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The last few words

india Updated: Jan 12, 2007 23:54 IST
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Getting in the last word took on a new dimension with the unveiling of Robin Cook’s headstone and its characteristically stroppy assertion: “I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of parliament to decide on war.”

Mr Blair, spraying toxic emissions on a return flight from the latest freebie on the day when 20,000 more American soldiers were promised for Iraq to join the 3,000 killed so far, gets that late, late message from the man he had hoped to have seen off with a straight face at the memorial service.

It might be argued that Robin Cook (or Gaynor Cook or whoever) is being a bit pushy — “I got it right — you got it wrong!” But if you did get it right, 100 per cent right, really why not underline the fact and say so. As another Scot, the elegant light novelist and soldier, Ian Hay, deftly put it: “He that tooteth not his own trumpet, the same shall not be tooted.” Or as Edwina Currie put it to the fool (me!) who suggested that a little reticence might help her Cabinet ambitions, “Good Lord, no. Publicity is everything.”

Another Scottish epitaph (fictional, but what the hell?) pushes last-word presumptuousness to heroic limits:

Here lie I, Martin Elginbrodde:
Have mercy on my soul, Lord God.
As I would do, were I Lord God
And ye were Martin
Elginbrodde.

Getting in the last word is not confined to gravestones. The deathbed is a handy place. Goethe’s More light makes it jolly clear that this chap was both a public oracle and a poet, with two reputations — one for grave wisdom, another for telling succinctness; and they both had to be kept up.

Lord Chesterfield, by contrast, was a wit. So when told that the socialite and necrophile, George Selwyn, was on the stairs, he said: “Do show him up. If I am alive, I shall be pleased to see him, and if I am dead, he will be pleased to see me.”

Then again, there is self-deprecation. The pre-eminent Conservative journalist, Peter Utley ended his days at the Times as obituaries editor. His heroic response to terminal cancer was, “Ah. Hoist with his own petard.”

Robin Cook’s last blast is, anyway, only a particle of an assured historical judgement that his Iraq speech was the plain truth. The war, which a lesser contemporary in a higher place wanted for reasons of vanity and self-service, was murderous folly. What we really want to know is what will appear on the headstone of Tony Blair.

— The Guardian

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