Famous last words do not always ring true. Or do they?
There is a rumour going around about Auberon Waugh's last words. It is said he became briefly conscious and asked. 'Have they sacked Dominic Lawson yet?' But then, like Pilate, 'would not stay for an answer'. This story evokes hoots of mirth in chattering London, so Bron, bless him, died as he would have wished, raising a laugh. If only everyone's last words were as interesting. Most, if authentic, are inconsequential, wildly inappropriate, obscure or banal. Imagine kind Charles Lamb, holding the dying Haziitt, most unfortunate and selfdestructive of mortals, and hearing the poor sod say, 'Well, I've had a happy life.' Dickens said, 'Yes, on the ground.' (This in reply to someone who said he ought to lie down.) Hitler's last mutter was, 'It doesn't pay to be so kind.' William Pitt the Younger, a notoriously thin man more fond of liquor than solids, said, `I think I could eat one of Bellamy's veal pies.' Coleridge's last recorded remark was, 'My mind is quite unclouded. I could even be witty.'
Some last words are characteristic but unremarkable. Thus Thackerary: 'Bring me a
brandy-and-water, if you please.' Wordsworth (being read to, but not from his own works): 'Please excuse me if I fall asleep.' Jane Austen's last saying is not recorded but the last words she wrote were: 'Rather longer petticoats than last year' — quite appropriate from one who, had she lived in this age, might well have been editor of Vogue. Byron is supposed to have called Out place-names and numbers, then names of those he loved: 'Augusta — Ada — Kinnaird — Hobhouse', and, finally, lo lascio qualque cosa di caro nel mondo' (I leave something dear to the world). I don't believe that Queen Victoria's last utterance was the exclamation 'Bertier Her much-distrusted eldest son had just come into the room. Perhaps she intended a rebuke. Or perhaps she really meant to say `Albert!' She was present when the prime minister she most disliked, Palmerston, made his last recorded remarks. They were inspecting together a regiment of the Guards, and the Queen complained she could smell their sweat (no nonsense about 'perspiration'). Palmerston replied, 'Yes, Ma'am, it is known as esprit de allps.' That is neat, and just about credible. What I do not believe, as being too apt, is the last remark of her favourite PM, Lord Melbourne: Die, my dear doctor? That is the last thing I shall do.'
But perhaps Melbourne, who was a gen uinely funny man when he chose, wanted to go with a witticism and worked the thing out in advance. And perhaps Henry James did the same with 'So here it is at last, the distinguished thing!' Such words betray the midnight oil or at least a degree of premeditation, as opposed to the agonised John Keats's sigh of relief: `Thank God it has come at last.' Dr Johnson, I think, intended his last words to be those he addressed to his black servant: 'Attend, Francis, to the salvation of your soul, which is the object of greatest importance.' But, in the event. a Miss Morris asked for his blessing and he gave it: 'God bless you, my dear.' And even after that he said to Cawston, servant to William Wyndham, MP, who had been sharing the vigil with Francis, `Bear my remembrance to your master.' His end, it is said, was edifying and showed no sign of his terror of dying, so acute when he was in robust health.
Be that as it may, no one wants to show a great and good man dying in fear. But I suspect many do so die, and that their last utterances are screams or whimpers, complaints and words of anger, or pleas to be left alone, or simply descriptions of what they are suffering. According to her second husband, John Cross, George Eliot, whose complaint was kidney failure, and who had just been given the highly unsuitable treatment of cold beef jelly and an egg whipped up in brandy, said just before she died: 'Tell them I have great pain in my left side.' That I believe. I also believe Monty Cony, Disraeli's secretary, who said that he could not distinctly hear his master's last words but thought they were Hebrew. Perhaps a translation of his notable remark, 'I am the missing page between the Old Testament and the New.'
I have often tried, without success, to find Out what Winston Churchill's last words were. My old friend James Cameron believed they were addressed to him. He said he dined a 1701-S with Churchill as the guest of Lord Beaverbrook, The old man ate ade
quately and drank copiously but was silent throughout the occasion, except once, when he asked, 'Ever been to Moscow, Max?' Beaverbrook replied, 'Yes, Sir Winston, you sent me there.' At the end, Churchill held out his frail little hand to Cameron who, in his nervousness, grasped it too tightly, and suddenly the Old Man came to life, his eyes blazed, and he said, quite loudly, 'God damn you!' Jimmy was proud of having produced that. Beaverbrook's own last words, in suspicious response to medical advice that he should take a rest, were, 'Maybe I would not wake up.' And the other great press baron, Northcliffe, annoyed by a visitor, pulled a gun from under his pillow and said, 'Take that!', but a valet had removed the bullets.
What is the latest view about the last words of King George V? It is curious that this funny old king, who never said anything memorable in the whole of his life, should now be celebrated for his disputed deathbed. One version is that he was reassuringly told by his doctor, Lord Harder, who cannot have believed it, that he would be right as rain after a few weeks in Bognor. Recognising humbug, the king said, 'Bugger Bognor!' But there is another tale that his last words were quite different. The Establishment version, which shows him attentive as always to his global duties, has him asking, 'How goes the Empire?' Another more demotic version puts the question, 'What's on at the Empire?' But there is a third, addressed to God, which reflected his feeling that the nation needed his arbitration: 'Don't shoot the umpire.' Actually, his last remark of any significance, on the subject of his heir Edward VIII, was remarkably prescient: The boy will ruin himself within a year.'
Victor Hugo's last words were a bit banal: 'How hard it is to die.' But in the spring of 1885, when he entered his 84th year, the symbol in his diary which indicated possessing a woman occurs eight times. The last time was on 5 April, just 38 days after his 83rd birthday. Who the woman was we do not know. This gives a lot of point to the final words he wrote — `To love is to act' — on 19 May, three days before his death. The Catholic newspaper L'Univers noted them, and found them 'heartbreaking by the absence of any religious thought'. It said he faced 'an eternity of suffering' which 'will seem a lot longer to him than an agony of a few hours or days'. Well, we shall all know the truth about that soon enough.