Thursday, January 03, 2008

So. Farewell Then, George MacDonald Fraser

Sir Harry Paget Flashman is demobbed at last. The wires are reporting this morning that George MacDonald Fraser, the author of the Flashman series of historical adventure novels, has finally succumbed to cancer at the age of 82, and fans all over the world will now never get to find out just how exactly Flash Harry ended up fighting for both the Union and the Confederacy during the American Civil War, or if Victoria ever sent her Harry to Ireland to sort out those beastly Fenians.

In his first literary incarnation, Harry Flashman was the bully in Thomas Hughes’ famous school novel, Tom Brown’s School Days, whose particular party piece was holding the younger boys over the fire until they squealed. Nice. Flashman gets his comeuppance, being expelled from Rugby school for drunkenness, and served as an example for one hundred years of How Not to Behave at School.

And then a Scottish journalist called George MacDonald Fraser had an idea. I’ve never heard or read how he came up with the idea, but my own guess would be that it was during his time in Burma with a Cumbrian regiment during World War Two that Fraser first realised a certain truth about empire-building. While you might talk about Tom Brown values at home, the boys you need to cut through the jungle and put smacht on the natives are much more like Harry Flashman than the authorities are generally willing to admit.

And this is the genius of the Flashman papers. Fraser puts Flashman at all the great historical moments of 19th Century British Imperial history – Kabul, Balaclava, Cawnpore - and even takes him on some American jaunts (with one eye on the great big market over there, of course), but Fraser does not change Harry Flashman’s essential character. Flashman remains, to the end, the coward, the bully and, in that marvellous Victorian word, the poltroon that he has always been.

The irony is that nobody knows it. To the outside world, Flash Harry is a folk hero, one of the men who helped civilise the world. But we, the readership, are complicit in his cowardice – we feel a guilty thrill of recognition when some old warmonger of the era, like Lucan at Balaclava, puts his arm around Flashman and says “good news, Harry old boy – the Light Brigade charge the guns in the morning, and you’re going with ‘em!” Harry puts on the brave face, but inside his bowels are as water as he searches desperately for the nearest rat to follow away to safety at high speed.

This change in narrative perspective is the making of the Flashman papers. PG Wodehouse said of the first book that "if there was a time when I felt that watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman," and that’s just how jarring it is, to have Flash Harry wink at you and say “yes, I was at Cawnpore, and I would have sold out the garrison in the morning if I thought I could trust the mutineers to save my yellow hide.” The tone of the books is the secret, and it’s a act of high skill on Fraser’s part, in book after book, to keep Flashman likeable as an anti-hero despite all the available evidence. Although a coward to his liver himself, Flashman recognises bravery in others and, while they may have been warmongers and racists and worse, the men that flew the Union Jack from Cape Horn to Bombay were no cowards, whatever else they were. Fraser has done his homework on the era, and the books are rich in historical detail about what was a very fascinating time. But most important of all, Fraser’s skills as a journalist superbly convey what it might have felt like to exist in that era, when the Empire was at its height, to the extent that you can almost smell the gunpowder and spices as you enter the kashbah, eyes peeled for danger.

Reading Flashman has been one of the great guilty pleasures in recent years, even for a poblachtánach Gaelach such as An Spailpín Fánach. It seems from this remove that Britain is currently trying very hard to forget she ever had an Empire, and the figure of Flash Harry’s lip curling before the natives isn’t one that’s officially encouraged. Flashman’s notorious wenching – he makes James Bond look like Saint Simeon Stylites – is a little infra dig also, of course. And that’s what makes him so glorious a guilty pleasure, and it’s a source of sorrow this New Year's morning that when the warhorse’s nostrils flare once more at the sound of the bugle, Sir Harry will no longer be there to wonder how in God’s name he’s going to get out of this one.

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