For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.LITTLE GIDDING FROM FOUR QUARTETS (T. S. ELIOT)
My neighbourhood has never looked and smelled so good. The gardens are pristine and well-tended, the footpaths are washed and gleaming and even the vagrant small weeds and grasses that used to speckle the kerbside have been stripped back. So many houses have been painted that my smudgy garden wall is beginning to embarrass me. The air is full of the delicious aroma of cooking bread; baking has become so popular that it’s hard to find a packet of yeast in the supermarkets. My neighbours on both sides have taken to learning new languages, so spending time in the back garden is like sitting outside the Tower of Babel.
The Coronavirus and our consequent self-isolation have been going on for so long now that Netflix just doesn’t cut it anymore. People all over the place are taking up new pastimes to keep the lockdown blues at bay and take their minds off sickness and slaughter.
Self-improvement is the order of the day.
I’m trying to learn how to play the guitar. It’s a slow process. My fingers aren’t as nimble as once they were. I’m doing okay with the chords and the strumming and I can bluff my way through some of the simpler ballads and singalong tunes. Finger-picking is more of a challenge though. I struggle with it and in my hour of need I turn to the godfather of country music, Johnny Cash. The Man in Black is a master of straightforward, catchy tunes that seem to be relatively easy to play.
I’m of a generation that grew up listening to vinyl records and CDs. Plus, I’ve spent most of my career as a starving artist. And I’m stubborn as a mule. These three elements combined mean that I’m resistant to the current trend of downloading music for free and depriving the artists of the economic fruits of their endeavours. I fetch a Johnny Cash CD, American 1V: The Man Comes Around, and insert it into my laptop.
My interest has landed on a song called Give My Love to Rose, which is the third track on the album. I plan to listen to Cash’s technique and get a bit of practise in. My attention is, however, immediately arrested by the spoken introduction to Track One, which is the title track. It’s a quote from the Book of Revelation:
And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder. One of the four beasts saying, “Come and see” And I saw. And behold, a white horse.
The Man Comes Around is one of the last songs Cash wrote before his death. It was inspired by a dream he had about Queen Elizabeth in which she compared the singer to “a thorn tree in the whirlwind”. Haunted by the dream and intrigued by the phrase, he researched it and eventually found a similar reference in the Book of Job. Cash was a devout Baptist who read the Bible every day and many of his lyrics possess a muscularity born of the clarity of his faith. The language of this song is profoundly evocative of his familiarity with the scriptures, containing as it does many Biblical references.
I’ve happily spent most of my adult life as a sincere agnostic. Although Cash’s religious beliefs and perceptions are some his artistic lynchpins, I’ve tended to regard them as somehow foreign to my sensibilities. Given all that’s going on in the world today, however, I’m quicker to gravitate towards them nowadays.
The “four beasts” referenced in the song prophesise the coming of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, interpreted as being war, famine, plague and death.
The plague that is currently upon us is indeed Biblical in its immensity and consequently Cash’s song has an added resonance today. I pay extra attention and my connection with the writer deepens. The language that I once took lightly now carries meanings more profound.
None of us knows what the world is going to look like when this pandemic runs its course. The one thing we can be sure of is that when we emerge from our various isolations it will be to a world where, to borrow a phrase from W.B. Yeats, “all changed, changed utterly”.
We watch, virtually helpless, as the virus massacres thousands and imprisons us all and as we do so our perception of the world is gradually, radically shifting. An altered state is ahead of us and when at last we venture, blinking, out into it, everything will have a different shape. Our values. Our ambitions. Our politics. Commerce. Language.
Already, many of the words we use have changed their meanings.
A surge used to be something that happened to the libido of adolescent males while perusing the likes of Playboy Magazine; these days it morbidly refers to an increase in the number of fatalities. Peaks and plateaus, once words that we associated mainly with mountaineering, now describe different levels in the rates of accumulated infections and deaths. Likewise, spike, which in a previous world was a tool used to build a railroad or wage war on fictitious vampires. Lockdown was a word that we’d read in the blurb for movies like Riot in Cell Block 11, Cool Hand Luke or The Shawshank Redemption.
We writers will need to revise our dictionaries and thesauruses. Many of the items in our arsenal of go-to phrases that packed a punch in the old days will be redundant. Even Shakespeare won’t be spared. “A plague on both your houses” is not a term I’d rush to utilise nowadays. Having observed plague at first hand I’d be slow to wish it upon my worst enemy, although this is a sentiment I might be inclined to qualify when I observe the carry-on of certain rapscallion presidents on distant continents.
A new world is ahead of us, be it wondrous, brave or tragic or all three.
We must gird our loins and our language.