“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken . . . ”
P.G. Wodehouse reached for Keats to describe his emotions when he read the first of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman saga. Fraser had already joined the glorious company of famously successful authors who were turned away from the doors of many publishers. They include the first of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, which was rejected by 12 publishers. She had revived an ancient genre, the boarding-school story, created by Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), in which the school bully Flashman makes his first appearance. The genre is extraordinarily tenacious: Residential courses for St. Cloud State University, Minnesota, have run at Alnwick Castle for many years, begun before Harry Potter but benefiting from his fame. And the genre gave birth to Fraser’s antihero who swaggered through 12 books, all of them a sheer delight.
The Flashman of Fraser’s invention is lecherous, cowardly, hard-drinking, racist in the Victorian way, self-seeking, socially boastful but inwardly fearful, adroit at easing his way out of difficult situations but usually at someone else’s expense. His solitary virtue is that he is shamelessly honest about himself and his failings. Others he deceives—himself, never. After being expelled for drunkenness from Dr. Arnold’s Rugby School he became a soldier, and was thus licensed to appear in many scenes of conflict. Fraser sends him to the Indian Mutiny, the American Civil War (in which he contrives to appear on both sides), the Charge of the Light Brigade, Little Big Horn, the Abyssinian campaign, and many others. He meets Bismarck and Abraham Lincoln (who sees through him). Above all, he has fun, and so do we. He beds—or indeed dispenses with a bed—any number of women of all ranks, but especially the uppermost. And he finishes with a knighthood, a V.C., the San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth (“richly deserved”), and a superb mansion. But there is more to The Flashman Papers than that. Kingsley Amis correctly praised Fraser as “a marvellous reporter and a first-rate historical novelist,” the equal of Conan Doyle and Anthony Hope. Each of the Flashman books ends with a sheaf of notes on the historical points touched on in the text. They are meticulously researched: Fraser set his fictions in an iron framework of historical and linguistic fact.
For that reason I think that, of all his novels, the first, whose implications reach into the present day, is the most memorable. Flashman (1969) is about the doomed Afghanistan campaign of 1842, in which the hopeless General Elphinstone so mismanages the British force in Kabul that all are ambushed and destroyed. He is comprehensively deceived and betrayed by the Afghan tribal leaders. If a copy of Flashman had been taken from the fiction shelves and put into the hands of subsequent leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom, they might have reached different conclusions about the prospects of occupying that ungovernable land. Flashman’s final verdict on Elphinstone has a raw anger in which the authorial voice takes over from the narrator, and moves from 1969 into our own era.
The last words I heard Elphy say were: “It is really too bad.” They should be his epitaph; I raged inwardly at the time when I thought of how he had brought me to this; now, in my mature years, I have modified my views. Whereas I would cheerfully have shot him then, now I would hang, draw and quarter him for a bungling, useless, selfish old swine. No fate could be bad enough for him.
It is not hard to guess at the names of later leaders whom Fraser would have had in mind. But I cannot imagine a contemporary politician who would use the words reported by Flashman:
the general public and Palmerston were crying out for vengeance, and the Prime Minister was retorting that he wasn’t going to make another war for the sake of spreading the study of Adam Smith among the Pathans . . .
A later prime minister did, though.
Fraser had not changed his stance when the latest Afghan War came about. In a letter to Max Hastings he wrote, “I’ll waste none of your time damning the criminal folly of our participation in the Afghan shambles, the ignorant stupidity of our political masters, or the apparent incompetence of our top brass.”
Fraser’s sense of history had been sharpened by his experiences as a rifleman in an infantry platoon in World War II. He fought in the Border Regiment with the 14th Army in Burma, and records his service in one of the finest war memoirs ever written, Quartered Safe Out Here (1993), the title being a quotation from Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din.” The book opens with this arresting sentence: “The first time I smelt Jap was in a deep dry-river bed in the Dry Belt, somewhere near Meiktila.” That memoir is quoted copiously in Andrew Roberts’ superb history The Storm of War. Fraser’s views on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were widely understood and accepted then, but became less fashionable later:
We were of a generation to whom Coventry and the London blitz and Clydebank and Liverpool and Plymouth were more than just names; our country had been hammered mercilessly from the sky, and so had Germany; we had seen the pictures of Belsen and the frozen horror of the Russian Front; part of our higher education had been dedicated to techniques of killing and destruction; we were not going to lose sleep because the Japanese homeland had taken its turn.
Rifleman Fraser never lost his sense “that war is not a matter of maps with red and blue arrows and oblongs, but of weary, thirsty men with sore feet and aching shoulders wondering where they are.” That hard, unsentimental tone is the bedrock principle of Fraser’s writing, for all the pleasures afforded by Flashy’s career. Fraser extended these delights into his screenwriting. He wrote the screenplays of the James Bond film Octopussy, Royal Flash, and (my own favorites) The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, and The Return of the Musketeers. Directed by Richard Lester, they were faultlessly cast, and Oliver Reed’s Athos is the permanent benchmark for the role. The first two were a rather shady operation; the cast thought they were in one long film, which turned out to be two films with contractual implications for the workers. Fraser wrote many other screenplays that did not reach the screen, but as he said, “the money was very good.” His great affection for the versions of history purveyed by Hollywood appears in his book The Hollywood History of the World. The quirks of costume drama did not disturb him—he was not that kind of pedant. “It matters little that George Sanders had a knack of wearing biblical armour as though it were made of well-cut tweed.”
Fraser chose to retire to the Isle of Man, not for tax reasons but because he rejected the adjective boring often applied to life there: “It’s what Britain used to be, and isn’t any more.” That is the motto-theme of his later thought, expressed through many articles and speeches. If you google “George MacDonald Fraser” and scroll down, you will find “The Last Testament of Flashman’s Creator: How Britain Destroyed Itself.” An edited extract from his memoir The Light’s On At Signpost, it is a poignant lament for the country Fraser fought for, which emerged victorious from the great wars of the 20th century and then dissolved as he saw it into national feebleness and debility. The “Last Testament” was last updated at the Daily Mail’s website on January 5, 2008; Fraser had died on January 2. I take it that he willed his last message, the signal emitted from a dead star, to continue into the void. His observations are particularly acute on the cultural scene he lived through.
Since Fraser’s active life as a published author extended for 36 years (1969 to 2005, Flashman on the March), the changing reactions of the media are “a very opal.” For a couple of decades, the Flashman books were received with widespread delight, in Britain and America. They were politically incorrect—that was their attraction—but then the term had not yet been invented. Flashman could treat subject races with open disdain, referring often to “niggers,” use women as chattels—he bends one woman over his knee, and starts her with his whip—but that was a fictional hero, whose exploits were set in another era. No reviewer protested at Flashy’s vile conduct and values, and Fraser records that of the many letters he received, none were hostile.
In the Nineties, a change began to take place. Reviewers and interviewers started describing Flashman (and me) as politically incorrect, which we were. . . . But what I notice with amusement is that many commentators now draw attention to Flashy’s (and my) political incorrectness in order to make a point of distancing themselves from it.
They felt that some readers might find Flashy’s views offensive, and the reviewers hastened to assure those readers that they, too, regarded them with extreme distaste. Fraser found these disclaimers alarming, “ as if the writer were saying ‘Look, I’m not a racist or sexist. I hold the right views and I’m in line with modern enlightened thought, honestly.’” All this comes from “the fear evident in so many sincere and honest folk of being thought out of step.”
Fear is indeed the key, and political correctness is the enemy of reason in Fraser’s vision. It leads to films and stage plays that are grotesquely at odds with the historical reality, and he cites Braveheart as an example of purest drivel: “My forebears from the Highlands of Scotland were a fairly primitive, treacherous, blood-thirsty bunch and, as Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, would have been none the worse for washing.” But then, “I think little of people who will deny their history because it doesn’t present the picture they would like.” Political correctness is all about denial, and he disdainfully refers to
selective distortions of history, so beloved by New Labour, denigrating Britain’s past with such propaganda as hopelessly unbalanced accounts of the slave trade, laying all the blame on the white races, but carefully censoring the truth that not a slave could have come out of Africa without the active assistance of black slavers, and that the trade was only finally suppressed by the Royal Navy virtually single-handed.
Fraser treats other aspects of contemporary culture with similar disdain, as when he writes of
the waging of the war [in schools] against examinations as “elitist” exercises which will undermine the confidence of those who fail—what an intelligent way to prepare children for real life in which competition and failure are inevitable, since both are what life, if not liberal lunacy, is about.
Political correctness “also demands that ‘stress,’ which used to be coped with by less sensitive generations, should now be compensated by huge cash payments lavished on griping incompetents who can’t do their jobs . . . ” (I think of Keith Miller, a famous Australian cricketer who had piloted a Lancaster in Bomber Command: “I’ll tell you what stress is. When a Messerschmitt is on your tail and shooting up your ass, that’s stress.”) Grieving is now “part of the national culture,” with large areas being “carpeted in rotting vegetation.” No country on earth, Fraser thought, has experienced such a revolution in thought and outlook and behavior in so short a time, having gone “from being the mightiest empire in history, governing a quarter of mankind, to being a feeble little offshore island whose so-called leaders have lost the will and the courage, indeed the ability, to govern at all.” That was his final verdict on his country. But he would have been heartened by Brexit, and the blow struck by the people against the liberal establishment and the oligarchs of Brussels.
Fraser loved the British Empire and thought its departure a great loss to the world. It was pointless to blame an empire for behaving imperially; it is what empires do. Flashman is the alter ego of George MacDonald Fraser, two sides of the same coin, both of whom received the Order of the British Empire. As warrior, novelist, and observer, Fraser was touched by history. He still is.