James Meek's new book concerns the wholesale privatisation of huge chunks of the British state. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Reviews Round-up | 9 September

The critics’ verdicts on Owen Jones’s The Establishment, James Meek’s Private Island and Emily Mackie’s In Search of Solace.

The Establishment: And how they get away with it by Owen Jones

Owen Jones takes on the establishment in this impassioned polemic against the powers that be. The Gu​ardian columnist explores the political injustice of British democracy, leading us from the boardrooms of Bishopsgate to the corridors of Whitehall and the newsrooms of Fleet Street. All the while, arguing that the establishment poses the greatest threat to democracy today. Jones defines the establishment as “the politicians who make laws; media barons who set the terms of debate; businesses and financiers who run the economy and police forces that enforce a law which is rigged in favour of the powerful.” In doing so, Jones argues that the modern-day establishment is even more powerful than its predecessors because of it’s acceptance of a neoliberal cross-party consensus.

Archie Bland of the Independent is impressed with Jones’s powerful polemic. He maintains that “the book’s great strength lies in the simple power of accumulation. Again and again, Jones connects the dots in parallel lines, so that the single examples that might in themselves be dismissed as circumstantial or overblown become more or less unanswerable”. Bland also praises Jones for “his position as the standard-bearer of a youthful alternative to Westminster’s suffocating consensus”. Since being dubbed “our generation’s Orwell” by Russell Brand, Jones’s political leverage has continued to grow. In turn, Bland argues that “this book will strengthen that group’s hope to build what you might see as an alternative establishment of their own”.

While the Financial Times's Philip Augar applauds Jones’s strength of conviction, he also argues that his “sweeping, controversial assertions require substantiation if they are to land”. In doing so, Augur criticises Jones for failing to analyse the history which preceded the post-Thatcher settlement. In addition to this, Augur argues that Jones falls into the trap of using simplistic stereotypes to describe members of the establishment. Augur says that “such bias is disappointing from an author who in a previous book, Chavs (2011), criticised the stereotyping of the working class and who regards prejudice as one of the Establishment’s deadly sins”.

In a similar vein the Times Higher Education criticises Jones’s somewhat tactless descriptions of his interviewees, which are revealed in “asides”. Apart from this, THE praise Jones for his commanding arguments and potent examples. In their words: “this is a book of revelations, and revelation was a necessary part of the process last time we became more equal”. Nevertheless, THE argues that while Jones manages to explain how the establishment “get away with it”, he fails to provide any viable or novel solutions. They conclude by arguing that while “revelations alone are unlikely to be enough, they are still essential”.

Private Island by James Meek

From the railways to postal services, energy companies, health services and social housing, Private Island maps the trajectory of privatisation in the UK. James Meek laments the marketisation that has occurred over the last three decades, as state-owned businesses have been moved into private hands and public services have been sold off. Not only does Meek explore the economic dynamics at work, he also gives voice to the human stories behind the privatisation of the state.

Writing in the Guardian John Gray praises Private Island, encouraging everyone to read it in order to “find out what has really happened in Britain over the past 20 years”. As “one of our finest writers”, Gray argues that Meek “couldn’t produce a dull sentence however hard he tried. The result is an unputdownable book that will leave you with a lasting sense of unease”. Nevertheless, he believes that Meek’s assertions about the similarities between British privatisations and the aggressive expropriations of the former Soviet Union are overstated. Aditya Chakrabortty of the Guardian is equally impressed, arguing that Private Island “stands as one of the most powerful critiques of the mess that is Britain’s economy”. Like Meek, Chakrabortty deplores the privatisation of British “public assets at rock bottom prices to the private sector”, arguing that while this has enriched private investors, it has led to public sector neglect, “poorer services for the public - and a downgrading of our entitlements as citizens”.

Emily Cadman from the Financial Times also applauds Private Island as “an energetic and colourfully told polemic against privatisation”. Nevertheless, Cadman is more critical because she believes that Meek fails to propose a solution to the problems he raises. In Cadman’s words, while “it is a book to read if you want vivid details of what went wrong; it is not a manifesto proclaiming how to put things right”. What’s more, Cadman argues that Private Island is rather “disjointed” in its feel and reads like a set of essays rather than a connected whole.

In Search of Solace by Emily Mackie

In Search of Solace explores Jacob Little’s journey to an isolated Highland town. After the relationship with his girlfriend Solace comes to an end, Jacob is overcome with existential angst and begins a journey to rediscover his identity. In doing so, he assumes a number of different identities, from Keith the archaeologist to Otto, the purple-bearded pagan to Isaac, the gardener and more. Jacob’s quest eventually leads him to his ex-girlfriend’s Scottish hometown.

Viv Watts from the Daily Express praises Mackie’s second novel for its “beautiful, clever, often funny prose that challenges conventions”. Watts also commends the complex layers of the narrative. Although Mackie “hops about, forwards and backwards, diverting from third-person to first-person, from years ahead to years before”, Mackie simultaneously manages to “subtly, layer by layer, peel away the preconceptions that she herself has introduced”.

The Independent’s Doug Johnstone, is less impressed with Mackie, concluding that although “In Search of Solace isn’t that bad, it could have been a lot better”. Johnstone argues that the themes of identity are “underdeveloped” and thus underwhelming. What’s more, Johnstone believes that the novel “seemed to lack confidence in its own voice throughout”. Despite the fact that Mackie exhibits “some skilful characterisation”, Johnstone argues that this is weakened by the book’s “heavy-handed faux-playfulness”.

Kate Clanchy from the Guardian is considerably more complimentary about “a writer as prodigious as Mackie”, praising her “toothsomb” character portraits. Clanchy praises both the description of the highland town and it’s inhabitants as “Mackie’s nouns are choice, her verbs are springy”. In mapping Jacob Little’s multiple identities, Mackie is able to exhibit the pasts and futures of one character. In turn, the fluid narratives of In Search of Solace allow “the reader to find enjoyment in the telling of the tale rather than its resolution”.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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.