cumulonimbus, imagine this process speeded up, and on a massive scale; then throw in thunder and lightning.

Lieutenant-Colonel Rankin was bleeding from his ears, eyes, nose and mouth. The effects of decompression had also caused his stomach to distend, like that of a pregnant woman. At last, as he was reaching an altitude where he no longer needed his oxygen supply, he felt his parachute jolt open – with the result, regrettably, that he was sucked back up into the heart of the storm cloud. One minute, he had to hold his breath to avoid drowning in torrents of water. The next, his body was being bombarded by hailstones the size of fists. When the thunder broke, he didn’t so much hear it as feel it, he remembered later. There was no good reason why he should have survived. When he was finally released from what he would describe as ‘nature’s bedlam, an ugly black cage’, and came to earth in a forest of pine trees, his skin was black from frostbite, blue with bruises, and tattooed by the pattern of his flight jacket’s stitching, where his swollen body had strained against it. A glance at his watch told him that the descent had taken forty minutes.