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.

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The City of London was never the same after the "Big Bang"

Michael Howard reviews Iain Martin's new book on the legacy of the financial revolution 30 years on.

We are inundated with books that are, in effect, inquests on episodes of past failure, grievous mistakes in policy decisions and shortcomings of leadership. So it is refreshing to read this lively account of a series of actions that add up to one of the undoubted, if not undisputed, successes of modern ­government action.

Iain Martin has marked the 30th anniversary of the City’s Big Bang, which took place on 27 October 1986, by writing what he bills as the inside story of a financial revolution that changed the world. Yet his book ranges far and wide. He places Big Bang in its proper context in the history of the City of London, explaining, for example, and in some detail, the development of the financial panics of 1857 and 1873, as well as more recent crises with which we are more familiar.

Big Bang is the term commonly applied to the changes in the London Stock Exchange that followed an agreement reached between Cecil Parkinson, the then secretary of state for trade and industry, and Nicholas Goodison, the chairman of the exchange, shortly after the 1983 election. The agreement provided for the dismantling of many of the restrictive practices that had suited the cosy club of those who had made a comfortable living on the exchange for decades. It was undoubtedly one of the most important of the changes made in the early 1980s that equipped the City of London to become the world’s pre-eminent centre of international capital that it is today.

But it was not the only one. There was the decision early in the life of the Thatcher government to dismantle foreign-exchange restrictions, as well as the redevelopment of Docklands, which provided room for the physical expansion of the City (which was so necessary for the influx of foreign banks that followed the other changes).

For the first change, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, at the Treasury at the time, deserve full credit, particularly as Margaret Thatcher was rather hesitant about the radical nature of the change. The second was a result of Michael Heseltine setting up the London Docklands Development Corporation, which assumed planning powers that were previously in the hands of the local authorities in the area. Canary Wharf surely would not exist today had that decision not been made – and even though the book gives a great deal of well-deserved credit to the officials and developers who took up the baton, Heseltine’s role is barely mentioned. Rarely is a politician able to see the physical signs of his legacy so clearly. Heseltine would be fully entitled to appropriate Christopher Wren’s epitaph: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”

These changes are often criticised for having opened the gates to unbridled capitalism and greed and Martin, while acknow­ledging the lasting achievements of the new regime, also explores its downside. Arguably, he sometimes goes too far. Are the disparities in pay that we now have a consequence of Big Bang? Can it be blamed for the increase in the pay of footballers? This is doubtful. Surely these effects owe more to market forces, in the case of footballers, and shortcomings in corporate governance, in the case of executive pay. (It will be interesting to see whether the attempts by the current government to address the latter achieve the desired results.)

Martin deals with the allegation that the changes brought in a new world in which moneymaking could be given full rein without the need to abide by any significant regulation. This is far from the truth. My limited part in bringing about these changes was the responsibility I was handed, in my first job in government, for steering through parliament what became the Financial Services Act 1986. This was intended to provide statutory underpinning for a system of self-regulation by the various sectors of the financial industry. It didn’t work out exactly as I had intended but, paradoxically, one of the main criticisms of the regulatory system made in the book is that we now have a system that is too legalistic. Rather dubious comparisons are made with a largely mythical golden age, when higher standards of conduct were the order of the day without any need for legal constraints. The history of insider dealing (and the all-too-recently recognised need to legislate to make this unlawful) gives the lie to this rose-tinted picture of life in the pre-Big Bang City.

As Martin rightly stresses, compliance with the law is not enough. People also need to take into account the moral implications of their conduct. However, there are limits to the extent to which governments can legislate on this basis. The law can provide the basic parameters within which legal behaviour is to be constrained. Anything above and beyond that must be a matter for individual conscience, constrained by generally accepted standards of morality.

The book concludes with an attempt at an even-handed assessment of the likely future for the City in the post-Brexit world. There are risks and uncertainties. Mercifully, Martin largely avoids a detailed discussion of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive and its effect on “passporting”, which allows UK financial services easy access to the European Economic Area. But surely the City will hold on to its pre-eminence as long as it retains its advantages as a place to conduct business? The European banks and other institutions that do business in London at present don’t do so out of love or affection. They do so because they are able to operate there with maximum efficiency.

The often rehearsed advantages of London – the time zone, the English language, the incomparable professional infrastructure – will not go away. It is not as if there is an abundance of capital available in the banks of the EU: Europe’s business and financial institutions cannot afford to dispense with the services that London has to offer. As Martin puts it in the last sentences of the book, “All one can say is: the City will survive, and prosper. It usually does.”

Crash Bang Wallop is not flawless. (One of its amusing errors is to refer, in the context of a discussion of the difficulties faced by the firm Slater Walker, to one of its founders as Jim Walker, a name that neither Jim Slater nor Peter Walker, the actual founders, would be likely to recognise.) Yet it is a thoroughly readable account of one of the most important and far-reaching decisions of modern government, and a timely reminder of how the City of London got to where it is now.

Michael Howard is a former leader of the Conservative Party

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood