Did I say that? You will, Spike, you will

'Some people - Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker - have the power of attracting quotations to themselves'
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The Independent Online

One of the oddest things about the death of the late Spike Milligan was the willingness of so many newspapers to quote the same verdict on death which Spike was credited with saying before he died.

Here it is.

"I'm not afraid of dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens."

Good remark. Funny and true. What was odd about this was that Spike Milligan never said it. Or at least, if he did say it, he stole it from someone else. From Woody Allen. It's an old Woody Allen remark. It's there in the dictionaries of quotations. Look at the section on Death in Fred Metcalf's Penguin Dictionary of Quotations, and there you will find this: "It's not that I'm afraid to die – I just don't want to be there when it happens." Not from Spike. From Without Feathers by Woody Allen, 1976.

I have liked this remark for years, and have always known it came from Woody Allen, just like his verdict on immortality ("I don't want to achieve immortality through my works – I want to achieve it by not dying"), so I can't understand why anyone, let alone all those papers, thought that Spike Milligan said it. Or, indeed, why any Woody Allen fan didn't spring to his defence.

I don't suppose Spike Milligan went around claiming to have thought of it. All I can suppose is that the papers got news of Spike Milligan's demise from some press release or agency report, and that the author of the report saw fit to ginger it up with a few sardonic remarks from Spike, and shoved in one from Woody Allen by mistake, and the newspapers reprinted it without thinking or checking because if a newspaper thinks a thing sounds good, it breaks its little heart to do any research that might invalidate it.

You think lobby correspondents thrive on unattributable briefings? But all newspaper reports thrive on such things. It is the job of a newspaper to take second-hand news and make it look fresh, shiny and bright. The same job an undertaker does. As Anita Wise said:

"I'm not afraid of death. It's the make-over at the undertaker's that scares me ... They try to make you look as lifelike as possible, which defeats the whole purpose. It's hard to feel bad for someone who looks better than you do."

I found that by accident on the same page in the Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations as the Woody Allen remark. Yes, two funny verdicts on death beginning with the words "I'm not afraid..." and neither of them by Spike Milligan. In fact, there's nothing about death from Spike at all in the book. It's beginning to look like a conspiracy here. We have a remark about death which everything thinks is by Spike Milligan, and he is the one person who didn't say it.

Well, maybe it's because some people have the power of attracting quotations to themselves. A floating quote, a good anonymous crack, a remark that sounds just about good enough to get into the epigram books, has a better chance if it attaches itself to a famous wit. Lots of things were attributed to Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain, and later to Dorothy Parker and Groucho Marx, which were never said by any of them, and it is a tribute to the late Spike Milligan if, after his deathbed, he is given the ownership of a Woody Allen remark for a little while.

It just doesn't say much for the trustworthiness of newspapers.

Still, let us not end on a gloomy note, so I am bringing you two little quotes about our great leader, Tony Blair. Who said the following?

a) "Tony Blair has made me believe that cloning humans is possible, because he is a clone, obviously, of George W Bush, as he was of Clinton..."

b) "Hitler banned fox-hunting, didn't he?"

Answers: a) Studs Terkel, talking to Laurie Taylor on Radio 4, b) Jeremy Paxman, on Start the Week, 18 March.

If that was too easy, it's back to the subject of death for our last question. Who once wrote this? "If I had to choose between going to a funeral or a wedding, I'd go to the funeral any day. There's something so final about a wedding ..."?

Answer tomorrow.

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