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Low Culture Essay: Harry Sword On The Flashman Papers
Harry Sword , July 21st, 2023 11:35

In this month's Low Culture essay, commissioned exclusively for tQ subscribers, Harry Sword makes the case for George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series of novels being a fine lesson in the grim reality of British history, and the literary equivalents of the music of Throbbing Gristle and Iron Maiden

During a fevered bout of covid in mid 2020 I became obsessed with Flashman and Thin Lizzy. For months afterwards I seldom read or listened to anything else. I entered a fantasy world staffed by dual sentinels: Phil Lynott and Harry ‘Flashy’ Flashman. The two became intertwined. Lynott – proud majestic Lynott – bounded through his fantasy vista of grizzled soldiers of fortune, emerald isle warriors, cowboys, New York hustlers, London junkies and casbah mystics in that soulful lackadaisical delivery; the dual leads of Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham conjuring a fantastical realm that spoke equally of 1970s backstreets and 10th century Irish hedgerow, of childlike heroism and villainy, a cinematic romanticism; a beautiful naivety.

But Flashman?

Flashman is a coward. Flashman is a sex addict and borderline alcoholic. He is an arrogant boor and snob. He is an appalling racist. He is an amoral liar, serial cheat, childhood bully and scurrilous chronicler of the worst excesses of the British Empire. He saw out the Boxer Rebellion, Charge of the Light Brigade, Battle of Little Bighorn, Siege of Cawnpore and countless other key historical events as decorated hero despite – unbeknownst to his superior officers – frequently ending up either cowering in mortal terror, beating a hasty retreat or fainting at inopportune moments.

One of literature's finest anti-heroes, he is the subject and first person narrator of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman Papers novels, each a maximalist bacchanalian feast of sex, violence and scrupulously annotated military history. The Flashman novels offer a form of sheer dunderheaded escapism perhaps unparalleled in 20th century literature, one particularly useful to the convalescent, the miserable or the bored. They offer this because they make scant emotional demand of the reader while presenting a world of mauve, outrageously camp adventure, deep historical wormhole and occasional Throbbing Gristle-esq descent into dank, stark horror.

There is also, as Ronnie James Dio had it in Rainbow’s ‘Stargazer’ “the heat and the rain!”. These are novels of the elements. When unwell, there’s something immensely pleasurable in reading about people going through a worse time than you are, in the pissing rain on a horse, in the same way that reading in bed during a vast thunderstorm is infinitely more satisfying than reading on a beach, simply because you’re not out there.

But while Flashman was his life’s work, the character wasn’t quite the invention of George MacDonald Fraser. Flashy first appeared as the bullying, drunken nemesis of the eponymous Tom Brown in Thomas Hughes’s 1857 novel Tom Brown’s School Days. Set in the early 19th century public school system, Hughe’s explored the culture, arcane rituals and latent sadism of Rugby School, exposing a world rife with bullying and snobbery.

Flashman, introduced simply as “school house bully”, took a sadistic pleasure in the tormenting of smaller boys under the ‘fag’ system, wrapping them in blankets and flinging them around, a practice known as ‘tossing’. As Brown recounted: “What your bully really likes in tossing, is when the boys kick and struggle, or hold onto one side of the blanket, and so get pitched bodily onto the floor; it’s no fun to him when nobody is hurt or frightened”.

Later in the novel Flashman gets “beastly drunk” on gin punch and beer, leading to his fictional expulsion from Rugby. There his story ended.

Except it didn’t.

Over a century later in 1969 George MacDonald Fraser took this relatively minor character in this relatively minor mid-nineteenth century novel as the launch point for his absurdist, grotesque, heavy metal maximal series. Starting with Flashman (1969), over the course of twelve novels Fraser had his eponymous ‘hero' bounding through fetid malarial outposts, military hotspots and diplomatic flashpoints of the British Empire and pre and post Civil War United States. The narratives took in countless seedy saloons and velvet bordellos and brothels of every conceivable flavour, embroiling Flashman in near constant diplomatic alarm, the threat of reputational disgrace hanging heavy over every near miss.

Setting the series up as a tranche of papers recently discovered wrapped in oilskin and found in an attic, in which Flashman, now in his eighties, recounts his memoirs in the first person, Fraser starts where Hughes left him: in disgrace and expulsion from Rugby. Flashman confesses his drunken excesses to his father before asking his guardian (his late mothers brother, Uncle Bindley) to recommend him to the Eleventh Light Dragoons, Prince Albert’s Hussar’s. Why pick such a storied regiment? To get straight to the thick of the action no doubt, redeeming himself in the eyes of his father and peers with tales of grapeshot and derring do? Not quite.

Flashman makes a (both woefully misguided, and typically cynical) calculation that, as the regiment has recently returned from India, they are unlikely to be stationed abroad again anytime soon. The Dragoons, he decides, will be a cushy number that’ll allow him to swan around London in uniform, drinking himself to oblivion and bedding whoever he pleases while others get sent off to do the actual fighting. Alas, his commanding officer Lord Cardigan (painted vividly in his true to life character by MacDonald Fraser as an insatiable warmonger, both arrogant, stubborn and terrifyingly irrational) has different ideas, sending the regiment to first India and, later, Afghanistan just in time for the disastrous, and (for the British) terrifyingly bloody retreat from Kabul.

Flashman was an instant cult classic that drew on - but was thrillingly unbound by - the historical fiction tradition. The novels are heavy on the detail, each volume containing many pages of footnotes, Fraser himself sometimes ‘correcting’ our narrator in his more unreliable moments. Notoriously, ten of the twenty eight American literary journalists who reviewed the first Flashman novel took it as a genuine autobiography. The series were published regularly from 1969 until the last, Flashman on the March, in 2005. After Flashman, Fraser’s first sequel Royal Flash came in 1970. One of the funniest entries in the series, it follows the efforts of Otto Von Bismarck, painted as monstrously pompous and cruelly petty by Fraser, to unify Germany, forging an appallingly complex and humiliating plan against Flashman to have him impersonate a Danish prince and marry a German princess in order to save the unification.

There’s a certain delight taken in ludicrous excess. Fraser paints a puce, devil-may-care world that eschews emotional weight in favour of a delight in period texture, cutting wit and Wodehouse-esque rhythm of speech and near constant action. In this sense, the Flashman Papers are the ‘Steve Harris Iron Maiden epic’ of historical literature: theatrical and ludicrously overblown yet curiously scholarly.

Fraser was a keen military historian, spending months rigorously researching each volume. However, personal experience also informed The Flashman Papers. He was an ex soldier who’d enlisted in the Border Regiment and served in the gruelling Burma campaign during the Second World War. It was a terrifying and often horrific experience, as recounted in his brilliant 1993 memoir Quartered Safe Out Here. Writing unflinchingly about his experiences of war, the memoir also betrayed his love of language, and in particular local dialect, which so often informs his novels.

Writing in the introduction about the speech of the men of Cumberland he served alongside, Fraser states that “the dialects of Cumberland are among the purest and, to the outsider, least comprehensible in the English speaking world. Rendering them phonetically is difficult, but I have tried because that is the way my comrades talked, and to translate their conversation into normal English would be to change the characters of the speakers out of recognition; they were the way they spoke: tough, strong, forthright, and frequently aggressive… at its heaviest, the accent is a harsh rasping growl, and it is this as much as the occasional archaic vocabulary which baffles the foreigner. Just to give one quick example of pure Cumbrian, I give the translation of ‘have you seen a donkey jump over a gate?’ which is ‘Est seen a coody loup ower a yett?’…the glossary at the end consists largely of Hindustani words and slang expressions current in the British Army fifty years ago”.

Be it a nineteenth century German prince, Yankee gangster, Southern brothel keeper or Hindustani assassin, Fraser takes delight in the vagaries, rhythms and idiosyncrasies of local dialect and slang to bring a scene to life.

His military experience also enabled him to write historical fiction that traversed the line between bombastic escapism and gravely horrific realism. He didn’t glamorise war. He knew first hand the terror, noise, blood and perhaps most importantly of all, the deep confusion it wrought. Elsewhere in Quartered Safe Out Here he was keen that the past shouldn’t be judged through the prism of modern morality, a point one feels informs the Flashman books as much as his memoir. “You must try to see the past in its own terms and values, if you are to have any inkling of it,” he wrote; “You may not like what you see, but do not on that account fall into the error of trying to adjust it to suit your own vision of what it ought to have been”.

The battle scenes in The Flashman Papers are therefore often played abrasively straight, moments of naked, unadorned horror which linger unpleasantly long after the scene has ended, much like ‘Hamburger Lady’ or ‘Zyklon B Zombie’ by Throbbing Gristle. As Cosey Fanni Tutti told RBMA in 2012 “I am interested in what society, culture and human beings are capable of doing to one another, both good and bad. And the bad has to be spoken about. There has to be discussion, there has to be assimilation”.

In Flashman, ‘the bad’ is all the more shocking for its coldly unflinching aspect. The novels are entertainments, and unashamedly daft ones at that, but the glamourising of historical atrocities is a charge that doesn’t stick. Many scenes are haunting, be it the breaking of a Russian peasant’s back with a vast ‘Knut’ whip in Royal Flash or the descriptions of the brutality metered out to the civilian population of 19th century Madagascar by Queen Ranavalona I or, perhaps worst of all, the graphic descriptions of the utter misery of a slave ship in Flash For Freedom.

Fraser sets about such scenes with a forensic eye, not gratuitous but – like Throbbing Gristle – clinically forthright. In this, he’s never interested in the glamorisation of militarisation or empire. Despite MacDonald Fraser’s deeply conservative leanings it’s something of an irony that his books can be read as a warning of the dangers of hubris, pride or sheer obstinate idiocy. Historical figures are held up to the mirror and found severely lacking, be it Otto Von Bismarck, Queen Victoria or Major General William Elphinstone, portrayed as a dithering, blundering fool loathed by his men who accidentally gets shot in the arse by a servant. None are spared Flashman’s withering inner tongue. Likewise, the logistical and militaristic shortcomings of the British Army are a near constant source of ire for our protagonist. The aforementioned retreat from Kabul is described thus: “possibly there has been a greater shambles in the history of warfare than our withdrawal from Kabul; probably there has not. Even now, after a lifetime of consideration, I am at a loss for words to describe the superhuman stupidity, the truly monumental incompetence, and the bland blindness to reason”. The modern parallels are, of course, tragically manifest.

Though Fraser was a conservative apologist for Empire and generally of a hawkish temperament, he opposed both the Iraq and Afghan wars of the early 2000s. He loathed Bush and Blair (the latter in particular) and told The Telegraph in a 2006 interview that the invasion of Iraq was “the foulest war crime that this country has ever perpetrated. When I think of the cost and the damage that has been done - all based on lies - it makes me very angry”. Indeed, the last Flashman novel (Flashman On The March, published in 2005), was at least partially informed by Fraser’s incandescent rage at what was, then, still unfolding in Iraq. The book is set during the Abyssinian Campaign of the late 1860s and he makes a point of stating in the foreword that that war “served no politician’s vanity or interest. It went without messianic rhetoric. There were no false excuses, no deceits, no cover ups or lies”.

Though the Flashman books have gained something of a reputation for being, to use the Transatlantic parlance, ‘problematic’ there is something to be said for the unflinching portrayal of the utter contemptibility of some of Flashman’s views. He is, of course, like the overwhelming majority of upper class, upper ranking soldiers in the nineteenth century would have been, a racist. Fraser therefore has him constantly using racial slurs, the cumulative effect of which is unpleasant but nonetheless entirely true to the times, rather than some sanitised Keep Calm and Eat the Bunting ‘stiff upper lip’ nostalgiafest. Rather, like the Empire, these books are violent and callous. As Fraser told James Naughtie on Radio 4’s Bookclub in 2006, “I try to be as historically accurate as I can. When Flashman deviates from history I put in a footnote. But I try to be as accurate as possible and I’ve always maintained – and I’ve found this in research – that you’ll often learn more from a contemporary novel than you will from a history. For example: you’ll learn far more about Victorian London from Dickens, or of 18th Century Scotland from someone like Scott, writing fiction”.

How, though, does MacDonald Fraser sustain an ostensible ‘coward’, a man who loathes the sight of blood and whose ‘bowls quiver’ at the sound of grapeshot, through near constant scenes of action? Fraser paints Flashman as having a few genuine strengths. He’s a dedicated linguist who speaks every European tongue, has a genuine love of language and can pick up the most obscure local dialects rapidly. He’s also a 'gifted horseman’ who intuitively knows how and when to push his animals and he’s emotionally sustained by a complex marriage to his wife Elspeth, who he dearly loves but who, it’s hinted, has as voracious a sexual appetite as his own, and frequently indulges in her own extra marital affairs. Fraser doesn’t go quite so far as to hint that they have an ‘arrangement’ so much as he leaves Flashman (despite his own frequent transgressions) flailing in anxiety that Elspeth has ‘strayed’. A punishment, of sorts, although the relationship between Flashman and Elspeth is one of genuine tenderness, going some small way to if not exactly redeem then rebalance some of Flashman’s excesses. Indeed, female characters in the Flashman Papers aren’t remotely passive, often painted as far more quick-witted and pitiless than Flashman himself, be it Cleonie selling him to the Sioux in Flashman And The Redskins or Queen Lakshmi foiling his plans and imprisoning him in a nightmarish Gwalior dungeon in Flashman And The Great Game.

There’s something of a reverse Bond dynamic at play (indeed, Fraser himself was no stranger to Bond having written the screenplay to Octopussy, indisputably the silliest entry in the entire series), Flashman painted as unable to make good on ludicrous plans and almost always landing on his arse. There’s a delight in food and drink, too. As Bond put it in the first chapter of Casino Royale: “You must forgive me… I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink. It comes partly from being a bachelor, but mostly from taking a lot of trouble over details’’ So it is with Flashman. Fraser endows him with a greed for claret and brandy and port and cold cutlets and rare beef and dressed crabs and steaks and plum duff, the ‘provisions’ on the road often found lacking. Travelling through America in Flashman And The Angel Of The Lord he describes a hamburger as follows: “a disgusting luncheon consisting of a cake of fried chopped beef smothered in onions and train oil”.

Of course, whether you want to spend a significant amount of time in Flashman’s company is up to you. He’s not for everyone. In the same way that some may not care to spend a week with with, say, DS Bruce Robertson in Irvine Welsh’s Filth or a few hours traversing Genesis’ 1980’s discography with Patrick Bateman, Flashman will be beyond the pale for some readers. That said, I’ve no intention of entering into a tedious puce-faced splutterthon about how the Flashman books would ‘give the sensitivity readers a run for their money!’ or ‘wouldn’t get published these days’ (the first point is self evident; the second very much open to debate). In any case, is it not a ludicrously dainty conceit: attempting the posthumous moral policing of a fictional character? To my mind the books are to be taken on the level of Iron Maiden or Dio: spirited escape velocity gallops through the tumbling ether of history.

When in that Radio 4 interview James Noughtie asked the question ‘why do you think people have developed such an attraction to such an awful man?’, Fraser’s reply was a simple one: “People like rascals, they like rogues. When you think of the popular heroes – Robin Hood; Falstaff, say – if they’re funny it helps. But I was always on the side of the villain. And I wanted Basil Rathbone to kill Erol Flynn… but Flashman doesn’t get away with all that much. He gets away with a reputation. But there’s a downside for him, always”.