Portrait of an Man with a Ring by Francesco del Cossa. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza/Scala, Florence
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Ali Smith wins the Goldsmiths Prize 2014: a judge’s view

Most prizes for fiction narrow the playing field somehow: women writers, first novels, young authors. But the Goldsmiths Prize, run in association with the New Statesman, goes one step further and applies some critical criteria: its winner must display “creative daring” and open up “new possibilities for the novel form”. Only fiction “at its most novel” need apply.

The prize is in its second year, following Eimear McBride’s win in 2013 for her debut, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. It took McBride nine years to find a publisher for it. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style and harrowing in its subject matter, it is a stunning book but not an easy one. After taking the £10,000 prize, it went on to win the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and publication rights were bought by Faber & Faber.

When I sat down with my fellow judges – the authors Kirsty Gunn, Geoff Dyer and Francis Spufford – over institutional coffee and cling-film-wrapped custard creams at Goldsmiths, University of London, in New Cross, it became clear that pinning the tail on the donkey of “creative daring” was not going to be easy.

Was it most present in the dense, allusive narrative of Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know or the Old English “shadow tongue” of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake? In Rachel Cusk’s Outline or Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist, novels full of different voices but whose narrators are missing or barely there? Or in Howard Jacobson’s shape-shifting J? We agreed that we couldn’t reward writers simply for novelty: these books also had to have a life and truth of their own.

On 12 November, at Foyles on the Charing Cross Road, we announced our winner: Ali Smith’s How to Be Both. It is a book of two halves. One, set in the present day, follows George, a teenage girl who is trying to cope with the death of her mother. The other is narrated by a fresco painter in Renaissance Italy. Half the copies are printed in one order, half in the reverse – so you might meet George first, then Francesco, or vice versa.

It’s a brilliant trick, allowing Smith to tell two stories simultaneously, layered like versions of a fresco on a wall. The novel leaps between past, present and future tenses and interior and exterior states with a joyous fleet-footedness. This is not a book “about” gender or grief or art, though it illuminates all of those themes. At an event last month, the shortlisted writers were asked what their novels stood for. Some declined to answer but Smith did not hesitate: “Justice and injustice, on a larger scale than we’re used to thinking about. Borderless justice.”

Over her 19-year career, Smith has not won any of the big UK prizes: the Booker, the Baileys/Orange, the Costa/Whitbread book of the year. Her work constantly plays with language and form but its likeability and optimism have, perhaps, perversely counted against her. In his recent guest edit of this magazine, Grayson Perry complained about the “branding of seriousness” and the assumption that good art must tackle the “tortured agonies of existence”. In How to Be Both, Francesco learns from another painter the “serious nature of lightness”. It’s a lesson Ali Smith teaches with every sentence. 

Tom Gatti is the culture editor of the New Statesman

Eimear McBride and Ali Smith both appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 30 November

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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.