Auberon Waugh

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

‘Have they sacked Do­minic Law­son yet?’

As­tor wak­ing to find her bed­side

squad to ‘Take a step for­ward, lads. It will be eas­ier that way.’

There is an irony to both Oates’s and Childers’ last words that borders on the hu­mor­ous. In­deed, the most pop­u­lar of all recorded last words seem to be those that are, in­ten­tion­ally or oth­er­wise, amus­ing. Wil­liam Palmer, a ruthless mur­derer, was ap­plauded for ask­ing, as he stepped onto the scaf­fold in 1856: ‘Are you sure this damned thing is safe?’ We ad­mire Gen Ethan Allen, on be­ing ad­vised that the an­gels were wait­ing, for snap­ping: ‘Wait­ing are they? Well—let ’em wait.’ And Lord Palmer­ston’s coura­geous, but sar­donic re­sponse to the bad news that he had not long to live is also much quoted: ‘Die, my dear doc­tor? That’s the last thing I shall do.’

There is, of course, enor­mous pres­sure on co­me­di­ans and oth­ers who have made a name for them­selves as be­ing witty to de­vise some­thing mem­o­rable. Os­car Wilde cer­tainly achieved it. First, he came up with: ‘This wall­pa­per and I are fight­ing a duel to the death. One of us must go.’ Later, as he sipped his fi­nal glass of Cham­pagne, he is re­ported to have said: ‘Alas, I am dy­ing be­yond my means.’

One also ad­mires W. Som­er­set Maugham for us­ing his last breath to of­fer coun­sel: ‘Dy­ing is a very dull, dreary af­fair. And my ad­vice to you is to have noth­ing what­so­ever to do with it.’ Richard Har­ris, the ac­tor, ap­par­ently couldn’t re­sist quip­ping, as he was be­ing car­ried out of a Lon­don ho­tel on a stretcher—he had pneu­mo­nia: ‘It was the food; don’t touch the food!’

In fact, food seems to re­ceive fre­quent men­tions as the end looms. Just be­fore Wil­liam Pitt the Younger ex­pired he said ‘I think I could eat one of Bel­lamy’s veal pies’ and Wal­ter de la Mare re­marked: ‘Too late for fruit. Too soon for flow­ers.’

There was also a men­tion of food in Robert E. Howard’s mov­ing last words: ‘All fled—all done, so lift me on the pyre;/the feast is over, and the lamps ex­pire.’

For my own part, I rather pre­fer last words with a bit of eter­nal mys­tery to them. Not nec­es­sar­ily quite as enig­matic as those of Henry VIII (‘All is lost. Monks, monks, monks!’), but per­haps more along the lines of Crow­foot, chief of the Black­foot Na­tion tribe of Canada, whose haunt­ing last words were: ‘What is life? It is the flash of a fire­fly in the night. It is the breath of the buf­falo in the win­ter­time. It is the lit­tle shadow, which runs across the grass and loses it­self in the sun­set.’

If we can’t have wis­dom, then we like brav­ery

Above: Nancy As­tor, Auberon Waugh, Lyt­ton Stra­chey, Pope Alexan­der Vi–all fa­mous faces with mem­o­rable last words. Left: Abra­ham Lin­coln’s last mo­ments

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