In the Critics this week

Sarah Churchwell on Paul Auster, Ryan Gilbey on Woody Allen and Jonathan Derbyshire interviews Michael Chabon.

In the Critics section of the New Statesman this week, Simon Heffer reviews Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity, a new book written by five Tory MPs including Elizabeth Truss, who was promoted to the front bench as an education minister in the recent reshuffle. He argues that what the five politicians have to say is both sensible and illuminating. “Their words, because of the empiricism that underpins them, have an authority not seen in a policy submission by a group of Tories since the original One Nation group in 1950,” writes Heffer. He goes on to declare that although many on the left will dismiss the arguments as, to use Theresa May’s phrase, “nasty”, these ideas “represent a long-overdue confrontation with a reality that the present government seems not even to have half the measure of.” The main thrust of the book is that we continue to live beyond our means: “the authors … say that without serious cuts in taxation, funded by even deeper cuts in public spending, there will be insufficient impetus and incentive in the private sector to economic recovery … They warn the present opposition that nothing has changed… There has to be a better way: and [they] seek to find it.” Ultimately, Heffer finds that the book adds something worth hearing to the current political conversation: “[T]his book deserves to be taken seriously by all with an interest in politics, whatever their beliefs.”

Elsewhere in the Critics, Sarah Churchwell is underwhelmed by Paul Auster’s Winter Journal. “Readers hoping to find an inventive and intelligent exploration of grief will be disappointed by Winter Journal … in fact, readers expecting too much of anything will be disappointed. Auster is too fluent a writer to produce a book that is irredeemably bad but Winter Journal is eye-wateringly pointless, drifting inertly from one unremarkable thought to the next.” Churchwell finds Auster’s decision to address himself in the second person tedious and alienating: “there is a reason why writers avoid the second person: the paradoxical effect is not to create intimacy but to estrange the reader. There is something coercive in his use of “you” that provokes a reflexive resistance, a constant mental chorus asserting the reader’s difference from him.” As for the subject matter? “It offers little more than a series of lists,” says Churchwell, concluding that “the real lesson of Winter Journal is that the more lists a book compiles, the more helplessly listless the book becomes.”

“To wish for world peace might seem naïve but it’s an act of the staunchest realism next to the hope that Woody Allen will one day return to making films worthy of his name,” begins Ryan Gilbey’s review of Allen’s 42nd and most recent film, To Rome With Love. So, he says, “it’s a perfect time to receive with gratitude Allen’s comic roundelay, easily his least-bad movie in a decade or so.” Faint praise perhaps, but Gilbey stands by it: “while this movie feels like what it is – a late-period bagatelle from an artist too remote to render human encounters without mannerism – its silliness is rejuvenating … not one of the stories adds up to a hill of borlotti beans, but the echoes and resonances between them generate a cumulative spell. Each plot concludes with the renouncing of the superficial, and a return to humility: Americans and Italians alike are disabused of their illusions, and the only enduring magic is shown to be the chance and chaos of love.”

Also in the Critics: Jonathan Derbyshire interviews Michael Chabon, poetry by Judi Sutherland and Rachel Cooke on ITV’s The Scapegoat.

Sarah Churchwell finds Paul Auster's book underwhelming in the latest issue of the New Statesman.
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.