Wednesday, 4 July 2012


I was watching James Burke's Connections series, the original one, recently. It's fascinating, the way he stands back from things to get a better look at how actions and reactions shape the modern world.

I thought back on this during the final of the European Championship. Spain thumped the bloody Azzurri 4-0. They were just too damned good, being the best team on the planet, and there might even be a post mortem roundtable on that in due time if we can get the collaborators together.

But for all their mighty passing, and the heres and whys of the interminable debate on the aesthetic nature of said passing, the fact remains: history is made by seconds and moments, and the men who stand up then. Take the last group game, as an example. Ten minutes to go, and it is goalless between Croatia and Spain. As it stands, this, coupled with a victory for Italy, will take Spain and Italy through on the narrowest of margins. Rakitic is through, and should score, but tamely hits his shot. Spain escape, and soon after score the only goal of the game. Had Rakitic scored, everything after that point changed. Perhaps Spain would have upped gears and scored two, or the one necessary to qualify with Croatia on a mere 2-0 win for Italy elsewhere.

But, since we can't go on infinite possibilities, let's take it as it could have been. Rakitic scores. 1-0 Croatia. Where does that leave us? With Croatia top of the group, Italy second, and Spain, world champions, contemplating what it would be like to win a final 4-0 from their slumbers in Andalusia. Croatia/France happens, and surely the French do not go out quite so timidly, hell, they might even win. A Semi v Portugal wasn't unwinnable either, and suddenly their fortunes changed. Italy would have gotten through, and not had the prospect of the World Champions in the final once England and Germany were disposed of. Teams without the fear of facing the unbeatable might have played more openly in the Knockouts but let's not suppose too much! Rakitic scores, all the broken records we saw remain intact. And that's just the tipping point, what we can see immediately in front of us.

Let's see how things are, twenty years hence, when we look back and wonder how different it would all have been, had Rakitic scored.

It's not a question purely of sport. Think of the single worst moment in the 20th Century for a driver to take a wrong turn. But for that wrong turn, the world might not have heard of young Gravilo Princip. He shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. You might have heard of him. Princip was part of a gang which, up to that precise turn of fate, had been very successfully failing to assassinate the Archduke that June morning.

But what if the driver had taken the right turn. Well, Gravilo never gets his chance. His organisation miss five out of five chances to take their man out. Ferdinands retort to one - a bomb in his career thrown away with a "is this how you treat your guests?" - would have gone down in history as's number 1 in their Greatest Ballsiests Retorts of All Time Not Said By Teddy Roosevelt.

Then Franz becomes leader of the various parts of the Austrio-Hungary empire. Poor old Otto of Habsburg gets to have a nice life, and one day might even be a King in his own right. By the time he was shot, Franz Ferdinand was in his early 50s. His uncle, the Emperor, lived to be 76. None of Ferdinand's children could be heir to the throne, as the Emperor was not a fan of his heirs wife, Sophie, who was merely a countess and thus below their station. So the marriage was declared morgonatic and the children left heirless. So, give it till the 1930s or so, and Otto gets his shot. And given he only died in 2011, he gets to be a long lived associate of our Monarchy.

This would be allowed as without the wrong street, their is no assassination, and without the assassination we don't see the build up to the First World War. (Or the second if you follow Winston Churchill and believe that the Seven Years War was the real First World War) A lack of dead heirs gives the Austria a lack of reason to pick at their Serbian neighbours. That fight lacking prevents Russia having a subtext to rush in on, fearful of their inability to protect their allies in the wake of the crushing Russo-Japan defeat. It prevents Germany rushing in on Austria's side, the French on the Russian's and us on the French's once the Germans entered Belgium in their splendid effort to bugger up the Schlieffen Plan.

Then we'd see no fall of the Tsar precipated by a World War. The war that ended the crowned monarchs of Europe would fail to do so. So the Russian Revolution doesn't happen, which substantially changes European history. The technological break throughs as a result of the war fail to happen.

Most crucially, there isn't a Second. Without the wrong turn, no assassination, no pretext for war, no war, no  crushing Versailles, no psychological effect of defeat allowing a national pysche to turn to the right. And no Hitler. Well, his greatest awakenings and opportunities arose from the fall of Kaiserian Germany. Without, perhaps he is just a footnote, if even that. A failed artist.

There would be no American superpower, as that was based on a resurgence from the First World War. Worse, if the Depression happens anyway, and we had tycoons and stock retails before the War, then the results are more damaging: it took the Second World War to really get the economy going again, not the New Deal. Nothing makes an economy boom like war. Just ask Tony Blair.

Of course, this one ripple changes so much, and is a century old, that one might suspect even speculating is to take things too far. And they would be right. If history has shown one thing, its that things are often repeated. Those who know history are doomed to watch fools repeat it.

A fine woman, Helen Reid, once told me never to use the word inevitable, as it is the last domain of the foolish historian. So I wont.

Let me state though, that the perilous weapons building race of the 1910s between the Germans and the British would have had some tipping point had the Archduke's driver not got lost looking for that big palace thing up ahead. With the interlaced alliances, and households, of diplomacy at that time, any powder keg could send the whole thing up. Had one teenage anarchist with a gun not gotten lucky, another somewhere would. If not that, then a snotty diplomatic envoy taken the wrong way, or a man claiming his ear got cut off. We'd have found some reason.

Three weeks from today, we pass Harry Patch's anniversary. He's not a man who would want to be remembered, for he survived. He was just one of many. But we should remember him. And here's why. He got to be on the news a lot in his later years, and we all remember his forceful personality, his way with words, and the popularity of this wonderful man. Men like him, Bill Stone and Henry Allingham. Or Howard Ramsay, the American vet who announced in 2006 he could "understand many things but not why people would pay two dollars to buy a Starbucks!"  And there was 10 million Harry Patches killed in the First World War. That's why he is remembered, and should be. He's a human reminder in our own lifetimes of the wide-scale carnage.

My family was marked by war on both sides. On my mums, we lost most of the men of a certain age to the First World War, including my Great Grans younger brother, a secret buried until her own death in 1996.

As for George Collins Sr, well, he got left for dead in the middle of a battle, which happened to be the Somme. Oh dear. Then a stroke of luck, a man heard his call. A German. Instead of renacting a scene from All Quiet on the Western Front, the two tried to communicate with each other, and wound up being enable to fix up the others injury. Then came a search party, so the German had to scarper, lest he be treated like the Good Samaritan Martian in that episode of UFO. Before he went, they both exchanged medals though. Which is why a Kaserian German war medal is in our families possession somewhere.

Now, as a result of that good Samaritan, George Snr outlived the First World War. He lived another thirty years in fact. He had six children, five of whom survived into adult hood, and used the horrors of the trenches to preach pacifism to everyone he knew, including his old pal and neighbour, Jimmy Maxton. When his eldest son, Richard, refused to serve in the Second World War as a conscientious objector, he was sent to jail for cowardice, and Maxton wrote letters to get him out again. When George Snr died in 1947, Richard fought for and got his mum and several others of her generation war widows pensions: George Snr having died young as a result of wounds from that incident in the First World War.

George Jr was 13 then. In the 1950s, after nearly causing one or two international incidents in Singapore, which you can read about elsewhere, he met and married Ellie, my dad's mum. Then came Dad, who later met and married my Mum. And in no time at all, the writer of this blog was about. And my sister.

So can single twists of fate change history for good? It's hard to tell with the Princip case, as the ramifications   from that point on become too massive to comprehend within the realms of a simple bog.

If one German who thought better of his fellow men, regardless of which side they were on in a War, had not shown up right at that time though? Well, the world would have missed out on a Stroke care expert, a horse rescue centre in Ireland, various nurses, teachers, political campaigners and community organizers. And a certain writer of two bob horror tales.

If he hadn't shown up, you'd be asking Mandy abut these things. Because I wouldn't exist to be writing this blog.

The ramifications of that chance meeting not happening are mind boggling too. Even the smallest decisions ripple outwards into tsunamis.

So Rakitic's miss, while it hurt him in the short term, will continue to ripple outwards. To what extent, we can't tell yet.

But one day the Connections will be made. And we'll think once more how interestingly balanced all of history is.