What It's Like Being Short

Smaller than Napoleon, Madonna and Johnny Davis (Esquire deputy editor, 5ft 6in), Andrew Harrison is our least statuesque contributor. Here's why that doesn't get him down.

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I thought I'd had all the weird experiences I was going to get in this life until a family visit to San Francisco last Thanksgiving. Having done the turkey, the late birthday presents, the news and the catch-ups, we went for a random wander through the city. It was all going fine until we reached Chinatown, when my head started to swim.

Something was out of joint and I couldn't put my finger on it – I felt like Alice after she'd taken a nip from the "Drink Me" bottle. After a few disoriented moments of head-shaking and lamp-post clutching, I began to realise why. Chinatown is full of Chinese people. For once in my life, I was walking through a crowd where I could see the top of everybody's head.

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Full disclosure: my name is Andrew Harrison and I am 5ft 4.5in tall. (Would any man over the British average of 5ft 9in bother to mention that half-inch?) Roughly 91 per cent of the male population of this country is taller than me.

My height would be more or less average only in Vietnam, Peru or the Philippines. I occasionally find myself sitting in chairs – not bar stools, actual chairs – that leave my feet dangling a few inches above the ground. I've never owned a pair of trousers that didn't need "taking up" (remember when turn-ups came back into style at the end of the Nineties? That was like Christmas for me) and I have never, ever played basketball. More shocking still, this is the tallest I've ever been.

For those of us in the differently heighted community, it's another world, let me tell you. Going to gigs means constantly weaving my head from side to side in order to catch a glimpse of the band through the forest of fat, sweaty necks before me. You may have heard about Oasis's legendary debut London appearance at the Water Rats pub venue in King's Cross in January 1994.

I was there and I can't remember a single thing about it, apart from Alan McGee poking me in the ribs and telling me how amazing it was. Unlike pretty much everyone else, I was delighted when they introduced compulsory seating at top-level football grounds, not so much for reasons of crowd safety but because it meant I could finally see what was going on.

Spectator events are one thing. When it comes to dating, other special considerations intrude. You have to do the height calculus and ask, "Are we going to look ridiculous together?"

Many, many years ago, I had a brief thing with a woman noticeably taller than me. Part of the fun was that neither of us felt any pressure to make it work out in the long term, because it clearly wasn't going to. But when the short guy properly seals the deal with the towering woman it implies hidden qualities on his part. How does he do it? Jamie Cullum (5ft 4in) is universally admired for winning the statuesque Sophie Dahl (6ft), even by those who can't stand his music.

Let the papers have their "Little and Large" headlines – the two of them are clearly nuts for each other and appear to be at it like knives. Bernie Ecclestone (5ft 3in) and his string of conspicuously longer-limbed companions? Not so mysterious.

But the truth is, I hadn't really considered the way my height has shaped my life until I started thinking about writing this piece. It's just there, like the weather or taxes or the seasons. Every now and then, something will pop up to remind me – a book on a shelf I can't reach, kitchen roll on a shelf I can't reach... actually, screw you, shelves – but there are just as many advantages as disadvantages, some of them financial.

I just don't get, for instance, why people get so steamed about having to fly economy class. Complimentary nibbles aside, business class is kind of wasted on me. With the next seat seemingly miles in front of me, I start to feel both guilty and slightly agoraphobic.

The height thing isn't really about your physical environment. It's about what people think and assume, and how you fit in. Being short can be an icebreaker. The musicians I've interviewed over the years are never as imposing as you expect from TV: Bono (5ft 8in, most of it hair), Kylie (5ft 2in) and even Madonna (5ft 5in) seemed pleasantly surprised to talk to someone who sees their world from their angle.

Wu-Tang Clan, who are all enormous, were amused to have this tiny white guy asking them stupid questions and opened up accordingly. I had a terrible crick in my neck after talking to Radiohead's Ed O'Brien (6ft 5in), though.

When you're the shortest guy in any social group, you'd better be friendly, congenial or at least funny because you're sure as hell not going to be able to dominate the conversation, much less fight anyone. (The one and only physical altercation of my life began with me pulling some drunk off a friend of mine who he was punching. It ended two seconds later because the assailant was too staggered by my poor risk-assessment skills to carry out the simple chore of battering me.)

You'd better make yourself likeable and you'd better be able to take a joke. For instance, the staff at the first magazine I edited used to call me Captain Mainwaring. Secretly, I quite liked it. Arthur Lowe was always a bit of a hero of mine, anyway: the exasperated, slightly boring but level-headed man who somehow organised his menagerie of misfits into a unit fit to face the Nazis. Even if ARP Warden Hodges used to call him Napoleon.

Ah yes, the "n" word. Any short guy who ends up in a position of responsibility will hear it eventually. The Emperor Napoleon actually stood 5ft 7in tall, which was above average for a Frenchman of the 18th century.

The British Tory press routinely depicted him as shorter and – obviously, being a beastly foreigner – more vituperative than the stout and steady John Bull. From this flowed psychologist Alfred Adler's notion of the Napoleon Complex, wherein pocket-sized chaps overcompensate for their runtish stature with aggression, ambition and a domineering personality.

This in turn fed into comic depictions of Napoleon and his successors in the fields of international villainy. Brilliant satirical demolition jobs by heroes of shortdom Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks (both 5ft 5in) mean that we tend to think of Hitler as a foaming titch haunted by inadequacy, yet old Adolf – like Churchill – was a perfectly average 5ft 8in tall.

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All this formed an unbreakable connection in the popular mind: if Napoleon was a short-arse (even though he wasn't) then all short men in the public eye are potential Napoleons, or at the very least psychologically unsound. Better vote for the big feller, as Michael Dukakis – a microscopic and therefore untrustworthy 5ft 8in – discovered when he was trounced by George HW Bush, 6ft 2in and thus clearly omnicompetent, in the 1988 US Presidential Election.

The only problem with the Napoleon Complex – apart from the fact that if you're looking for a Frenchman who combines belligerent egotism with an insatiable sense of entitlement then you're better off with Charles de Gaulle, absolument minuscule at 6ft 5in – is the notable body of evidence which implies that it is bollocks.

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The Wessex Growth Study of children from school age to adulthood found that no aspects of personality could be attributed to height after all. And recent research from the University of Central Lancashire indicates that men of below 5ft 5in in height are less likely, not more, to lose their temper when provoked. (Delightfully, their experiment involved subjects hitting each other with sticks until one of them lost his rag.)

Maybe it's just a testosterone thing, or maybe, if you grow up having to think twice before kicking off at those who displease you, you treat others with more equanimity and not less. There's other research, too, which suggests that taller men are happier than their shorter brethren, enjoying more money and a higher sense of satisfaction. Maybe that's true. But is that all you want: to be happy? What are you, a child?

I don't care if Napoleon was a fake-ass short-ass. I embrace my Napoleon Complex – it got me where I am today, gave me the (slightly lower-set) balls to do what I want in life. Some of the best bosses I've ever had were barely taller than me; they listened, treated their staff with courtesy, got the best out of everyone. Conversely, one or two of the lofty CEO types I have laboured under were among the most ignorant pricks you could ever hope to meet. I know who I'd rather be like.

So, if you want to call me Hobbit, squirt, Ewok, shrimp, Porg, midget, shortstuff, fun size, dwarfo, Inch High Private Eye, vertically challenged or Mini-Me – or if you want to add to mankind's repository of wit by asking me how things are going "down there" – then please, knock yourself out. If that's the best you've got, I'd be ashamed to rob you of it. (And by the way, well done on the genes; you really worked for that.)

I can't think of a single thing that I've missed out on account of my lack of stature, and I wouldn't be the same person if I'd gone through life with what is – in every sense – an average perspective. It's a different syndrome, the one in Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue", the one that toughens you up for what life is going to throw you.

For pictorial evidence, let's look at an episode from the last season of Mad Men. Don Draper and Roger Sterling have travelled to LA at the height of its Charles Manson-era bacchanal. At a pool party, they encounter diminutive former Sterling Cooper intern Danny Siegel, a cousin of Roger's ex-wife who has now reinvented himself as a mover and shaker in movies.

Now free of any familial obligations towards Danny, Roger empties his full clip of short-guy witticisms on the pocket-sized producer. Finally, Danny does what no tall guy can do. He punches Roger square in the balls, smiles and walks away. Now that's an example to us all.

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