Absolutely the last word in last words

'I recall my joy at learning that Pitt the Younger's dying line was: "I could eat one of Bellamy's veal pies"'
Click to follow

I left a quotation dangling in the air yesterday. The one in which this fellow says that, if he had to choose between going to a funeral or going to a wedding, he would always choose a funeral, because there was something so final about a wedding.

That comes, from memory, out of a novel called The Secret Lemonade Drinker, by Guy Bellamy, which came out some 25 years ago, and which I read with great enjoyment at the time. Especially that line. I always remembered the name of Guy Bellamy, too – such a wonderful-sounding Georgette-Heyer-hero-type name – but I wonder now, for the first time, if he was any relation of the Bellamy immortalised by Pitt the Younger.

Well, I say "immortalised".

Obviously, if you don't know what I am talking about, he has not been sufficiently well immortalised.

But I still remember my joy at learning that Pitt the Younger's last recorded sentence was: "I think I could eat one of Bellamy's veal pies." I assumed that the humour of this lay in Pitt's assumption that he was feeling better, belied by the fact that he died before he could say anything else, and I just hope to this day that he wasn't actually killed by eating one of Bellamy's veal pies.

Now that I am certainly nearer my day of death than my day of birth, and have started thinking about preparing my own dying message, I have also begun to realise another implication of Pitt's farewell words. It was quite possible that just before he said "I think I could eat one of Bellamy's veal pies", he had said something really memorable, something that would have been his famous last words, if he had not then fancied for a veal pie. Suppose, for instance, he had turned to the mourners round his bed and said: "Many of you have wondered why I never had a son. It was for this reason – after my father, Pitt the Elder, and myself, Pitt the Younger, what on earth could we have called him? Oh, by the way, I think I could eat one of Bellamy's veal pies..." – and that was the bit that got remembered.

Well, I have just looked up Pitt the Younger in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations to see if he said anything else that could have served as famous last words before the pie request (and the answer is not really, except for "Roll up that map of Europe – it will not be needed these 10 years..." ), and I have found to my horror that the line about Bellamy's veal pie is disputed. Apparently, this is only what some people thought he said. Other authorities say that his last words were: "Oh my country! How I love my country!" Or, according to others: "Oh, my country! How I leave my country!" Or even: "My country! Oh, my country!"

How can accounts very so radically?

I think I know how.

I think that as he lay dying, he expressed a wish for a veal pie. But before it could be brought, he expired, muttering something else that had everyone round his bedside craning forward.

"What was that he said before he went? Did anyone catch it?"

"People are bound to ask us! Especially his biographers! And I couldn't hear anything!"

"Sounded like 'The country! How I love the country!' to me."

"That can't be right. I don't think William liked the country very much."

"Actually, I thought he said something about 'Homer country'."

"What does that mean?"

"Well – Ancient Greece, perhaps?"

"You can't have a man's last words being about Ancient Greece!"

"Couldn't we just forget that Homer country stuff, and say that his last words were that he wanted one of Bellamy's veal pies?"

"Don't you think it would be better to make it a bit more patriotic? Here we are in a life-or-death struggle with Bonaparte, with a desperate need of a rallying cry for the nation! Do you really think they would rally round a veal pie?"

And so on.

Actually, I think I have only come across two examples of famous last words that were unimprovable.

One was, supposedly, Nancy Cunard, when she awoke on her death bed, found herself surrounded by relations and said: "Is it my birthday or am I dying?"

The other, even better, was Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary, who as he lay dying was asked to give a final message to his followers.

"Tell them I said something interesting," he said.

And died.