Cloudy with a Chance of Joy

Clouds are often given a ‘bad press’ but, as the founder of The Cloud Appreciation Society discusses, looking at clouds puts you in a frame of mind that involves embracing the fortuitous formations, the stimulation of the imagination and the creation of ideas.


Richard Bright: Maybe just to start with, could you say something about your background, where you came from, your education and training?

Gavin Pretor-Pinney: I did all sciences at A ‘level, I was at Westminster School in London and did Double Maths, Physics and Chemistry. And then I went to Oxford University and I did Philosophy; actually, it was Philosophy and Psychology, but it was Philosophy that I was really interested in. I got in to read Philosophy and Physics but changed to Philosophy and Psychology. You can’t do Philosophy on its own at Oxford. After graduating, I did an MA in Graphic Design at St Martins in London. So my education went from the sciences to the arts. My working life has seen me drift back gradually in the other direction.

RB: What made you change from the science side into the design side? Or was that always there?

GP-P: Well, I think I’ve always fallen between the cracks; I think that’s the interesting place to be in life. To be interested both in science and artistic expression has always felt natural for me. In my working life, I started as a designer and art director and found myself eventually writing books. Visual and written content are often considered separate and dealt with in different parts of the brain. For me, creativity and imaginative output comes from jumping between these different modes. Shifting from one way of looking at a problem to another loosens things up and helps you come up with new ideas. I’ve always found myself in-between what would have traditionally considered to be separate fields.

RB: Yes, because with the kind of education we’ve both probably gone through, they separated the fields…

GP-P: That’s right, a very reductionist approach. It’s the culture of specialization and that is what I suppose the working world has traditionally looked for; coming out with specialist knowledge that will help you get into a certain field, or into a certain type of job. Of course, that is all changing now, people don’t have a fixed job any longer. They have ‘portfolio careers’, changing from one job to another. If you’re starting a business, for instance, you need to be as on top of the marketing and the design as the products you’re selling. It’s all got a bit more ‘fuzzy’ these days. And that’s where my interests have always lay, in the gaps between different fields.

RB: Filling in the cracks! In 1993, you founded, along with Tom Hodgkinson, the Idler magazine. So what brought this about, and what are (still) its intentions?

GP-P: The Idler was Tom’s idea. He had been working in a crap job, he had been a trainee journalist at the Mirror newspaper and I think he just found it a terrible drudge job. He was just asked to do all this rubbish, and at the same time, he was reading Samuel Johnson’s essays under the title of ‘The Idler’, and the two kind of resonated in him. He said that there was lots that Samuel Johnson was writing about, about the struggle between being busy and being idle, that feels relevant today. And when I say today, I’m talking about the early 90’s. Tom and I knew each other from school and he asked me if I’d like to help out. I always did more work on the look of the Idler –the design and art direction of it – but we were a two-man team, so it was very much about us doing everything together. It’s difficult to sum up any magazine in a sentence, but I think that the essence of the philosophy of the magazine has always been that offices are not very creative places, and that when you are under pressure from your work you are not in a frame of mind that encourages original thought. Everyone has to work to earn a living and we’ve always been realistic about that side of things, but sometimes the original ideas come when your brain is idling. Everyone experiences this: you are completely stuck on a problem and, in despair, you give up and go and do something else and then, later on, an idea pops up into your mind. It’s the same with trying to remember someone’s name.

RB: Yes! I was just going to say that, you force yourself not to remember, and then it suddenly comes.

GP-P: That’s right, and these ideas might be stored in your brain, but not in a conscious part. Interestingly, one or two neuroscientists have looked at activity in the brain when one is in an ‘idle state’, a default mode, when the brain is not concentrating on anything in particular. When someone is daydreaming like this – parts of the brain light up on an fMRI scanner that aren’t as active when you are concentrating. It’s not activity in the brain that’s studied very much, because the paradigm is, ‘present a stimulus and let’s look at the response’. That’s the sort of scientific paradigm of studying something like the brain. But interestingly, these areas that light up when the mind is just drifting, are ‘hub’ regions of the brain. Neurologically, they are regions that are well connected to lots of other regions. These default-mode hubs come alive when you’re not thinking about something. Which sort of fits with that experience of an idea popping into your consciousness when you just give up and think about something else – you go and have a sleep or you go and stare at clouds. So, its not just to do with memory, not just to do with remembering things, it’s also to do with problem solving and ideas for your life; the direction you should take in life. Sometimes, you get stuck in the mentality of the office. The day-in, day-out routine is such a rut that you can’t see beyond it. The magazine has always argued that it’s important to consciously kick back against the office mentality. I’m using the ‘office’ as a kind of metaphor for the kind of drudgery of work, the non-thinking drudgery of work, being motivated by just trying to please your boss or trying to get a pay rise. We should explore whether there are ways of being motivated by your curiosity, by your interests and turning that into a career. And it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge for me and Tom. It’s a challenge for all of us; an on-going thing. So the Idler has always been an on-going experiment, an on-going vessel in which to explore those ideas.

RB: I like the way you have come to it; the intention is to explore.

GP-P: That’s right, because you never really have an answer.  Also, a magazine is a collection of voices, not one voice. Do you know what I mean? It’s not one editorial or message, and so different people explore different aspects of the idea of ‘Idling’. It’s always been – and I know Tom would agree with this – it’s always been an on-going exploration, an on-going experiment in living.

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RB: How did the Cloud Appreciation Society come about?

GP-P: After Tom and I had been doing the Idler for ten years, we took a sabbatical break to mark the ten-year anniversary. We’d also been doing lots of other commercial work together, and I was single at the time and had saved up some money from this commercial work. So we decided to take a break, a sabbatical. I went and lived in Rome; did a flat swap with my flat in London and lived in Rome for seven months. That time was a kind of geographical way of introducing that space. It was like an elongated ‘default mode’ period. I was learning Italian and meeting lots of people, but I was kind of coasting. It can be an odd and unnerving feeling not knowing what you’re doing in your life, which is how it felt on occasions but, at other times, it felt amazingly free to be there.

During that time, the whole idea of doing my work in some way being related to clouds came about. It was a result of the space that I obviously had in my mind by stepping out for a period from my day-to-day work in London and living somewhere abroad, with an entirely different perspective. Stepping out from the routine enabled my changing from being a designer to being an author. There I was in Rome, and I was feeling like something was missing from all these blue skies the whole time. I realized that I missed the clouds that are such a common feature of our surroundings here in Britain. I was thinking, it’s an interesting thing, you know, that people are always so negative about clouds, but I missed them. I realized that they are an aspect of our surroundings that bring variety, change and drama to the day – drama that you don’t get from cloudless skies. Sure, it’s a refreshing change after you’ve had lots of grey skies, to be somewhere where it’s sunny the whole time, but after a while you realize you are missing something.

I didn’t know at the time what to do about clouds, whether to do a TV programme about them, write a book, I wasn’t sure. But the intention came as a result of all that space, having some space in my mind. It’s all related to the ideas of the Idler. And when I did start The Cloud Appreciation Society, I couldn’t really do that and the Idler and earn a living, so I ended up leaving Tom to do the Idler and moving on to start the Cloud Appreciation Society myself. Tom’s still got it going, and he’s got The Idler Academy, which is an interesting, exciting venue and bookshop in London, which I participate in every now and then.

RB: That’s interesting, because I imagined that the Cloud Appreciation Society came from your life-long appreciation of clouds, something you had always wanted to do.

GP-P: I always liked clouds, but one of the funny things about clouds is that they are so omnipresent, so every-day, they have such a cameo presence in our lives that we tend to ignore them. We don’t really pay too much attention to them. I had always loved clouds and thought that it was a shame that they got such a bad press, but it never occurred to me that I should do anything about it. With time out, come new thoughts, new directions, and new opportunities that would never have occurred if you hadn’t allowed that space to be there.


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[Images courtesy of Richard Bright]

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