Magazine article The Spectator

To Understand the True Nature of History, Let Us Start with the Question of Napoleon's Piles

Magazine article The Spectator

To Understand the True Nature of History, Let Us Start with the Question of Napoleon's Piles

Article excerpt

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 istory. 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. …

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