Whodunit

There are ten basic cloud types (genera) that derive from five fundamental forms (sheets, wisps, rolls, etc.). They are divided into three levels – cloud low (CL), cloud medium (CM) and cloud high (CH) – according to where they are found in the troposphere. Genera are divided into species, which are subdivided into varieties, leading through cross-classification to an apparently infinite diversity of formations (thinking about it makes me dizzy). The nomenclature system for clouds in use today was thought up by the English pharmacist Luke Howard, who first presented it to the Askesian Society in 1802. Howard identified three main types of cloud: cumulus (heap), stratus (layer) and cirrus (hair curl). When he published Essay on the Modification of Clouds in 1803 (a 32-page pamphlet), he provided meteorologists and cloud-gazers with the scientifically sound terms they had been lacking to finally make sense of the maddeningly fickle English sky. Howard’s work was so influential that he was rewarded with a commemorative blue plaque outside his Tottenham home (where he died at the age of 91). The plaque quaintly refers to Howard as “Namer of Clouds”, a turn of phrase that combines the mythic (i.e. Giver of Fire), poetic and scientific. Shelley was sufficiently inspired by Howard’s taxonomy of the nebulous to write his famous (anti-plaque) poem, The Cloud (1820):

I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,

And out of the caverns of rain,

Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,

I arise and unbuild it again.

There are over 900 official blue plaques in London. The first plaque was erected in Holles Street in 1867 in honour of Lord Byron, but the house was demolished in 1889 to make way for the first John Lewis department store (Maker of Heart-Warming Christmas Ads). The poet went through several more plaques before John Lewis and Westminster City Council jointly put up a green plaque in 2012. It clumsily exalted Byron (“widely regarded as one of the greatest British poets”) and included a banal quote (“Always laugh when you can. It is a cheap medicine”) beneath the 1788 of his death. The plaques are relatively small (49.5 cm in diameter) so concision is needed (15 words are considered optimum). Is that why Byron is commemorated as Lord Byron and not by his full title of Lord George Gordon Byron? Or was George Gordon too humdrum for the distinguished poet? Did the prosaic name undermine the romantic myth? Sadly, the plaque faithfully records the historic record. Lord Byron became fixed in public consciousness, culturally reinforcing hierarchy by equating lordliness with greatness, by juxtaposing social superiority with linguistic authority.

A twee ceramic dish (in the kiln-fired spirit of Wedgwood) is a fitting tribute to Byron; the master of delicate overstatement is affixed to the London property market, an outrageously fanciful realm where word-forged worth inflates bricks-and-mortar properties into fairy-tale holdings, or in the words of Peter Wetherell, CEO and Poet Laureate of luxury estate agent Wetherell, which valued a 12-bedroom apartment in Admiralty Arch at £150 million: “What it shows clearly is that London is still in the luxury homes business and still the place hitting new price expectations. It shows clearly that despite all the fuss over Brexit that London remains the world centre for uber luxury homes and high values…This property will appeal to a business tycoon from Asia or Europe, or to an oil Royal from the Middle East or Asia. It’s a real trophy asset.”

The blue plaques are a good idea in principle. They are impressive in historic scope and attest to a long and arduous process of political, cultural and scientific progress. They are also a monumental vanity project that confuse the vagaries of history with shameless namedropping. The plaques, which are made by ceramicists Frank and Sue Ashworth (they have made 300 of them since 1984), do not unify London but inadvertently attest to its utter indifference to history and disregard for Londoners. They exist under a giant cloud (yet to be officially identified), randomly dispersed drops of fame-spatter. The London property market has priced out the vast majority of native residents; the plaques (which collectively cohere into an historical thriller, a blue fog connecting everything from the classical royalty of Handel to the purple haze of Hendrix) are a cruel reminder of what London was: inclusive, liberal and affordable. A protestor stuck a mock blue plaque on the wall outside Boris Johnson’s London home in 2016. It read: “Bojo, destroyer of cosmopolitan unity & passer of buck lives here” (Johnson was a former mayor of London).

In order to be awarded a blue plaque, the recipient must have been dead for at least 20 years and to “have lived at the location they are being connected with for either a long time or during an important period, such as when writing their seminal work or creating their key invention.” That is easier said than done when property prices have risen by 518% over the past 20 years. The average home cost £79,000 in 1996; that rose to £488,908 by 2016. Wages have stagnated and fallen in real terms, meaning that property prices have risen 11 times as fast as incomes. Local councils have seen their budgets decimated which has forced them to sell off subsidized housing stock. Most young people rent at exorbitant prices or are forced to live at home with their families. The situation is so dire that some young women are accepting free accommodation in exchange for sex with landlords. In 2016, Conservative MPs voted against a Labour amendment to the Housing Bill that would require private sector landlords to ensure their properties are fit for human habitation. The reason they gave (questionable interests aside) was that the amendment would push up rents. The average rent for a one-bedroom flat in London is currently £1,133 (1,333 euros) per month. For that price you cannot even see the stars at night because of the lilac-tinged night-time sky that makes such an atmospheric and dramatic backdrop to nocturnal violence and lovemaking.

Tottenham resident Luke Howard knew that cloud formations could provide an important insight into meteorological activity just as our countenance is a visible measure of our state of mind. (When a major riot broke out in Tottenham in 2011, quickly spreading to the rest of the country, it felt like a Cumulonimbus storm cloud breaking.)

As human impact on the environment increases, perhaps the sky will become a nebulous projection of humanity, reflecting our madness and despair right back at us. Clouds will scud into woolly tufts that will unravel into strands that will band into ragged shreds that will gather into smooth sheets that will spread into filiform lattices that will condense into undulating layers that will heap into mountains that will mushroom into a fulgurous wrath that will spill over into the day the clocks stopped.

The blue plaque commemorating Luke Howard is the only English Heritage blue plaque in Tottenham. Tottenham is one of the poorest boroughs in London, with almost half of the borough’s children living in poverty. Cumuli can be seen drifting across blank faces. Strati regularly cloud people’s judgement.

I would like to write a taxonomy of despair: to be Namer of Mental Clouds. Many people associate (thick, dark, furrowed) clouds with despair. For me, despair assumes the form of a clear blue sky. I find it unbearable in its relentless intensity, its thrumming immanence. It is pure pandemonium to a mind that depends on contrast for sustenance. My eyes seize on a passing wisp of cloud like a drowning man grabs at passing flotsam.

Alan Turing is among the many distinguished recipients of the blue plaque. Turing was rendered impotent after undergoing forced hormonal therapy as a condition of the probation he was subject to after pleading guilty to gross indecency (i.e. being homosexual). In 1954, shortly before his 42nd birthday, Turing killed himself. He was posthumously pardoned for his conviction of gross indecency in 2013 and a law was named after him in 2017 that retroactively pardons people convicted under archaic laws prohibiting homosexuality. All of this, however, greatly exceeds the optimum number of 15 words per plaque.

Please, sir, can I have a plaque? You have plenty of plaque on your teeth you vain fool.

Strip clubs are revealingly unerotic. Love generally turns sclerotic.

A is for Apples, B is for Balls.

I silently laugh at my cardiograph:

A distant cirrocumulus

Shaded with cirrhosis

Between the lines

Spreading the word

A gossamer threshold

A static silence

An emphatic failure

Foretold above.

 

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