Bob Dylan, the end has begun, a changing world and more kindness

29 March 2020

The week’s most surprising news is that, for the first time in 8 years, Bob Dylan has released a new song, a 17-minute opus based around J F Kennedy’s assassination.  Its provenance is, as with much about Dylan, uncertain and nobody seems quite sure if it’s a new song or one he left off an earlier album (he has a history of leaving the best song off albums – remember ‘Angelina’ wasn’t included in ‘Shot of Love’) but he’s said it’s a song he wrote “a while back” and, unusually, he prefaced this by saying “Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years.”

Musically, it doesn’t obviously relate to any of his issued albums – his scratchy, broken voice contrasts with a gentle, soothing backing band – and the density of its lyrics will keep Dylan-obsessives arguing for years.

Dylan will be 79 in May and he’s still touring but there’s an overarching sadness to this new song that could be heard as a goodbye.

Elsewhere in the world, I’ve suggested to my younger son he should be keeping notes because he’s actually living through the apocalypse.  Certainly the end has begun.

Whether or not the coronavirus pandemic is worth panicking about is open to doubt, and there are reputable scientists who question this, but the fact that people are panicking is what will drive the changes.

That nice Mr Johnson sees himself as Churchillian but, apart from his waistline and his infidelities, there’s no evidence of any similarity.  International responses to Johnson’s failure to face reality vary from bafflement to anger and public health experts have accused him of being “nonchalant” and “slow” to take the necessary action.

As I write, the total number of deaths is increasing by about a third every day.  If this rate continues, there will have been over 10,000 deaths by about 7 April.  The death rate will, of course, slow as the preventative action begins to bite and the curve starts to flatten, but there’s no sign of this happening yet.

I believe historians will look back and see 2020 as the year when the established order of government, politics, financial markets, capitalism and social responsibility started to change, not necessarily for the worse, or better, just different.

We’ll have to wait and see if the Conservatives are successful in trying to drag the NHS out of the grave the Cameron / Osborne administration had dug for it but there will be other deeper-rooted changes.

It is certain that some businesses, big and small, will go bust and a recession is inevitable, possibly even a depression.  Optimists believe things will bounce back but it took 25 years for markets to get back to their pre-1929 levels although, admittedly, the recovery might have slowed somewhat between 1939 and 1945.  Having had their businesses shut down, some of their owners might find they prefer life outside and will never re-open.

Just thinking of the possible effects of WFH (an acronym that caught on almost as fast as WTF did), many people working from home and their employers will discover the full potential of technology.  There will be electronic meetings and discussions, businesses will realise the savings in overheads and the call for office space will reduce, possibly leading to a fall in commercial property prices.

Many WFHs will realise that they enjoy being able to work when they feel like it, rather than sitting in an office trying desperately to look as if they’re conscious in the graveyard shift, and they can fit family commitments such as school runs around their work.  Many will also realise that their work can be done from anywhere and they don’t need to be based in London, or even in the home counties so they can move to the countryside, leading to residential property prices being rebalanced between London and, say, Cumbria.

However, as a result, there’s a risk people will become more isolated with less social interaction over water-coolers so there could be more depression and suicide.

Of course, many people can’t work from home but it’s possible this dichotomy will lead to a re-evaluation of the value of the people who actually do the work, unlike, for example, when Flybe went bust recently and left an £80m unprotected shortfall in the staff pension fund, which they defended on the grounds that staff knew it wasn’t secured.

(Wouldn’t it be a good idea to introduce legislation that limits the maximum total remuneration of all directors and staff, and forbids any increase in dividends to shareholders, until a company’s pension fund is fully funded?)

Closing the gap could be helped by HMRC’s decision that £150,000 pa is the level at which a higher rate of tax comes into play so perhaps this could be fixed as the maximum permissible remuneration for everyone.

The ratings agency Fitch has cut Britain’s sovereign debt rating to AA- and said a further cut could follow as it kept the rating on negative outlook.  We used to be one of the top countries, with an AAA rating, but the financial mismanagement of the last decade, compounded by Brexit, have dragged us down to the same level as Belgium and the Czech Republic (both lovely countries but hardly world leaders).

But it’s not all bad news:  the railway system has effectively been “temporarily” nationalised by a Conservative government and, as a result of lockdowns, the air quality has improved dramatically in major cities all over the world.

However, we can’t influence any of this and a more pressing problem for those of us watching the “last” series of ‘Homeland’ on TV is whether Carrie and/or Saul will survive the final episode.

More commercial kindness this week.  There’s a company called Cook Food which delivers excellent food that can be cooked from frozen and eaten without any further interference, which is ideal for people like me who can’t cook and start feeling faint if anybody suggests I should learn.

Anyway, they rang us on Monday to say a delivery was expected and, because we order a lot from them, we could have first refusal for delivery next Saturday.

Then, at 8pm on Thursday, millions of people across the country stood on doorsteps and leant out of windows to applaud the NHS workers, from cleaners to consultants, at the sharp end of caring for people with coronavirus.  After the quiet of the day, the clapping and cheering and whistles was very moving.

Perhaps if an ambulance goes past while we’re out, we should all stop for a minute and clap as they pass.

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