Fa­mous last words

Whether witty, wise or just plain mys­ti­fy­ing, many deathbed ut­ter­ances of the great and the good have gone down in his­tory, as Jonathan Self re­ports

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

t was, ap­pro­pri­ately enough, a nona­ge­nar­ian friend of my fa­ther’s who en­gen­dered in me a pas­sion for ‘last words’. Francesca Wil­son was a ro­man­tic fig­ure who had res­cued Rus­sians flee­ing from the Oc­to­ber Revo­lu­tion, par­tic­i­pated in the Span­ish Civil War and spied against the Nazis. ‘We get but one chance in life,’ she would ad­mon­ish me, ‘to have the last word and it is im­por­tant not to make a hash of it.’ I asked her if she had some­thing pre­pared or whether she was plan­ning to wing it. ‘Oh, I have sev­eral op­tions re­hearsed for when the time comes.’

It ap­peared to me that the time had in­deed come one mis­er­able win­ter’s night in 1978. Francesca had been taken by am­bu­lance to

Ihos­pi­tal and I was sit­ting alone by her bed­side lis­ten­ing to her laboured breath­ing. Sud­denly, she sat up. ‘Find me a cig­a­rette and then let’s go home,’ she said. ‘I feel bet­ter now.’ Not a bad ef­fort, I thought, as she fell back against her pil­lows. How­ever, as it tran­spired, she meant it and lived for sev­eral more years.

this gave her plenty of time to tease me with dif­fer­ent things she could be plan­ning to say. ‘It might be “Af­ter you” or then again “I’ve buried £50,000 un­der­neath the…”’ Sadly, I wasn’t there at the end, but her main carer, Fred, claimed her last words were: ‘It must be for you, mustn’t it?’ Ap­par­ently, a fe­male visitor whom Francesca found te­dious in the ex­treme had said to her how nice it was to see her.

Francesca’s last words make no sense if taken out of con­text. this is by no means un­usual. ‘I am very glad,’ Ed­ward VII’S fi­nal state­ment, for ex­am­ple, is mean­ing­less if you don’t know that he was re­spond­ing to the news that his horse, Witch of the Air, had won at Kemp­ton Park.

By the same to­ken, Pres­i­dent Lin­coln’s ‘It doesn’t re­ally mat­ter’ ap­pears to be some­what fa­tal­is­tic, but was ac­tu­ally a re­ac­tion to his wife’s ad­mo­ni­tion not to hold her hand, as peo­ple might ob­serve them.

the ob­ses­sion with last words goes back thou­sands of years. Je­sus Christ’s are recorded in the Gospels (‘My God, my God, why have you for­saken me?’) and Archimedes is re­ported

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.