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Matthew Parris

Another Voice

To understand the true nature of history, let us start with the question of Napoleon’s piles

3 December 2008

12:00 AM

3 December 2008

12:00 AM

To understand the true nature of history, let us start with the question of Napoleon’s piles

Cometh the hour, cometh the piles? Well, Wellington called Waterloo ‘the closest run thing you ever saw in your life’, and on the morning of battle, Napoleon was too exhausted and distracted by pain from his haemorrhoids to focus or to ride out. So did piles cost Napoleon that winning edge?

Is Alaska part of the United States because in 1867 Tsar Alexander II had overspent on a big naval expedition and was temporarily but acutely short of cash? Is our belief in the potency of spinach due entirely to the misplacing of a decimal point when in 1870 a German scientist assessed the vegetable’s iron content? Would Hitler have risen as he did if, a generation earlier, relatives had not manoeuvred his father into abandoning their real surname, Schicklgruber? Heil Schicklgruber? Cometh the hour, cometh surely not a Schicklgruber?

All these speculations I owe to Phil Mason: a Whitehall civil servant who for years has been feeding me with information. And before the Met’s counter-terrorist squad send in the heavies to trash his home, I must explain that none of it relates to his political duties. Or not directly. But he does have a slant on politics: Mr Mason has always been fascinated by the odds and ends and curious facts of history and politics; the hostages to fortune and the part played by fortune; the things said in passing and later overlooked. Mr Mason overlooks nothing: he makes a note, files it away, and has been doing so for 30 years. His archive is extraordinary.

Thus it happened that, with me, he published a book called Read My Lips — an anthology of the things famous people wish they hadn’t said, which this year we’ve updated and republished as Mission Accomplished. But he deserves to be writing and publishing under his own name alone, so I was pleased last week when through the letterbox dropped (pardon the cheap wordplay) Napoleon’s Haemorrhoids: And Other Small Events That changed history. I started turning pages and couldn’t stop. This apparently trivial book gets you thinking about deeper questions. How important is coincidence in history? Might many big things have turned out differently were it not for the random intervention of small things? It isn’t easy to dismiss the possibility that Napoleon’s piles really could have made a difference.

Only the most austere Marxian historian would, I suppose, maintain that cometh the hour, cometh always the man, and chance has nothing to do with it; and only the most starstruck apologist for the Hero in History thinks it’s all down to the throw of individual dice. But the Mason book nudges me more in the direction of chance, and less in the direction of pre-destiny.

Some of his examples would spring to any thoughtful reader’s mind. John Smith’s sudden death while Labour leader, for example, is undoubtedly what gave Tony Blair his chance at exactly the right moment — as, earlier on, had an unexpected vacancy in Sedgfield, when a friendly intervention precipitated him into the Commons. Whether his extraordinary luck has inclined Mr Blair himself to believe in a whimsical fortune, or in a determined divine sponsor, is something I long to know.

Others among Mason’s examples are new to me, and strange. In 1928 the extension of the suffrage to include all adult women (not just those over 30) appears to have resulted from some kind of a brainstorm by the home secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, who was actually at the despatch box opposing the reform when an intervention from Lady Astor somehow tripped him into promising to accept what it was Cabinet policy to reject. ‘Never,’ said Churchill, ‘was so great a change in our electorate achieved so incontinently.’

The Marxian, of course, would say that such was the way the tide of history was flowing, and if it hadn’t dislodged that home secretary at that moment, it would have dislodged another at another moment. Fair enough; I don’t, for instance, agree with Phil that the introduction by a Mr Thomas Austin of 24 rabbits on to his estate near Melbourne in Australia is in any useful sense the reason why those pests have since ravaged that continent. Cometh the hour, cometh the rabbit, the world over; and someone was always going to introduce the nuisance — though the rogue iceberg that, millennia ago, delivered surprised penguins to the equatorial Galapagos has a better claim to instrumentality. Cometh the hour, cometh the iceberg? We must doubt it.

Travel south from the penguin tourists and you’ll reach the large, green, misty island of Chiloe, just off the coast of southern Chile — and a curious little story Phil has not stumbled upon, but I did when I visited. In the early 18th century diehard royalists there, fighting the Bolivarist independence movement on mainland Chile and despairing of assistance from the Spanish Crown, wrote to George Canning offering the island to the British Crown instead. True, it didn’t suit Canning’s foreign policy to accept — but what if whimsically he had? We would have a Falkland Islands equivalent on the other side of the continent, too.

Last January I was in a friend’s log cabin by a frozen lake in central Sweden. Why were we there? Because as a freshman at university a quarter of a century ago, my friend misread a list of introductory classes, arrived at a talk about learning Swedish when he had meant to learn Spanish and, finding only a handful of others, felt teased into staying. He’s now one of the foremost English-language guidebook-authors on Scandinavia. Phil Mason offers a similar small coincidence on a larger canvas: James Chadwick, one of the pioneers of nuclear science, meant to be a mathematician but joined the wrong queue at Manchester university and was enthralled by Ernest Rutherford, who interviewed him.

If Ronald Reagan’s application to join the Communist Party USA in 1938 had not been refused; if in 1819 the shot that grazed the shawl of the seven-month-old baby Victoria had not missed the future queen when a bird-hunting boy hit her nursery by mistake; if Einstein’s unrecorded last words had not been heard only by a nurse who didn’t understand German; if the British government had not decided, on balance, against using Lincolnshire for nuclear testing in 1953; if in 1939 — when two business partners purchased a clutch of hotels to start a chain — the hotel called the Sheraton’s neon sign hadn’t been too expensive to scrap; and if the Andrex toddler had not been jettisoned by an advertising agency afraid of being accused of encouraging naughtiness, and replaced by the Andrex puppy, then aspects large and small of our lives might be sharply different. Even to the most uncompromising Marxian, ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the puppy’ must fail to convince.

But my favourite is the invention of the stethoscope. In 1816 the young Dr René Laennec felt too shy to burrow his ear into the too-generous bosom of a naked lady patient, and modestly inserted a rolled-up newspaper instead. Astonished at the amplification, he spread the news. Cometh the hour, cometh the breast.

Matthew Parris Is A Columnist For The Times. Napoleon’s Haemorrhoids Is Published By JR Books.

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