In Sled we trust

Why the sled is as American as pie

At the heart of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane is a sled ("sledge"?) called "Rosebud", which, we are told, represents the key to unlocking the secret life of the film's reclusive newspaperman. According to Gore Vidal's 1984 article in the New York Review of Books, Rosebud was, in fact, the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst's "pet name" for his paramour Marion Davies's clitoris. Perhaps this explains, in part, why Hearst took so strongly against a film that many believed was a veiled biography about his life.

In February 2006, meanwhile, Disney's dog movie (as opposed to dog-of-a-movie) Eight Below made its debut at the top of the US box office, taking over £14m in its opening weekend. Alongside the likes of the American Pie star Jason Biggs were the canines Max, Maya, Old Jack and Shadow --all of whom took on multiple roles. Among the film's protagonists, an abandoned pack of sled dogs, numbered two mutts named Dewey and Truman, after the 1948 presidential candidates Thomas Dewey and Harry Truman.

Is there something I'm missing about the iconic significance of sleds to Americans? Kane's working title in the RKO lots was, rather bluntly, American. When militant flag-wavers see the burning sled at the end of that film, do they slowly reach for their Smith and Wessons (which they are legally entitled to bear, even at Obama rallies)?

Speaking about gun nuts, the Field and Stream website's "Gun Nut" blog -- yes, Gun Nut -- once ran a piece about the Lead Sled, which is a "metal pan upon which is affixed a rifle mount". The bloggers explain: "To use, you lock your rifle in the mount and throw lead-filled shot bags on the sled. Then you aim the rifle and shoot."

Apparently, the Lead Sled eliminates the risk of self-injury when shooting things. This is a bad, un-American innovation and, as the headline makes clear, to "America's shame". For "good shooting," they say, "begins with the acceptance of pain. Great shooting begins with the love of pain. Do you think John Wayne would have used a Lead Sled? Do you think John Wayne would have appeared in Brokeback Mountain ?"

Finally, in this week's Big Issue, Bob Dylan talks to his regular interviewer-cum-stooge Bill Flanagan about his charity album, Christmas in the Heart. Flanagan describes the record, consisting of festive favourites originally popularised by Dean Martin and co, as a "celebration of family, community, faith and shared memory". Which all makes it as distinctively American as the non-scary bits of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, and almost as enjoyable (though this is a moot point). Having spent a career mining the nation's cultural riches, Dylan has, of late, refashioned himself as a Mark Twain-esque folk figure with his whimsical turns on Theme Time Radio Hour. His appearance in Cadillac's TV commercials, too, seemed designed to confirm his uber-Americanness. At the end of the interview, Flanagan asks him: "What's the best Christmas gift you ever got?" Bob says: "Let me think . . . oh yeah, I think it was a sled."

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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.