Ian Clayton column: Famous lost words

Genius - Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
Genius - Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy

I have a recording of a live jazz concert made in Holland in the early 1970s. It features Ben Webster, the great tenor sax player and perhaps my favourite jazz musician.

The concert was the last one Ben Webster ever did. It’s not a good one: he seems to be just going through the motions, playing more from memory than from any sense of joy in the moment.

But it is an extraordinary recording because towards the end of his set, Ben puts down his saxophone and addresses the crowd, who are mostly students at a jazz club, somewhere in a small provincial Dutch town.

He says: “You are young and growing and I am old and going,” and the tape then finishes. Later that night Ben Webster fell into a coma from which he didn’t recover. He died about a fortnight later.

At the height of the French revolution, Marie Antoinette was carted to the scaffold alongside her husband King Louis XVI.

She was mocked and jeered through the streets and as she mounted the steps, she unintentionally stood on the foot of the executioner. She stepped back, looked him in the face and said: “Oh! pardon me sir, I didn’t do it on purpose.” These words were probably the last she ever uttered.

There is a school of thought that says the last words a man or woman say are the ones, out of all the millions we say during our lifetime, that make most sense.

As you might expect,a lot of last words refer to a faith. Mother Theresa told Jesus she loved him three times before she drew her last breaths and Joan of Arc also repeated Jesus’ name as she succumbed to the flames.

But most of the reported last words, particularly of famous people, seem to be quite witty or at least try for humour.

My father’s favourite comedians were Abbott and Costello. Lou Costello’s reported last words were: “That was the best ice cream soda I ever tasted.”

That great wit Oscar Wilde said: “I am having a fight with the wallpaper in this bedroom and one of us has to go.” Perhaps the wittiest of all was my own favourite comedy film star Stan Laurel who said to his nurse: “I think I’d rather be skiing.”

The nurse said: “Oh! Mr Laurel I didn’t know you skied” He said: “I don’t, but I’d rather be skiing than doing what I’m doing now.”

The great British eccentric Spike Milligan was even more to the point: he is said to have told visitors to his bedside: “I told you I wasn’t well.”

Some well-known people have expressed the inevitability of death in their final words. The quintessential English actor John Le Mesurier, well-known for his role as Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army said: “It’s all been rather lovely,” and you can just hear him saying that, can’t you?

The essayist and diarist William Hazlitt wrote this last line in his diary: “Well I’ve had a happy life.” A little more charming than that other well-known diarist, the Carry On film star Kenneth Williams, whose own last entry in his diary was: “Oh! what’s the bloody point?”

I think everyone will know the final words of the gallant English explorer Captain Oates who was part of Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition. He stepped out of the tent and said: “I am going outside, I may be some time.” I first read those words in a book when I was at George Street school and I am still as impressed with them today as I was then.

Last year, when I went to visit my father in the last few weeks of his life, I hoped for, I suppose, a kind of meaningful reconciliation.

As I mentioned in a recent article, I had barely known him in the years between 1974 and 2013. I guess I was hoping that my dad might tell me something important, profound even, at least I hoped he might pass on some words of wisdom, but he didn’t.

He just acted daft and told jokes and funny anecdotes. I last saw my dad on my return from China and before I went on holiday. I guessed that I wouldn’t be seeing him again, so I went to put my arm round him.

He reared up in his bed, I got my zip tangled in his pyjamas and he whispered into my ear. He said: “Umpa,umpa stick it up thi jumper.” And that was it, my final words from my dad.

Some things just don’t work out the way you want them to, do they?