Scoundrel, liar, cheat and toady, George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman is a creation of genius and a bracing antidote to our timid age
This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
The brothers Hitchens famously did not agree on very much, but one matter that brought them into rare accord was the genius of the author George MacDonald Fraser and his character Flashman. Christopher wrote in 2008 that “I can remember the mingled shock and glee with which my radical friend Andrew Cockburn and I discovered … that we had both recently fallen for the same author and character. I have met that look, of the confirmed addict and fellow-sufferer, many times since.”
Peter, meanwhile, has called him “a genius of our time”, and said, “I have learned more history from MacDonald Fraser than from practically anyone else and I have enjoyed doing so”. He praised his Flashman books as “not only based on the cleverest conceit imaginable” but that “they fulfil the promise of the idea a thousandfold, full to the brim, pressed down and running over.”
There are certain historical novelists who create indelible protagonists who seem to grow in stature in every novel they appear in. Bernard Cornwell has Sharpe, Patrick O’Brian had Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin and CS Forester had Hornblower. So it is with MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, who remains his greatest creation and took centre stage in a dozen books.
To caricature him as a Blimpish reactionary was to do him a disservice
When Flashy first entered the scene in bestselling form in 1969, there was confusion as to whether the tales were fanciful fiction or eyebrow-raising fact. This was due to MacDonald Fraser’s straight-faced claim that his protagonist was a real historical figure involved in most of the Victorian era’s most notorious episodes and that his papers were discovered during a sale of household furniture at Ashby, Leicestershire in 1965.
MacDonald Fraser presented himself as an impartial editor. He wrote, “I have no reason to doubt that it is a completely truthful account; where Flashman touches on historical fact he is almost invariably accurate, and readers can judge whether he is to be believed or not on more personal matters.”
The subterfuge succeeded. A third of the initial reviews treated it as a serious work of non-fiction, rather than a brilliantly conceived and superbly written counter-factual piece.
Not bad for the continued exploits of a minor character in the sanctimonious Victorian novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, whose major achievement is to bully the protagonist and his friend Harry “Scud” East, before being expelled for drunkenness. It set its creator on a hugely lucrative path, and established him as one of the great comic novelists of his day.
MacDonald Fraser was a contradictory figure. A patriotic right-winger who had a deep respect for other cultures and peoples; one of Hollywood’s most in-demand screenwriters who happily lived on the Isle of Man in a self-conscious recreation of “the good old days”; a fully paid-up reactionary who wished to reintroduce corporal and capital punishment, but who loathed British incursions abroad.
Above all, he despised cant and hypocrisy. He described Tony Blair as “not just the worst prime minister we’ve ever had, but by far the worst prime minister we’ve ever had” and angrily added, “it makes my blood boil to think of the British soldiers who’ve died for that little liar.”
Christopher Hitchens, who may not have agreed with his views on foreign expeditions, but knew a thing or two about the value of being able to hold one’s drink, was a friend of MacDonald Fraser’s. When Hitchens telephoned him on his eightieth birthday to offer his regards, he was stoutly informed that he shared the company of “Charlemagne, Casanova, Hans Christian Andersen and Kenneth Tynan” on that date.
Their politics may have differed — Christopher acknowledged MacDonald Fraser’s “robust Toryism” — but Hitchens respected the older writer’s enduring affection for his Zulu, Sikh and Afghan characters, as well as the dutiful admiration he showed towards both American culture and its presidents.
During his time as prime minister, David Cameron was likened to Flashman by Ed Miliband
To caricature him as a Blimpish reactionary was to do him a disservice, but it would be similarly doomed to search for hidden literary merit within his writing. MacDonald Fraser was an old-fashioned storyteller who mellowed towards his protagonist as he took umbrage at the modern world. John Updike wrote perceptively in 2005 that the “excellent entertainments” shifted from being “mordantly satiric, at the expense of the Victorian upper classes” to more straightforward ripping yarns.
Flashman himself metamorphosed into a dashing hero, rather than the brutish lecher of the early books who is not above assaulting or raping women if he cannot seduce them with his dubious charm. Updike called the novels “cheerful potboilers”, something that Hitchens Snr took issue with, but the cheer is part of their enduring charm. And more than once the anti-hero finds himself, literally or metaphorically, escaping from the pot, only to be delivered into an even worse fate.
MacDonald Fraser was born in Carlisle on 2 April 1925, to middle-class parents who worked in the medical profession. Failing to follow in their footsteps through “sheer laziness”, he enlisted in the army in 1943 in the Border Regiment, served with some distinction in Burma, and then became an officer in the Gordon Highlanders until 1947.
His time in the military, which he later used as material for his McAuslan short stories and novels, gave him an enduring respect for the camaraderie and banter in all-male environments, and an ear for the absurd and surreal aspects of war. This would serve him well in his (barely fictionalised) portrayal of military blunderers such as Lord Cardigan and General Elphinstone. He then worked as a journalist on the Glasgow Herald for many years, until he found deserved success with Flashman.
The surprising thing about MacDonald Fraser’s writing life is that his screenplays and non-fiction are so undistinctive
The surprising thing about MacDonald Fraser’s writing life is that his screenplays and non-fiction are so undistinctive when compared to the novels. His authorial voice is a vivid, forthright one, rich in humour and invective, but it could (and, by the time of his 2002 memoir The Light’s on at Signpost, did) drift into pub bore territory. Even Peter Hitchens, who shared his political opinions, lamented that his memoir was saturated with “leaden, dingy, cliché-laden prose”, although he excused this on the grounds that “[MacDonald Fraser] and his generation could not really conceive of the small, mean minds which plotted that world’s subversion and destruction.”
Yet this does not explain why screenplays he should have been a natural fit for, such as the James Bond caper Octopussy, the sword-and-sorcery epic Red Sonja or his own adaptation of his second Flashman novel Royal Flash, were so unsuccessful.
One can blame unsympathetic producers or tin-eared directors (and he did) but after a happy first collaboration with Richard Lester on The Three Musketeers, he seemed unable to transfer the mixture of historical erudition, wit and adventure that characterised his novels into screenplay form.
But it is the novels for which he remains celebrated, and they never disappoint. Although there are occasional murmurs that they will be adapted for film or long-form television (Ridley Scott was attempting to develop a version as recently as 2015), the idea of an anti-hero as bold-faced and deliriously un-woke as Sir Harry Paget Flashman on screen in our censorious and timid age would seem impossible. There are writers and directors who could be equal to the challenge, although it is hard to think of many actors who could personify Flashman. But it is to politics that the filmmakers should look for inspiration.
During his time as prime minister, David Cameron was likened to Flashman by Ed Miliband. While Cameron privately enjoyed the comparison, it is instead his fellow Old Etonian, Boris Johnson, who is more deserving of the appellation.
Both men possess inordinately large sexual appetites, a relaxed attitude towards marital fidelity, a less than open-minded attitude towards foreigners and a knack for getting themselves out of difficult situations that all but the most reckless — or foolhardy — would attempt to avoid. And both Boris and Flashman have seen their gambles crowned with a remarkable amount of success, although MacDonald Fraser never attempted to send his character to 10 Downing Street. Perhaps this would have been a step too far for a man who self-described as “a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward — and, oh yes, a toady”.
Yet Flashman remains iconic, despite or perhaps because of his flaws. This is a testament to his author’s peerless skill at creating a character who we can both laugh at and envy his devil-may-care attitude. It is little wonder that the closest thing that he has to a contemporary peer in our current prime minister has previously praised him as “politically incorrect, lascivious and fiendishly handsome”, before calling him “the greatest”.
It might take one to know one, but MacDonald Fraser would have preferred the current incumbent of the post — for all his undoubted faults — to the much-loathed Blair. One dreads to think, however, what form Boris’s fictional presentation would have taken in MacDonald Fraser’s novels. Perhaps some brave soul might yet take up the mantle.
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