Sleigh Lady Sleigh

Bob Dylan's Christmas album is probably a (good) joke

"Does anybody recognise this painting? Any theories as to what it means?" Rolling Stone's Andy Greene is looking at a picture of a middle-aged couple on a sleigh. It's snowy and old-fashioned, like a church basement greeting card priced at 25p. Perhaps it's a passive-aggressive warning to climate-change deniers of the catastrophic consequences of polluting the world: ice caps will melt, global temperatures will rise, and good ol' fashioned scenes like this will cease to be. Or maybe it signifies the post-apocalyptic winter that awaits us all, should war ever go nuclear. My "theory", though, is that this "painting" -- the cover image of Bob Dylan's forthcoming charity album, Christmas in the Heart -- just means "Christmas".

The bookies at Ladbrokes reckon that Dylan has a 25/1 chance of winning this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. With Grammies, an Oscar and even an honorary Pulitzer Prize under his belt, Zimmy (as he suggested we call him in "Gotta Serve Somebody") is one of the most celebrated figures of the 20th and 21st centuries. And with good reason, too, in my book. When he's on form, he writes lines like: "It's a shadowy world, skies are slippery grey,/A woman just gave birth to a prince today and dressed him in scarlet." His output may be inconsistent, but his influence on culture is undeniable, with even the Beatles placing him on a pedestal at the height of their success.

Some people however take him too seriously. A few days ago (23 September), the second annual Uncut Music Award announced its longlist of the year's best albums. It's a predictable bunch -- new records by Wilco, Arctic Monkeys and Smog's Bill Callahan -- but perhaps the most obvious inclusion of all was Dylan's Together Through Life, which received a five-star review at the time of its release. The second collaboration between Dylan and the Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter (the first was 1988's dubious Down in the Groove), it's a solid set that sits comfortably among the roots-revival records Dylan has been knocking out since 1992's Good As I Been to You. Songs like the Tex-Mex ballad "This Dream of You" and the optimistic "I Feel a Change Comin' On" are some of his best in recent years. But five stars? Together Through Life is the sound of Dylan in the rec room, letting his frizzy hair down. Over half the album -- knocked out loaded, partly at the request of the film-maker Olivier Dahan for use on a soundtrack -- is little more than filler, enjoyable though it is.

This year, CUP published The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan. With the annual calls for the Nobel Prize to be awarded to Dylan, the tome's publication marked yet another attempt by learned Bob fans to give their hero some kind of high-culture legitimacy, above and beyond the respect he already has as a rock star.

But I'm curious how future academics will fit Christmas in the Heart into their critical discourse. The album, all profits of which will go to the World Food Programme, is an old-timey collection of festive songs like "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem". Beyond the curious fact that Dylan has managed to announce a record featuring Jesus in every song without the critics batting an eyelid (as they did during his notorious, though underrated, gospel period), it's a straightforward feast of harmony vocals and lush, brassy arrangements. From the audio samples I've heard, it sounds like a glorious mess, though many fans are evidently appalled. On the Expecting Rain web forum, Bennyboy describes it as "pure evil in sound form". Nehemiah thinks it's "hilariously awful", asking: "How can this not be a joke?" Isa, meanwhile, is more despondent: "God, now I feel the shame."

I think Nehemiah has the right attitude. I'll probably enjoy the album, but then again, I like Self Portrait, Shot of Love and even Dylan, often described as his career nadir. Even in Dylan's best songs, it's not hard to find a few bad lines, and this lack of consistency is partly what has kept him so interesting over many decades. Some of his albums are great, others are terrible, but even his worst recordings contain flashes of brilliance. So how does the committed fan cope with such ups and downs? By asking, in the truly bad times, "How can this not be a joke?" At least then you get to laugh along.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge