Head in the clouds

Last year I walked from where I live now, to where I was born, to where I grew up, to where I was at school, to where I was at University: Stockwell — Charing Cross — the Hampstead Garden Suburb — Finchley — Oxford. Thus linking my life together with a physical chord, the music of my swishing thighs.

I was particularly looking forward to visiting the house on Brim Hill, London N2, where I grew up. I’d been back there the previous year, and on that occasion was plunged into a Proustian reverie, on seeing that the little paving-stone semicircle at the bottom of the drive was exactly as it had been when I was two or three, and played out there, scrabbling in the privet hedge and running my cars along the moss-filled runnels. This was a kinder era, when coal trucks still delivered oily, glistening sacks, paedophiles didn’t exist, car traffic was minimal, and the US Air Force — with the assistance of petroleum jelly — encouraged naked Vietnamese girls to go jogging.

But this time the drive, after 40 years, had been resurfaced, and my happy Lilliputian land was gone for ever. Tears pricking my eyes, I looked up to the suburban heavens, and saw there the towering forms of cumulus clouds, heavy and grey at their bases, while their nodose peaks had that particularly intense shade of white only ever matched by especially cheap ice-cream cones.

Now I was crying: recalling the dreadful revelation that also dated from my early childhood, when it finally dawned on me that I would never, ever be able to take a walk in the clouds. Up until that point — and join me, if you will, in this stroll into the inchoate world of those billions of neurons coalescing to form the human mind — light beams had been solid and within my control, and the cloudscape was a fully apprehended part of the world, mutable yet solid.

The adult world is one of objects that persist through time and space: duct tape, manhole covers, wheelie bins, a crass neighbour’s stupid car — they furnish the world, replete with their own monstrous quiddity. When we stop walking in the clouds, ascending their creamy gorges and planting our flags in their sweet summits, we are for ever condemned to this.

I suspect the impulse Jack the lad mountaineers have to climb up and up their ropey beanstalks, is really only an urge to walk in the clouds. As for mass air transit, what can we say of it, save that it destroys our most cherished childhood illusions again and again. To plunge through the clouds once, lancing into bright sunshine, the aluminium belly of the aircraft snuggled in the flocculent sward, may be a magical experience. But to do this again and again, while slurping Um Bongo and eating pistachios at £3 a pack, is unbelievably mundane magic.

I took the small boys up to Clapham Common to do some cloud spotting. It was a fresh June day, and the curve of the hill was clearly apprehensible. The formations were perfect: regularly spaced chunks of total amorphousness sailed across the sky, even from below they had a planiform that suggested the curvature of the globe itself. All creation was in these clouds, as they metamorphosed from moment to moment:

“That one’s like a man with a hairstyle!”

“There’s a volcano!”

“That one looks like a crocodile!”

“Look, a rabbit!”

These were some of the things we cried as we lay on our backs.

Or, rather, these are some of the things I cried. The boys soon got bored and began a play fight. Perhaps they were too old already to take the vaporous for the solid and walk among the clouds. Or maybe they wanted more nerdish cloud taxonomy. I wish I was the kind of father who could draw their attention to cirrocumulus stratiformis undulatus (that’s a mackerel sky to you and me), without driving them to distraction — but I’m not. Cloud spotting remains a matter of ducks and volcanoes with me, with the occasional quiet appreciation of the way the swags and drapes constitute a backdrop to a charming proscenium of landscape.

I did take a look on the Cloud Appreciation Society website started by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, author of the bestselling Cloudspotter’s Guide. This month’s top cloud shot — I urge you take a look — is of a distrail, the swathe chopped out of the cloud cover when an airplane’s exhaust fumes freeze the water vapour into ice. Distrails and contrails, ticks and crosses on the ledgers of the heavens, marking the progress of humanity towards the final, very public examination. Worse still, if you join the Cloudspotters’ club, you get a membership certificate — and a badge. I began to cry all over again — and I’m crying still.