The enduring fascination of the counter-factual world

'Oh, if only I hadn't been wearing those shoes,I wouldn't have been sick all over the Pope'

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I was at a chess tournament recently, and when, at the conclusion, one player checkmated the other, the losing player climbed over the table and elbowed his opponent in the throat, then the crowd went wild and began throwing bottles and fighting among themselves - it was an Aussie Rules chess tournament.

I was at a chess tournament recently, and when, at the conclusion, one player checkmated the other, the losing player climbed over the table and elbowed his opponent in the throat, then the crowd went wild and began throwing bottles and fighting among themselves - it was an Aussie Rules chess tournament.

Last week I was writing about the part my Raleigh Equipe bicycle played in the war in Vietnam, and this week I complete my two-part Vietnam trilogy (what is known in the trade as a "dilogy"). Now one of the things that has always perplexed me about that conflict is, what the bloody hell were the Australians doing fighting there?

I can sort of understand the involvement of the United States, evil and wrong though it was, but I can't for the life of me comprehend what the forces of a Commonwealth dominion, with an army then equipped with not quite the latest in UK-produced second-rate weapons technology, felt they could or should contribute to the oppression of the peoples of South-east Asia.

Do the Australians just like to go anywhere for a scrap, or what? Or is it perhaps that, from a distance of some 30 years, I may be misreading the situation?

The fact that Britain, rightly, was not involved in the Vietnam war makes it hard to understand what any other nationals apart from the imperialist US (and the Vietnamese, of course, who didn't have a choice in the matter) were doing there. But was our own country's non-involvement a far closer-run thing than we suspect?

After all, the Labour Party's general-election victory in October 1964 was a very slim one. If, instead, the Conservatives had held on to power, might they have allowed this country to be dragged into that conflict? And if Britain had got itself involved in the war in Vietnam, what would have been the consequences for this country?

This is not just pointless speculation. There is a literary genre that crosses over both into academic historical study and general fiction: this form is what is called counter-factual. And the most popular novel to date in the genre is Robert Harris's Fatherland.

In such books, typically, the novelist takes a set of historical circumstances and imagines what would have been the outcome if just a few things had happened differently, which sounds like a normal evening down the pub to me. You know the sort of conversation that goes on: "Oh, if only I'd picked totally different numbers, I'd have won the Lottery and been a millionaire," or, "Oh, if only I hadn't been wearing those particular shoes, I wouldn't have been sick all over the Pope," or, "If I'd just turned left instead of right I would have been at home in Basingstoke instead of here, dressed as a woman, working behind this melon stall in the main fruit market of Tehran." But there you go.

The theory behind counter-factual writing is that by looking at how things might have been different, we cast a revealing light on how things actually are. So, if we imagine that British troops were in fact sent to fight in Vietnam, we might, for instance, have had our own Vietnam war movies like Apocalypse Now, except, given the lamentable standard of service in Britain, it would have to have been called "Apocalypse Next Week If You're Lucky, Mate".

However, if Britain had entered the Vietnamese war, the most interesting counter-factual question that strikes me is: how would all of our current leading politicians have dodged the draft? That they would have avoided being called up to fight seems certain, seeing as almost all of the current generation of US politicians, including the incumbent president and both presidential hopefuls, did so.

Here's how I think it goes: Robin Cook and Gordon Brown flee to Sweden, where they are fêted as political exiles and hang out with Swedish hippie chicks, producing some spectacularly ugly babies. Michael Portillo pretends to be gay. Peter Mandelson spends six years hiding in his mother's attic; she passes the thumping noises in the ceiling off to the neighbours as "just the squirrels". And finally, Tony Blair, being the truly calculating creature that he is, covers himself by fulfilling every criterion for exemption, passing himself off as a gay, short-sighted, Rhodes scholar, TA member, old-age pensioner with one leg called Mr Cooper who lives in Switzerland anyway. Nobody, of course, has the honesty to come out against the war.

The only one of our current political figures who would have gone to fight in Vietnam is Ken Livingstone, but he would have volunteered to fight for the Vietcong! He would have become the only non-Vietnamese officer in the VC and would have taken the nom de guerre of "The Lizard", met and married "Hanoi" Jane Fonda and thus saved the world from aerobics.

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