This year though, one of our clients who is exceptionally advanced in years and who usually shows up in this first week did not, due to failing health. His wife arrived instead, with an immaculate and implacable set of documents; each indexed and ordered. She advised us that he is not long for this world and that:
"He is getting everything in order before he has to go west."
Go west. There's an intriguing turn of phrase; the origins of which, I've found incredibly difficult to track down. All that I've found are a set of unconnected bits and I don't know how they fit together.
To 'go west' is to die, to kick the bucket, to expire, to run up the curtain and join the choir invisible.
Perhaps the phrase has its origins in antiquity.
Maybe it comes from ancient Egypt, where criminals were executed on the west bank of the Nile. I find it interesting that the ancient Greek cities of Athens, Sparta and Colosse all executed their criminals beyond the western gates of the city. Five hundred year later, the city of Rome also had a place of execution beyond the western gates of the city.
It could also be that the phrase simply refers to the place of the setting sun.
It doesn't really begin to become a phrase in English until at least the 14th century when yet again it appears in connection with executions of criminals. Yet again beyond the western gates of the city of London, there were execution grounds at Tyburn.
England seems feature again in a possible origin for the phrase when during the early period of transportation of criminals to the Americas, ships would indeed go west to get there. Transportation was something of a commutation of the death penalty and I must admit that I don't understand the mentality which suggests that being sent to America or an island bathed in the equivalent of a perpetual English summer is a net punishment.
In America the story of the phrase 'go west' changes, as after the revolutionary war, the new nation expanded across the continent.
John Babsone Lane Soule was probably the first to be associated with the phrase when he wrote in an editorial for the Terre Haute Express in 1851: "Go West, young man, and grow up with the country."
But it is Horace Greeley who is most associated with it, when in reconstructionist America, he urged his New York Tribune readers to take full advantage of the recently passed Homestead Act and colonise the vast unclamied lands of the continent (and stole from Soule):
Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.
If you have no family or friends to aid you. Turn your face to the Great West and there build up your home and fortune.
- Horace Greeley, New York Tribune, July 1865.
It is probably this use of the phrase which clouds it somewhat and turns it into a message of hope more that anything else. Indeed it is in this sense that inspired the names of the Marx Brothers film "Go West" in 1940 and the 1941 film "Go West Young Lady" starring Penny Singleton and Glenn Ford.
At this point it would be remiss of me not to mention the Village People's 1978 song "Go West", which in turn spawned the Pet Shop Boys 1993 cover.
This song is rather ambiguous in its meaning though. Depending on whether you take 'go west' to mean to die or as a message of hope, the lyrics to that song change wildly:
Together - We will fly so high
Together - Tell all our friends goodbye
Together - We will start life new
Together - This is what we'll do
Go West - Life is peaceful there
Go West - In the open air
Go West - Where the skies are blue
Go West - This is what we're gonna do
- Go West, Village People (Jacques Morali, Henri Belolo, Victor Willis), 1978
Maybe the origins of the phrase 'go west' are lost in the mists of time; never to be revealed again but I think that it's interesting that perhaps the biggest lasting impression of the cardinal direction comes from Frank L Baum's 1912 book "The Wizard Of Oz"; where the Wicked Witch of the West is an embodiment of evil. No other direction has that multitude of connotations attached to it.
A euphemism for death? An inspiration for hope? No other direction has that multitude of connotations attached to it. Except the south.