Notable Last Words I’m Thinking About for Some Reason
by Xan Holbrook
Well, this is all a bit depressing, isn’t it?
All snarking about being naturally introverted coming into its own aside, it really does feel as though Mother Gaia has had just about enough of our bullshit and does not care who in all of holy fuck she wants gone. Although the English version of the purge, i.e. big oily orgies over toilet paper, has been replaced by good old-fashion queuing, the weight of proceedings is only feeling heavier. It certainly doesn’t help that governments, media outlets and morons online are using the same apocalyptic verbiage that made the last four years such a fucking ordeal.
Therefore, to take your mind off matters like New York’s imminent and rapid depopulation and that the Emperor is playing the fiddle, let’s do what Alfred Hitchcock said that the English do best and laugh at death. Specifically, those with the best parting words ever uttered.
Good to get some practice in, as long as your lungs hold out…
ONE IS MOST UNAMUSED
This is a story where both the truth and the legend are equally bleak and equally humorous.
George V, one of the few surviving monarchs after the Great War, and a man possessing arguably the best regal beard, was on his last legs in early 1936. Bronchial problems and a weak heart, no doubt brought upon by his long and very stressful tenure, had him inching closer to the mortal coil.
The legend states that he was instructed by his doctors to move to warmer climes, and that sea air would prolong his life. This was standard practice at the time, before vaccinations and penicillin, for those who could afford it. The problem was that the physician in question suggested the oh-so-fashionable town of Bognor Regis.The King exclaimed “Bugger Bognor!”, and then promptly died.
Although that’s a firm favorite as last words go, it wasn’t the real thing. In actuality, it was a bit grimmer. The King’s doctor thought that the old man was taking far too long to die, and decided the best thing to do was give him regular treatments of what were essentially speedballs. With his dying breath, and seeing a nurse preparing the hypodermic, he whispered “God damn you.”
One can only hope to be so ballsy.
Those on the scaffold have a long and illustrious history of macabre humor, and, as Christopher Hitchens noted in his Scenes From An Execution essay, every scaffold needs a jester.
In Victorian England, the gallows were a common sight in public life, and these scenes were well-attended and documented. Doctor and murderer William Palmer, a man who cut a dark figure in the reminiscences of Charles Dickens, looked at the trapdoor he stood on and asked his executioner, “Are you sure it’s safe?” before the rope and hood was placed on him.
In more recent years, unfortunately, America takes the lead in this grubby little niche. Barbara Graham walked into the gas chamber at San Quentin and even then received some manstructions from her executioner. “Now, take a deep breath and it won’t bother you” the man told her, to which she replied “How would you know?”
However, among these, James French stands head and shoulders above all others, looking at the press gallery straight and hollering “How’s this for a headline? ‘French Fries!’” before the switch crashed down.
TELL EVERYONE LEAVE IS CANCELLED
Many professions can’t do without laughing at the sheer awfulness that job entails, and those who fight have perhaps the most arduous job of the lot. This combination of fatalism, trauma, and casual brutality breeds some of our best final words, as well as some of our grimmest one-liners (The title of this section comes from the British name for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Operation TELIC).
The best known in American history belonged to Union General John Sedgwick, scowling at his troops for hiding from Confederate snipers. Standing up, he exclaimed, “I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist-”, before a round tore through his throat. Similarly, and at the other end of the pay scale, a bloodied diary of a Union private at Cold Harbor was recovered after the battle. The scrawled message read “Cold Harbor. I was killed.”
Another legend now, this time from the old west. Dashing, reckless and ringleted buffoon that George Custer was, he allegedly shouted “Hurrah boys! Let’s get these last few reds and then head back to camp”, before a combined force of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho fighters annihilated his troops. Befitting his tone-deaf character as this is, the truth was his force was wiped out, meaning that likely no one heard these words.
A QUICK NOTE ON A LOVELY TUNE
Poor Harry Williams. When he wrote It’s a Long Way To Tipperary, I doubt he could have imagined his song, with its jolly melody and schmaltzy lyrics, would be so closely associated with mass slaughter. At the Battle of Jutland, at which Vice-Admiral David Beatty remarked, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today” after two exploded within 30 minutes of each other, HMS Tipperary suffered a similar fate, with only 19 survivors from a 150-man crew. The search and rescue party sent out from HMS Sparrowhawk did not spot them, but heard them. Belting out Williams’ music from their lifeboats.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, or at least I know what those who have seen Das Boot are thinking. Why do the u-boat crew sing it? Here’s why.
A few months before Jutland, on the Lusitania, the ship’s band had been in the middle of their own rendition when the torpedoes struck and sank it. The song entered German military folklore as the unofficial, wolf-grinned anthem of sending allied shipping to a watery grave.
As Williams could not have guessed as to his song’s longevity with carnage, I doubt that Eric Idle would have thought the same as he composed Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, but then he could not have predicted the Falklands War, and the crews of stricken ships HMS Sheffield and HMS Coventry doing justice to his light-hearted rumination on kicking the bucket.
As we all await anxiously, just remember that people can and do endure. So laugh all you like, at whatever you like, and especially at our own fragility.