In the critics this week

Catch-22, the arms race in medieval relics and the action film with only one punch.

The "Critic at Large" this week is Daniel Swift, writing on the enduring relevance of Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22. "One recurring joke," Swift writes, "is about army canteen food. For lunch one day, the airmen have roast lamb with 'Iranian rice and asparagus tips Parmesan, followed by cherries jubilee for desert and then steaming cups of fresh coffee with Benedictine and brandy', all served by kidnapped Italian waiters at tables dressed with damask. The joke is surely that army food is so bad. Pause, however, and scroll forward to other wars in later times, to now. During the Iraq war, American soldiers stationed at al-Asad Airbase, west of Baghdad, could choose their dinner from Burger King, Pizza Hut or Kentucky Fried Chicken... Now, the joke changes; now, the novel points at us."

In this week's lead book review, Stefan Collini examines Thomas Docherty's For the University: Democracy and the future of the Institution:"Docherty fears that the university is now being treated as a 'menial service-provider for this vague world of business.' The whole agenda of 'transferable skills', for instance, 'diverts attention away from the specifics of academic or intellectual content' towards capabilities thought to appeal to employers."

The Books Interview this week is with Chris Adrian, who has reworked Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in his latest novel, and speaks about his experience as a paediatric oncologist.

Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre's book Ed: the Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader is reviewed by Roy Hattersley, who judges that the authors "skim the surface of almost everything in what is less a book than an exercise in sustained journalism, with all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre."

Helen Lewis-Hasteley reviews Caitlin Moran's feminist autobiography, finding that "while How to be a Woman might not have the anger or urgency of The Female Eunuch, it certainly has more jokes. And perhaps that's what modern feminism needs."

Elsewhere, Jonathan Derbyshire reports on the "Treasures of Heaven" exhibition of medieval relics at the British Museum, Antonia Quirke listens to Aung San Suu Kyi's Reith Lectures on Radio 4, and Tom Ravenscroft reorganises his podcasts, having acquired a new computer.

Film critic Ryan Gilbey examines A Separation, a film in which "only a single punch is thrown," despite being billed as "the year's most explosive action movie", and Rachel Cooke has an olfactory reminiscence occasioned by the BBC4 documentary Perfume.

Finally, lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson gives Alan Hollinghurst's latest novel the once over, noting that it has a striking resemblance, in the early chapters at least, to Ian McEwan's Atonement. "The difference is that Atonement turns out to be a parody of a novel by Elizabeth Bowen, whereas The Stranger's Child turns out to be a parody of a novel by Alan Hollinghurst."

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.