A wild slim alien


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The shape of clouds

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‘I became a story sailors tell, the one about the old captain who travels the earth looking for the comfort the ocean used to give him, reading the shape of clouds as he once read the swell of waves.’

I’ve not long finished taking photos of the sky every day for a year.

I introduced the idea here; and here’s where the story ends.  Inevitably, given the subject, no matter how hard I tried to vary what I captured against or underneath the sky, there was an ever-increasing sense of repetition.  But that was an accepted part of it for me, to record the points at the ends of my regular itineraries and the skies above them.  Of course, there was seasonal repetition too.  Overcast skies seemed to dominate for long stretches of the year, but if you look hard at those skies, there are a thousand shades of grey, while blue is merely a continuous spectrum depending upon where you are looking.

It’s not the first time I’ve undertaken to do something of the sort.  In 1998, I attempted to record everything I ate and drank in the course of a year, following Georges Perec’s lead, though his Attempt at an inventory of the liquid and solid foodstuffs ingurgitated by me in the course of the year nineteen hundred and seventy-four was cumulative (‘One Belon oysters, three coquilles St-Jacques, one shrimps, one shrimp croustade…’ etc) rather than a day by day affair, as mine was.  For example, I can tell you that on February 16th 1998, I ate and drank the following: ‘Porridge, toast with hummus and celery, lentil shepherd’s pie and broccoli, one can Castlemaine XXXX lager, malt loaf, white grapes.’  Perec’s drinking (largely wine, rarely beer) was somewhat more refined than mine seems to be, to judge from this one entry.  And while his list is a journey through classic French cuisine, my entries have the matter of fact flavour of historical record buried in a time capsule, rather like ledgers detailing the outgoings of the great houses of the nobility in previous centuries.  They summon up the time and the young man I was, the man I am still – but also the man I am not, the man I am no longer.

This too will stand as a record of a year.  I’ll see the framing of certain skies and know exactly where I was on that day; or there won’t be quite enough to tell and I will have to scratch my head to remember, if I can.  I’m sure I learnt things about myself as in early 1999 I looked back across what I had eaten during the previous year (not always as wholesome as was the case on February 16th), though I confess I no longer remember what it is I learnt.  I’m not sure I was any more certain about the worth of this latest year-long project – sometimes it seemed an exercise in futility, although for the most part it felt like a valiant undertaking pursued for all the right reasons – but I’m prepared to have a stab at what I think I may have learnt from looking at the sky so much for a year.

I learnt to turn around and look behind me.

I learnt the limitations of the frame and to avoid the brightest part of the day.

I learnt how to be patient, to wait for the right sky.  I learnt that the sky doesn’t care for your troubles, though it may sometimes seem to mirror your joy.

I learnt that in a coastal town or city, seagulls will always photobomb your pictures – often to good effect, it has to be said.

I learnt the names of previously unfamiliar types of cloud, though sadly my year of photographs does not include any examples of either lenticular or noctilucent clouds.

I learnt that the most beautiful skies would always elude me.  Even now, a couple of weeks after the end, I see them from the car, and I cannot always be stopping to capture them, or I’d never make it to my destination.  Coastal skies, and skies from on high looking down over the plain beneath a line of hills.  Porchester Castle at sunset or sunrise.  Dawn, with the skeletal big wheel by the travellers’ camp site before it, strands of cloud like combed candy floss detaching from a cumulus mass in the wind.  A mackerel sky over the common.   Clouds like distant mountains.  Endlessly spreading cumulonimbus above the Isle of Wight, their splendour undimmed for being seen through the institutional grubbiness of my window at work.  Clouds like those depicted in Old Master paintings.  God skies, you might call them, without necessarily believing in God.

I learnt that you can never stop looking at clouds and seeing shapes in them.  Horses and dragons, VW Beatles and ships of the line.  There goes Italy, hotly pursued by a somewhat misshapen Australia, and coming after the countries, a sparrowhawk followed by a peacock.  I often thought of Peter Benson’s novel, The shape of clouds, the clouds being those which chase a retired sea captain to an abandoned, remote Cornish village, the clouds which witness his late-flowering love with the film star of both his early years and his dreams.

As I drive with my daughter, we play the shape of clouds game.  One evening recently, we saw a cloud resembling nothing so much as a giant heron gliding, migratory and magnificent in its thermal determination to get where it was going.

The skies that I captured are unrepeatable. They were mine, but I had the urge to share them, and I managed to sustain that across a whole year, save the single day that I missed, when a few words had to stand in for a thousand possible pictures.  So, though I more or less succeeded, I also failed, judged against the standard I set myself.

But at least I managed to end on the high note of a rainbow, to make up for the one I missed in the Highlands of Scotland, stopping the car in a lay-by on the way home in the fading light on the very last day of the sky-snapping year.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rainbow that late in a day before.  And so it became both my final sky and my covenant with you, the viewer.

See you on the other side of the rainbow.

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From your favourite sky

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I can pinpoint the moment.  It was standing in the park by the cricket ground while my daughter played on the new zip wire.  I looked up from my phone and out across the field and the vast sky full of huge summertime clouds seemed to beg for my attention. I shot the sky where I stood. The next day, strolling through the centre of the city, I did it again.  And then I thought about posting the results.  So that’s what I’ve been doing ever since, at From your favourite sky.

Of course I’m far from the first to point my camera predominantly at the sky on a daily basis – Alistair shoots summer skies every year – but we all see the world differently; one person will completely miss what another sees, and vice versa. No two sets of daily photos would be the same.

The iPhone is not equipped with the greatest camera in the world but taking a photo to post each day is teaching me how to get the best out of it.  My framing gets better all the time, but in a sense that’s not the point; it’s more to make a record, of the days, of the skies, of the transient majesty of clouds.  In this country, in the space of a day, you can see so many different kinds of sky, though I confess I probably have already developed a tendency to discard overcast in favour of moments when the sky turns more interesting shades or colours.  Enough blue to stitch a sailor’s suit is often sufficient for me.  Nevertheless, photos on certain days seem distinctly ordinary, or even dreary; others come alive with structural detail from trees and telephone wires and buildings.  Trees in particular provide a land and sea-style contrast with the sky.  Inevitably there is an element of repetition, because generally I am in the same two places during the week; but there is variety in the repetition, an endless fugue.  Fundamentally it’s another way of saying, here I am, this is me, this is what I will see today, this is what I am seeing right now.  A daily postcard; a declaration of the everyday, each and every day.

Some days I take just a couple of photos, one to fulfil the requirement I’ve placed upon myself, another as insurance.  Others I will see wonders above me everywhere I look, and will take dozens, choosing the best later, and finding that I have to drop photos which are far better than the days preceding or following.  So far, I’ve only once been called a freak for pointing my phone at something it appears that only I can see.

At the beginning my intention was to do this for a year.  Now I think it will have to be a little longer, because one day, so absorbed was I in writing words, I forgot to take a picture, much to my annoyance when I realised too late the next morning.  (I wrote about that day instead, in far fewer than a thousand words.)  So to achieve 365 days in succession, completion date will be 3rd October 2014.  As long as I don’t forget another day along the way.

Here is the first of two selections of my favourite favourite skies so far:

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