Musing the muse

When Lucien Freud’s painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping was sold last week for £17.2m arts columns nationwide began murmuring about capitalism, commodity culture and – crucially – the role of the artist’s muse. Indeed, as the writer Joanna Moorhead points out, the silent, subservient, selfless (and almost without exception female) muse is an uncomfortable concept for today’s society. It was, therefore, reassuring to hear Freud’s model Sue Tilley speaking for herself. However other arts news this week suggests that the shadow of the muse is not confined to an outdated concept. Chloe Garner’s campaign for a female Poet Laureate serves as quiet reminder that the master in masterpiece is not incidental. Garner, the director of the Ledbury Poetry Festival, has done much to draw attention to the fact that the prestigious position has, since its creation in 1668, never been held by a woman. In a letter to the Queen and Gordon Brown Garner stated: "Nothing in the rules actually debars women and there are many splendid female poets from all generations writing and performing in Britain today."

Exhibitions in Manchester and Sydney have, albeit for very different reasons, prompted heated debate this week about issues of privacy and cultural censorship. Manchester Museum’s decision to shroud its collection of Eygptian mummies was announced at the same time that police in Australia censored a http://livenews.com.au/Articles/2008/05/22/Photo_exhibition_...">photography exhibition on account of its ‘unacceptable’ content. Bill Henson's photographs of naked teenagers have been condemned as an assault on children’s privacy and his exhibition has been temporarily closed amid concerns about child pornography. Meanwhile Manchester Museum’s actions to cover the remains of three unwrapped mummies has ignited a discussion about ethical curation and whether it is respectful to display the dead. The decisions of both institutions have forced artists, curators and the public to question where the boundaries between the observer and the observed should lie.

Spike Lee also ruffled feathers this week after criticising the absence of black actors in two of Clint Eastwood’s Second World War films. Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima present the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima from American and Japanese perspectives respectively. Lee, an African-American director known for his films Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing made his observation whilst attending a press conference at Cannes to promote his new film Miracle St Anna. He commented: “There were many African-Americans who survived that war and who were upset at Clint for not having one [in the films]. That was his version: the negro soldier did not exist. I have a different version.” Lee further claimed that Eastwood had been informed that around 8% of the soldiers who fought in the battle were black but had chosen not to represent this in his portrayal. Miracle St Anna will tell the story of the all-black 92nd Buffalo Division, which fought the Germans in Italy.

Producers in Broadway have announced that they are planning a musical to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela. Based on the memoirs of his daughter Zindzi Mandela it will tell the story of his struggle against apartheid and his twenty seven years in prison. Countering various misgivings about the choice of genre Zindzi said "freedom songs were so important to the morale of the people, so it's natural for the story to be told with music." However, whilst the battle against apartheid is being celebrated in Broadway John Pilger's report for The New Statesman describes how South Africa continues to struggle.

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.