It’s only a coincidence but every year, in the depth of the sad, dark days, I celebrate my birthday, 29 December, as the day when at long last there are a couple more minutes of daylight, increasing daily from then onwards. The winter solstice in the northern hemisphere is historically a dodgy time when saturnalia celebrations were deliberately topsy-turvy – servants becoming masters and masters servants, and so on – ruled over by Saturn, the murky planet. It is the season of plots, conspiracies, mishappenings in dark alleys – the setting for the Victorian crime fiction. Who invented this new genre with a police detective, not an amateur sleuth, as the central character? Dickens with Bleak House or his friend, Wilkie Collins with The Moonstone? Or Edgar Allan Poe in one of his short stories?
Dickens gave voice to the mysterious power of the London fog. Until the 1950s the London ‘pea-souper’, grey tinged with green from the ubiquitous gas lamps, was famous worldwide. Half a century later a New York cabbie refused to believe me when I told him that they no longer cloaked the city immortalised by Dickens. He was disappointed! A friend of mine had gas lights fitted in his library. The light was ghostly but not unflattering – sort of gentle on the faces. It reminded me of Wright of Derby’s great painting of a family watching an experiment in the early years of the 18th-century industrial revolution.
So, while waiting anxiously for the first snowdrops in the Minster churchyard outside my window, the sunlight catches the raindrops on the bright green grass, though snow is forecast. By mid afternoon, even on a clear day, darkness drags gloom behind it.
‘Oh for a cloud, just a wee little cloud!’ said a Scottish voice from our group of travellers to Egypt some years ago. They were beginning to tire of the unchanging, impersonal blue sky. Instead we were granted a dust storm to graze our faces. How many places, I wonder, have a dedicated cloud-watching area, like the one I found in the Yorkshire Dales? We were walking through woodland to chance upon an open area where one can lean back on wooden structures and just gaze at clouds. They could pass over sedately or scud past, fluffy or puffy over the blue, or dense and ponderous with underbellies of grey, sometimes at a different speed for the ones below and the others, usually faster, above.
I do a lot of cloud-watching in different seasons in as many places as possible, such as across the Val di Chiana in Tuscany, which is a theatre for cloud displays. It happens to be set in the same position as Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, that is, facing the south-west. The sun sets off-stage to the right spreading a gentle backdrop of pale pink, pastel blue with sometimes a strand of Van Gogh green. Occasionally a cheeky little cloud wraps itself round the summit of Monte Amiata as if a flame-coloured memory of a long-ago eruption from the extinct volcano of Monte Amiata.