Saturday, 5 January 2008

Countdown to Caligula

So farewell George MacDonald Fraser, or, Bayete! as the great man himself would have said.
I grew up with Harry Flashman and as a young journalist GMF was something of a role model for me. He was a sub-editor on the Glasgow Herald and at the end of his shift he'd go home and work on his 'project'. The result was a character who has entranced generations of readers and a series of books that created a whole new genre and that I doubt will ever be surpassed.

It's not just that Flashman, rogue and philanderer, brazen coward and backstabber of friend and foe alike is a fantastic creation. It's the way Fraser took the tiniest snippets of virtually forgotten history and turned them into whole episodes of glorious heroism and ignominious defeat from which his hero always emerged, if not victorious, at least more or less unscathed and touched by glory. I probably retained more historical facts from Harry Flashman than I ever did from studying for the History O level (grade C) which is one of my precious few educational triumphs. The epic siege of Cawnpore or the Corn Laws? No competition.

Despite his many character defects there was something wonderfully optimistic about Flashman; he was often down, but never out; where others died with their boots on, he took his boots off and headed for the hills and safety. He always got the lady, more often several. And he was never short of a bob or two, even if he had to steal to get it. He's one of the few people who made me laugh out loud reading a book.

As a writer, I suspect that consistency is one of the most difficult things to achieve over such a long series of books, and Fraser managed it through a dozen novels, although I think the man himself would admit there were a couple that fell short of his impossibly high standards - Flashman and the Tiger, which reads like a concoction of early discarded pieces is the one that immediately springs to mind. He had a magic formula, but he was never frightened to change or attempt to enhance it. In Flashman's Lady (I think) when his dizzy, but delightful wife Elspeth is kidnapped and carried off to Borneo, the Flashman papers have been edited by some interfering vicar to get rid of the blasphemy. The final result didn't work particularly well, but it was brave to attempt it. Likewise John Charity Spring, the crazed slaver, whose asides in Latin I suspect I'm not alone in finding a little wearing. On the other hand, Flashman and the Redskins takes two separate periods of his life decades apart and links them by a vengeful spurned lover and is a fantastic adventure that probably gives as expert an insight into the lives and the plight of America's beleaguered Plains Indian tribes as any history.

One of the great conundrums of the Flashman books is the mystery of the missing papers. I've waited in vain for twenty years for Fraser to further enlighten me about our hero's service on both sides in the American Civil War, when he somehow contrived to win the highest decoration awarded by both Union and the Confederates, and survived Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. Then there's the part he played - no doubt hiding out in the hospital, or behind a bunch of mealy bags - in the defence of Rorke's Drift. GMF titillated us with little hints and asides over the years, but never revisited what, at first glance, would seem natural Flashman territory. Maybe he felt that the stories had already been told, or that the situations and circumstances were things Flashman had already experienced often enough. In his later years it seems to be the farther flung and lesser known campaigns that drew Fraser.

His finest work? A tough one. The aforesaid Flashman and the Indians is up there, and the opening Flashman novel where we meet Harry fresh from his expulsion from Rugby and he's dragged kicking and screaming into the doomed Afghanistan invasion has got to be a contender. But for me the Flashman book nobody should miss is Flashman and the Great Game, his memoir of the Indian Mutiny. It's a fantastic combination of Victorian derring-do, madcap cavalry charges, subterfuge, seduction, slaughter, and a spine-tingling finale that I challenge anyone to better.

MacDonald Fraser, like Flashman, was a product of his times ands both revelled in their political uncorrectness. The author served in Burma during the war, in what the participants knew as The Forgotten Army, his memoir Quartered Safe Out Here has been described as one of the finest by a private soldier by no less and authority as the historian Max Hastings, and I'll second that. As a Borderer, his history of the Border Reivers - The Steel Bonnets - is a must-own book.

If you haven't read a Flashman novel, nip out and get one now. Like Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey and Maturin novels it'll take you into a whole new world!

When I look back on my earlier posts the words that spring to mind are 'pretentious' and 'po-faced'. Maybe blogging is like e-mail in that it's difficult to get across the soul and the nuance of what you're trying to say. Anyway, enough of the Story so Far. I'll stick to the story as it unfolds. The copy-edited manuscript (bagged -twice - parcel-taped and registered) has been dispatched to Transworld and I pray every day it gets there safely. Next step will be when I get the book proof.

Have a great 2008!


Lexi said...

Doug, I was really enjoying the blow-by-blow account of every unpublished author's dream. Definitely not pretentious or po-faced.

I think its appeal is the classic rags-to-riches thing.

Could you slip in a bit now and then (like backstory) if you feel uncomfortable writing the full account?

Because I'm sure I'm not the only one who wants to hear more.


PS I'll have a go at Flashman after your encomium. I think I was put off by his being such a rotter, though of course that's the whole point.

Welshcake said...

Yeah, I was enjoying it too. Might be the nearest I ever get to living the publication dream!

Might try some Flashman as a few people have raved about him.

altguy3 said...

Doug, I couldn't agree with you more about GMF - a true loss.

As you can probably guess I'm a huge fan too. Not only are the books a joy to read, they are also very, very funny. It's quite rare for me to laugh out loud at prose, but good old Flash has had me in hysterics time and again. You should see some of the looks I've had whilst reading GMF in public!

I'll sign off by echoing Lexi's comments: 'Definitely not pretentious or po-faced'

Best, Guy