In the Critics this week

Norman Lamont on Iran, Michael Rosen on children and literature, Leo Robson on John Lanchester and J

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, the lead book review is by former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer Norman Lamont. Reviewing Trita Parsi's A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran, Lamont argues that western policy on Iran has failed. "[It] has become institutionalised," he writes. "As one US state department official put it: 'Thirty years of doing something in a certain way is pretty powerful.'" Yet the case for doing things differently, Lamont thinks, is unarguable. "Washington's containment policy is accompanied by other measures such as cyber warfare, sabotage and, allegedly, the murder of Iranian scientists. Iran seems to be retaliating by targeting Israeli diplomats, The spiral continues."

In the Books interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to American writer Nathan Englander about his new collection of short stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. Englander says he "appreciate[s] and love[s]" the short story form. "There was so much pressure when I was writing [my] novel. I've also freed myself from this idea of definition ... I tell stories, that's it."

Also in Books, the NS's lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson breaks with the burgeoning critical consensus on John Lanchester's novel Capital. "Lanchester's new novel," he writes, "has the daunting dimensions, totalising ambition and democratic cast list of a 19th-century novel in modern-day dress." However, "as a portrait of metropolitan decadence, [Capital] is all surfaces and stereotypes, all symptoms."

Also under review: David Herman reviews Film: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Wood; Jane Shilling reviews the watercooler book du jour, Rachel Cusk's memoir Aftermath ("Readers who admire the difficult discipline of self-scrutiny will find precision, beauty and a complicated truth in Cusk's narrative. The censorious will enjoy it, too, for different reasons"); Maurice Walsh reviews Douglas Murray's Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry; and Robert Hanks reviews New Ways to Kill Your Mother by Colm Toibin.

Our Critic at large this week is the children's author and poet Michael Rosen. Rosen complains that children's writers are rarely asked for their opinion on how to get children reading - more's the pity. "The makers of children's books are people who spend their lives trying to figure out ways to make [their] wisdom interesting ... What infuriates me .... is that the past 30 years have seen successive governments waging war on the democratic sharing of this wisdom."

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Michael directed by Markus Schleinzer; Will Self's "Real Meals"; Kate Mossman on Madonna; Antonia Quirke on Radio 4's Living World; Rachel Cooke on Jeremy Paxman's series Empire; Andrew Billen on In Basildon at the Royal Court; Hunter Davies's "The Fan"; and "2004", a poem by Owen Sheers."

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.