Books in Brief: Andrew Lycett, Robert Calderisi and Tom Cheshire

Three new books you may have missed.

Auguste and Jean Piccard, along with Auguste's wife Jeannette, on another expedition in May 1934. Image: Getty
 
Wilkie Collins: a Life of Sensation
Andrew Lycett
 
Andrew Lycett, a biographer of Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, has done some investigating into the father of the detective novel and in this biography reconstructs Wilkie Collins’s tangled domestic life, which revolved around two mistresses. The writer who specialised in family secrets had secrets of his own. He also had a limitless capacity for drugs and a place at the centre of Victorian cultural life – he was a friend of Charles Dickens and the painter John Everett Millais. Here is the author of The Moonstone as a character from one of his “sensation” novels . . . except that this is all true.
 
Hutchinson, 544pp, £20
 
Earthly Mission: the Catholic Church and World Development
Robert Calderisi
 
The former director of the World Bank takes a balanced look at the contradictory and controversial stances of the Catholic Church, which has been criticised for its position on birth control, abortion, child abuse and priestly celibacy. Here, Robert Calderisi points out that 65 per cent of Catholic schools are in developing countries and that in some parts of Africa it provides up to 50 per cent of health and education services. It is also a provider of antiretroviral drugs to combat Aids and has established credit unions to promote economic self-sufficiency. There are two sides to the Catholic coin.
 
Yale University Press, 304pp, £20
 
The Explorer Gene
Tom Cheshire
 
The Swiss family Piccard has a habit of going higher, deeper and further than anyone else. In 1931 Auguste Piccard reached a height of 51,775 feet in a balloon, higher than any man before him. His twin, Jean Felix, then promptly went higher. Auguste’s son Jacques went to the deepest place on earth, the Mariana Trench, in a family-designed submarine, and his grandson Bertrand was the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon. Tom Cheshire tells the story of these high – and low – achievers and examines what pushed them ever onwards.
 
Short Books, 301pp, £20

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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.