Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Eric Hobsbawm, Jay Parini and Tessa Hadley.

How to change the world: Tales of Marx and Marxism by Eric Hobsbawm

Reviewing Eric Hobsbawm's 16th book in the Guardian, Stefan Collini concludes that it demonstrates "that Marxism has, despite its founder's famous proclamation, always contributed more to understanding the world than to changing it", whilst saluting the essay's "sheer intellectual quality."

From the Financial Times, Francis Wheen finds that though "this collection of essays ... about Marxism after Marx is slightly disfigured by the author's enduring party line coyness", Hobsbawm still manages to remind us of the "many reasons for still reading Marx in our turbulent times."

In the New Statesman John Gray accused Hobsbawm of being "highly evasive" in relation to his treatment of the bloody legacy of 20th century political Marxism, and, writing in a "drearily familiar" manner.

The Passengers of Herman Melville by Jay Parini

Writing in the Financial Times, John Sutherland thinks that Parini's "eminently readable narrative convincingly fills in hitherto dark places" in Melville's life, and praises his fictional recreation of Mrs Melville's life.

Philip Hoare, from the Guardian, questions whether Parini's fictional version of Melville's life has been constructed with a touch of authorial "naivety", but admires his "touching evocations of Melville's interior struggles with faith, art and mortality."

In this week's New Statesman, Sarah Churchwell finds that Parini's narrative overtone of "frivolity sits oddly with a writer who was nothing if not serious" and denounces the "literal-mindedness" of this piece of biographical fiction.

The London Train by Tessa Hadley

Tessa Hadley's fourth novel offers "first-class views on the psychological scenery of 21st-century Britain", according to Helen Brown in the Telegraph.

Writing in the Independent, TI Sperlinger concurs that Hadley's novel is "impressive", even if it does contain a few "false notes", such as its "self-consciously literary" tone.

Ophelia Field, from the Guardian, decrees Hadley's latest to be "a good read, with ideas as mature as its characters.

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.