Saturday, January 19, 2008

Farewell Flashman

I can't remember why, precisely, I picked up my first Flashman novel by George MacDonald Fraser, but the book is before me as I type: a Pan paperback from 1970, with a splendid cover illustration (one of several he did for this series) by John Rose. I suspect that I bought it in England in 1983, and memory suggests it was in a bookstore in Guildford, Surrey, for I remember starting to read it later in that trip, at a bed and breakfast in Penzance. Whatever the whys and wherefores, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as I sought out first the other Flashman books—of which, by 1983, there were several—and then everything else by Fraser that I could find: The Pyrates, Mr American, Black Ajax, the McAuslan stories (about 'the dirtiest soldier in the army'), Fraser's Hollywood History of the World (still one of my favourite film books), The Candlemass Road and The Steel Bonnets (fiction and non-fiction, respectively, about the Scottish border reivers), and Quartered Safe Out Here, Fraser's recollections of 'the forgotten war' in Burma during World War II.

Fraser—who died on 2 January—was a long-time journalist who, in 1969, conceived of the idea of carrying on the adventures—or misadventures—of Harry Flashman, a character in Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857) who relentlessly bullies the eponymous hero before being expelled for drunkenness. Flashman purported to be the first installment of 'The Flashman Papers', discovered in a sale room in 1965 and given to Fraser to 'edit' (to his delight, a number of American reviewers of Flashman mistook the volume for serious memoirs, as opposed to the fiction that it was). The first book starts at the point where, in Hughes's work, Flashy is expelled, and we are introduced to a swaggering, cocksure bully who has a generous streak of the cowardly running through him; indeed, one of the many delights of the Flashman books is the way in which Flashy's cowardice is so often mistaken for bravery, a misapprehension the much-decorated Flashman does nothing to contradict.

Over the course of the Flashman papers—twelve volumes in all—the eponymous 'hero' cut a swath through almost every war, crisis, or scandal of the mid- to late-nineteenth century, from the Charge of the Light Brigade to the Last Stand at Little Bighorn. One of the few major events of the period of which we do not have a complete record of Flashy's involvement is the American Civil War: we know, from hints in some of the other novels, that he worked, at various times, for both the Blue and the Gray, but the definitive account has, it appears, died with Flashman's creator. Throughout the books, Fraser displayed not only the sure touch of the fictioneer and comic writer, but the eye of a historian: the books are annotated with copious footnotes, and it's possible to pick up a solid grounding in genuine nineteenth century history by reading the Flashman chronicles.

While Flash Harry was, justly, Fraser's most celebrated creation, his other works are well worth seeking out, for he was far from a one book (or character) wonder. Flashy does crop up, briefly, in Mr American, a mostly serious novel about a mysterious American who arrives in late-Victorian London, and his father appears in Black Ajax, a fictionalised account of the life of American boxer Tom Molyneux, who was for a time the toast of Regency England. The McAuslan tales draw heavily from the author's time in the British army, post-WW II; The Candlemass Road is indebted to his researches into the Scottish border reivers; and The Pyrates is a warm-hearted, glorious romp through history as it should have been, the sort of adventure that Rafael Sabatini might well have dreamt of but never had the nerve to commit to paper, instantly recognisable to, and beloved by, anyone who has ever thrilled to the sight of Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone trading barbed quips in Captain Blood. Fraser's account of his time in Burma during World War II, Quartered Safe Out Here, has been praised as one of the finest memoirs to come out of the Second World War, while his lavishly illustrated Hollywood History of World sought to prove that the film capital of the world, so often reviled for getting history wrong on celluloid, very often got it right, a point not lost on the author, who was responsible for several screenplays, including the James Bond film Octopussy, Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, and Force Ten from Navarone.

Indeed, Fraser's memoirs of his encounters with Hollywood form the best part of The Light's On At Signpost (2002), a collection of essays which is half movie reminiscences (very amusing and illuminating) and half Angry Old Man rants (rather less so, at least to this reader, although I have to respect the force of Fraser's beliefs and the right he has, in light of what he's seen and done, to express them). All of this means that I have one non-fiction book of Fraser's (The Steel Bonnets) and one fiction book (his last novel, The Reavers, published in Britain and Canada in October 2007 and in the States in April 2008) left to read before the well runs dry.

I've alluded to Fraser's skills as a comic writer, and the Flashman stories are surely one of the funniest series of novels to appear: Flashy (and his creator) have a ready wit, which neither is afraid to display (check all thoughts of political correctness at the door, although it must be said that Flashman is an equal opportunity offender, skewering everyone, regardless of race, gender, or religion). Fraser's humour is apparent in all his works: the McAuslan stories are grittily, earthily funny, as befits their Army background; The Pyrates is a slapstick romp; his memoir Quartered Safe Out Here is filled with the gallows humour of someone who was never sure if he or his companions would live to see another day; and even more serious novels, such as Black Ajax and Mr American, contain laugh-out-loud moments. No wonder no less a comic master than P. G. Wodehouse hailed the appearance of Flashman, calling it 'the goods' and writing 'If ever 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.'

Fraser and his wife worked, for a time, in Canada, and I lived in hope that we might, one day, find that Flash Harry was involved in the Great March West in 1873, when the Northwest Mounted Police (later the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) were established and sent into western Canada to bring a measure of law and order to the frontier. On 25 July 1995 Christopher wrote to Fraser, asking him if he would care to assume the position of President of the Arthur Conan Doyle Society, which Christopher founded, and whose first president, Julian
Symons, had recently died. Fraser's response, dated 28 July 1995, is thus:

'Dear Mr Roden,

'Thank you very much indeed for your kind letter, for the enclosures, especially that beautiful copy of "The Blood-Stone Tragedy", but most of all for the honour you do me inviting me to become president of the Arthur Conan Doyle Society. I am most grateful, believe me.

'If I decline, as I'm afraid I must, it is from no lack of sympathy with your views. Indeed, I share them. Recently I had the pleasure of writing an introduction to "The Lost World" for an anthology of adventure novels put out by my publishers, HarperCollins, and said what I have been saying for years: that Conan Doyle was far more than the author of Sherlock Holmes, and that Gerard, Challenger, and the historical novels are far superior to his detective stories. And I'm delighted that you are seeking out his lesser-known work; that is a splendid project.

'The trouble is, I am too enthusiastic a Doyle admirer to be, at the same time, a president in absentia. If I were to accept your generous invitation I should feel bound to try to do the job properly, and that would mean more writing, travelling, and general involvement with the Society than I could undertake. Also, I do believe that there must be other Doyle devotees who would make worthier presidents than I.

'Thank you again for thinking of me; that was most kind. May I wish you and the Society every success in all your projects to keep alive the works and memory of a great writer and a great man.'

Christopher replied on 8 August, and in this letter raised the question of Flashman's involvement in events of Canadian history, which received the following response:

'Flashman in Canada is a wonderful possibility. My wife and I worked as reporters in Regina, Saskatchewan, many years ago, and I had the good fortune to interview survivors of the famous Riel Rebellion, which might well make a good subject, but I'll have to look into it again.'

Alas, it was not to be; although Canadian humorist Eric Nicol gave us a partial solution in his Dickens of the Mounted, in which the titular hero (a real life son of Charles Dickens, who was shipped off to Canada and did become a Mountie, although with a somewhat less than lacklustre career) encounters Flashman, and comes to the conclusion that Sir Harry is a cad and a bounder.

When I heard that George MacDonald Fraser had died, I felt as if I had lost someone I knew: a favourite uncle, perhaps, whose moustaches tickled when he kissed you, and who told jokes that made you laugh, even as scandalised aunts and mothers made sounds of 'Hush!' His works will, I suspect, live on, particularly the Flashman chronicles; and perhaps it's just as well that he did not live to detail Flashy's participation in the Civil War. Sometimes less is more, and mysteries more satisfying than cold hard fact. Rest in peace, Mr Fraser; your literary legacy will assuredly live on.

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