(19 June 2000)
I was sent a booklet last week called Matters of Life and Death, which was, amazingly, not about life insurance. It was an invitation from the Battersea Arts Centre to tune into their current theatrical season, all about death, "the last great taboo of our age", and something for which we prepare very badly, according to the organisers. "Old people seem determined to deny the possibility of death until the very last gasp. The young don't think about it at all. As a result we are panicked and unprepared when our loved ones die."
There is truth in this. We spend a lot of time preparing for old age – pensions, retirement homes, medication – but that is not preparing for death. That is preparing for NOT dying. If we were all ready for death, undertakers would not make their great profits. If we were all ready for death, we would all have made wills. If we were all ready for death, we wouldn't go around saying: "Oh, if only I had talked more to my father/ mother/ gran before she died and asked her about the family..." If we were all ready for death, we would have our dying words worked out in advance.
This booklet has some famous last words such as Oscar Wilde's "Either that wallpaper goes or I do." There are also some good last words which were new to me. Karl Marx: "Last words are for fools." Pancho Villa: "Tell them I said something interesting." Louis XIV: "Why are you weeping? Did you think I was immortal?" Nice one Louis, even if I thought you actually said: "Après moi, le déluge."
However, the strange thing is that none of them are modern. Nobody in the past 100 years has said any famous dying words, presumably because when it comes to the moment when we might deliver them, we are already unconscious, swaddled in sedatives and painkillers. There ARE some modern thoughts on death listed but they are all harbingers of death, looking forward to it. Nowadays, we don't have famous last words; we have press releases, issued before death, with juicy quotes on death from some not-yet-dead person such as Woody Allen's: "I am not afraid of death – I just don't want to be there when it happens."
The only person I can think of who ever grasped the nettle of the lack of modern dying words was DB Wyndham Lewis. I don't mean Wyndham Lewis, the forgotten serious writer, I mean DB Wyndham Lewis, the forgotten humorous writer. He it was who started the Beachcomber column before JB Morton took over, and carried on elsewhere as Timothy Shy, and then became, well, forgotten.
However, I have in my hands a book of his called Welcome To All This, which contains a piece which is just a dying speech. It starts: "An old, worldly man lay propped up among his pillows in a high antique four-poster bed... his eyes were full of experience and irony. He lay there, very near his end, contemplating with faint amusement the preoccupation and solicitude of his attendants, most of whom he had disliked very heartily for years... They begged this old man for a final message. He said in a clear but feeble voice: 'Never order thick soup. Never read books recommended by rich women. Never live in Surrey. Never drink champagne if you can get wine. Never forget that of the four classes of persons in modern England who wear elaborate wigs – actors, judges, rich women and clowns – none is amusing in private life. Never forget that all literary persons, even when the sex is distinguishable, are death. Never hazard a light observation in the presence of the Scots. Never refer to realities in the presence of the English. Never motor to Brighton. Never take a Pullman train to Brighton. Never go to Brighton..."
That is not the end of it, not by half. For another three or four pages the old man rolls out endless last words, like a carpet salesman displaying his wares. It is a wonderful performance. Then the old man "passed away without adding any more to his advice, which was drawn partly from his own experience of the world and partly from that of others, though he himself indeed, as often happens, had never practised such wisdom to any great extent."
I wonder what DB Wyndham Lewis's dying words were. But he didn't need any. At the end he probably just whispered: "See my book Welcome To All This, p 8 ff."