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Memento homo


When the editor of London's Evening Standard accused the British Prime Minister of being a "dead woman walking" he probably didn't have a clue where the saying originated. Maybe we can enlighten him...

After the recent general election in the UK, in which the Conservative Party’s Prime Minister Theresa May needlessly threw away a slim overall majority, the knives flew so fast you might have thought you were watching a team of Japanese sushi chefs. George Osborne, the former Tory Party Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was swiftly defenestrated by Mrs May after she became PM, and who now is Editor of the Evening Standard – a once glorious newspaper which today is full of Z-List celebrity gossip and sensationalist tripe – was first in line to stick a hatchet in her back. On TV he said: “Theresa May is just a dead woman walking; it’s just how long she is gonna remain on death row.” Georgie could hardly keep the smile from his face as he said these words, such was his gleeful Schadenfreude. One of the worst Chancellors in decades rubbishes one of the worst Prime Ministers in decades: like ugly glove puppets pelting one another with paperclips.

But I suspect Osborne hasn’t a clue about the origin of this saying, which now pops up everywhere. It seems to have replaced “lame duck” as a description of anyone who is finished, washed up, career over.

One of the worst Chancellors in decades rubbishes one of the worst Prime Ministers in decades: one ugly glove puppet pelts another with paperclips.

“Dead man walking, dead man walking here!” was the phrase traditionally called out by American prison guards, walking the condemned prisoner out of death row towards their execution. It’s not clear if it was a warning to other prisoners to stay out of the way, or whether it was a perverse form of recognition of the gravity of the situation. In any case it once had a literal meaning, a while before it mutated into its current metaphorical one. There’s even a book with the same title. An American Roman Catholic nun, Sister Helen Prejean, published in 1993 Dead Man Walking, a book that’s based on her experiences with prisoners on death row in the US.

But for me there is a much older precedent for this suggestion that death stalks your every move, one that comes from ancient Rome. In the days of Julius Caesar, when Roman generals who had achieved victories returned to Rome to parade in triumph, they would usually be accompanied by an Auriga – a slave with the status of a gladiator. As the general lapped up the applause of the crowds, the Auriga, holding a golden crown above the general’s head, would whisper in his ears “memento homo” – “remember man”. The implication was that the general should not forget that, despite his military prowess, he was not a god, not immortal; that he was, in effect, a dead man walking.

This attitude perhaps reached its greatest embodiment in the form of Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome from 121 to 180 AD, and the last of what Niccolò Machiavelli called the ‘Five Good Emperors’, who ruled by absolute power but with great tolerance and benevolence. Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic, compiled a series of short writings, now known as Meditations. They remain today a tremendously wise guide as to how to live a balanced and indeed stress-free life. Not caring too much about anything, might be one way of summing up the Meditations, for tomorrow (or later) you are forgotten dust.

When I watched the smirking George Osborne deliver his verdict on Theresa May – and my own position is simply that of imposing a curse on all politicians, of any party or group – Marcus Aurelius came to mind. Osborne’s readiness to condemn May’s blunder (for such it was) was not motivated by a desire to see the UK governed intelligently, guided thoughtfully, and its people nurtured and cared for. No. It was prompted by his own greed for power, the sense that he would be welcomed back into Parliament by his Conservative allies, and – at last – reach the pinnacle of the greasy pole and stroll into No. 10 Downing Street at the head of a supposedly less nasty Tory Party. If and when May is cast adrift, taken out the back and shot by her crocodile tears-besmirched friends, Osborne stands a good chance of re-entering politics, heavens help us. As Marcus Aurelius said: “If it is not the right thing to do, never do it. If it is not the truth, never say it.”

Marcus Aurelius should be on Osborne’s (and every politician’s) bedside table: “Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant: all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet known. This mortal life is a little thing, lived in a little corner of the earth; and little too is the longest fame to come, dependent as it is on the succession of fast-perishing little people who have no knowledge even of their own self, much less of one long dead and gone.” If Marcus Aurelius is too much for them, then what about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias:

‘I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said – “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that the sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

I suppose that Osborne can be forgiven for adding his hatchet to Theresa’s back – after all, to say that she is a dead woman walking is certainly true, metaphorically at least, and – given her Type 1 diabetes – perhaps literally too. But, as with all politicians, Osborne’s time-frame is not the here and now, not the present moment; it is the next five years, and the next, and the next – the delusion that power might be possible and that, having obtained it, he would use it well.

Still, if we can Brexit and Trump then why not complete the three-card trick and have a Marxist for PM?

In case this seems a little unbalanced, I need to quote a dying friend, a former lobby reporter for a national newspaper, whom I emailed before the last general election, just to see if he had a view on any of the leading candidates for that chimera, political power. What did he think of the saintly Jeremy Corbyn for example, he who would give free lollipops to everyone, forever? I quote his reply. “Welcome to Corbyn world! This must be the ultimate proof that the world has gone barking mad. Still, if we can Brexit and Trump then why not complete the three-card trick and have a Marxist for PM? The only consolation would lie with the promise of months of fun ahead when Dianne Abbott runs the police force and [Emily] Thornberry, quite one of the most unpleasant people on the political scene, has to cope with Trump.”

A Marxist-inspired chimera may indeed lie ahead, of course. As the DUP blackmails the Government – we only want a billion pounds, and maybe the chance to ban gay marriage – we are surrounded by scoundrels, in charge of the country, holding the purse strings, oblivious to bigger pictures while pretending to have a grasp of what is going on. The words ‘hell and handcart’ spring to mind; the death of dignity, modesty, decorum, marches on. Many people became hysterical after the referendum voted to leave the EU, claiming that we were descending into a form of chaotic quasi-authoritarianism. The way matters are headed, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

If more of us carried around in our heads the ancient Roman injunction ‘memento homo’ it might engender a little less shouting, a little more reflection.