Monday, December 11, 2006

In praise of Brigadier-General Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE, 1822-1915

In praise of Brigadier-General Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE, 1822-1915

"Hoi Scary", says one of me learned comrades at my place of work not so very long ago, "Read this 'ere book. It's excellent."

It was a copy of 'Flashman' the 1969 novel by the Scottish author George MacDonald Fraser - screenwriter of some repute - who had taken the notorious bully from Thomas Hughes' 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' and given Britain's greatest ever cad and bounder a life story.

And what a story. Twelve volumes to date, with a cult following, and continuing just as long as Fraser continues to draw breath, long may that be.

The Flashman books cover Flashy's life story from the moment he is expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness, and finds himself, by a circuitous set of events caught in the middle of the Afghan War; and despite his best attempts to run away, finding himself a national hero. Speaking as a coward myself, who has fled adversity on many, many occasions, Flashy is my kind of man.

Flashy's interests are two-fold: self-preservation and women. Finding himself married to the dotty, if voluptuous Elspeth at the end of a shotgun, this proved no obstacle to our be-whiskered anti-hero, who is rarely more than a few pages from female company throughout the series. As far as I can make out he's married at least four of them.

As you might gather, Flashman is a huge misogynist, and the books - written in the language of a ninety-year-old retired army officer looking back at his glorious career in the service of Queen and Country - the books are about as politically incorrect as you can get. If you are offended by the word 'nigger' and suchlike, used in the context of the age, for just about any person born south of Dover, then you'd be best giving Flashy a miss, for this is the kind of work that would give a council equal opportunities officer a heart attack.

A true guilty pleasure, the uninitiated might be surprised to learn that thanks to Flashman's uncanny knack of failing to avoid some of the greatest military engagements of the 19th Century, the reader actually manages to learn a great deal as the man himself bounces from bedroom to bedroom, usually followed closely by a heavily-armed mob.

The books are presented in memoir form - the author having "decided" to discover Flashman's original journals in a Leicestershire saleroom in 1966, correcting nothing but spellings and adding copious footnotes that substantiate and expand upon this history as told by Flashy.

Fraser spends months researching each book for historical accuracy, and some thirty-seven years after the first Flashman book was published, he is still tickled by reviews that assume the books are a genuine memoir in which the hero meets some of the pivotal characters of the century, invariably deflowering their women, cheating them at cards, before fleeing into the night, hailed, mistakenly as the saviour of the British Empire.

Typical quote: "And despite the dashed nuisance of the enemy's guns firing over our heads, I popped them out of her dress and gave them a quick squeeze."

The Duck recommends: all of them, but Flashman in the Great Game - a tale of the Indian Mutiny - stands head-and-shoulders above the rest.

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