Is there a journalist who could write Flashman today?

Is there a journalist who could write Flashman today?

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 22, June, 2020

THE HERALD NEWSPAPER in Glasgow is reticent about the fact that its deputy editor in the 1960s later went on to be a master story-teller whose novels sold millions, many remaining in print today. 

George MacDonald Fraser represents a past that the newspaper is uncomfortable about. The characters he immortalised in a series of novels were the antithesis of political correctness. Above all there was the irreverent and lecherous soldier Harry Flashman immortalised in ten novels and usually placed in a range of terrifying and sometimes uproariously funny situations by his creator. Flashman was philosophical and prepared to be candid about some of the misdeeds of the British Empire. Fraser’s frank appraisal of history may be why his books usually got favourable reviews in the Guardian which gave him a lengthy and respectful obituary upon his death in 2008 at the age of 82.  

Before becoming a newspaperman Fraser performed military service in the arduous Burma campaign during World War II. He was always convinced that the British Empire did far more good than harm. His books bring alive characters like James Brooke, the ‘White Raja’ of Sarawak; Henry Parkes, a British diplomat who faced many hazards in China; and Sir Garnet Wolseley, a moderniser of the British Army. The story of Brooke who suppressed piracy in the South China sea, would enliven history lessons if he were not written off as an ‘imperialist’ unfit to be mentioned in front of the impressionable young. But while remarkable figures like General Charles Gordon remain a mystery for today's British youth, at least the popularity of the Flashman books has prevented Fraser falling into obscurity which is usually the fate of opinionated journalists in Scotland such as the late Ian Bell of the Herald and perhaps even the recently deceased Kenneth Roy (as the Scotland Roy described for fifty years threatens to become unrecognisable). 

I was perhaps lucky not to have read any of the Flashman books until this year. They provided many weeks of literary solace during the Covid confinement. I then moved on to Mr American which revealed Fraser to have been far more than an accomplished producer of historical novels with darkly comic undertones

Published in 1981 it is about a man from the Far-West with a chequered past who suddenly finds himself in the upper reaches of British society in the five years before the eruption of World War I. The author is a master of dialogue, care is paid to the smallest details whether it be a music hall performance or an exhibition of paintings, and there is impressive power of observation throughout.

It occurred to me that perhaps few contemporary journalists, nearly all of whom would have learned their craft in antiseptic media studies departments, would find it easy to attempt such finely-textured historical fiction. Fraser never went to university and had practised his craft in the North of England, Canada, and around Glasgow until, in 1969, he quit to take up full-time writing. During that time he would have been constantly learning about the vast spectrum of human life and morals, knowledge that will remain a mystery to a lot of his successors.

Mark Franklin, the chief character, is a rangy American in his mid-30s who has made a small fortune in the silver rush in Nevada. He is portrayed as courteous, self-possessed and stoical. He arrives in London in 1909 with unlimited funds. He is on a mission to discover his roots in the East Anglia which his ancestors had left in the 17th century. From his schoolmaster father, he has learned that the Franklins were ‘free born land-holders’. Before long he takes up residence in the home of these ancestors, the Norfolk village of Castle Lancing.

Franklin had been involved with Western outlaws but the author has no difficulty in portraying him as a man with noble qualities. I suspect this would have been a rather harder task for current journalists who see Americans of all kinds, and in most situations, in hopelessly stereotypical terms. The reader, however, is not provided with the portrait of a hero but of someone who eventually surrenders the freedom he prized, almost sleepwalking towards an unhappy fate, very much like the broader European world Franklin had arrived in. 

Stereotypes about class and gender are replaced by subtle portraits of individuals who are judged on their own terms and by what fate throws at them. This is shown by the chance meeting with King Edward VIII and a hunting party when he got lost. The King took a shine to him for the defiance that he showed the stuffy local gentry when in pursuit of their quarry, a fox that scrambled into his picnic basket. It took Mark some time before he realised who the ‘Mr Lancaster’ who had offered him a glass of wine actually was. But to the chagrin of the local snobs he is soon invited to Sandringham where he finds himself in the billiard room conversing about the likely shape of a future war with Winston Churchill and Admiral Jackie Fisher.

It is worth asking how many journalists today, cocooned in like-minded pods, would be able to describe with equal facility an upper class dinner party or the atmosphere in the local pub. (On his first visit to The Apple Tree, Franklin’s “good evening”; was greeted with suspicious grunts by the regulars. But he soon grew into an admired benefactor, a wall of silence descending in the village when the police briefly looked into his past).

On p. 508 there is this:

‘Anyway, they was askin’ all over, the coppers was…. Jack prior gave em a proper answer, when this ‘tec come in the Apple Tree, wanting to know about you. ‘Mr Franklin lives in Lancin’ manor,’ say ‘e. ‘You want to know about him, you go ‘an knock on his front door,’ says Jack. ‘i did ‘an he ain’t there,’ says the tec. Then you better wait till ‘e comes back, ‘adn’t you?’ says Jack. ‘I’m seeking information, ‘ says the ‘tec. ‘Well you got all I can give you so, bugger off,’ says Jack. ‘Mind your lip’, says the ‘tec...I thought Jack was going to clock him. ‘Not local’ says ‘e. ‘You go up to the church, look at the stones, see whether ‘e’s local or not.’

 

Fraser possessed the writing talent to produce an imaginative and enduring TV soap. But it was as a scriptwriter for films like ‘the Three Musketeers’ and the James Bond film, ‘Octopussy’ that he showed his dramatic prowess.

Tragically, so many of the most influential journalists today know far more about quangos, lobby groups, and radical activist groups like Antifa than they do about working-class life, local traditions, the military, the countryside or business. This is knowledge Fraser poured into his various books.

Another joy upon encountering his literary opus is the sure-footed grasp of history that is displayed. Fraser recreated Edwardian England and the preoccupations and conflicts of the era. The suffragette agitation as well as the rumbling crisis in Ireland contribute to the plot. Today, in their news packages, both print and broadcasting journalists hardly bother to provide any context for stories with often crucial historical dimensions. For them only the immediacy of the moment counts and it is presumed their audience feels no differently.

If you wandered into a bustling pub, I suspect it would still not be hard to find customers familiar with the Flashman name. In no small measure this is likely to be because the author was brilliant in combining an intricate plot with a scholarly and always lively exploration of the past. 

Mark Franklin’s own catches up with him when a dangerous outlaw, Kid Curry, suddenly turns up and demands, on spurious grounds, a share of his Nevada silver fortune. With the help of his manservant Thomas Samson (another wonderfully-described character), the threat is repulsed, both killing the psychotic gunman in self-defence.

But as the storm clouds accumulate over Europe, personal disillusionment sets in. Peggy Clayton, the well-born local girl whom he marries, turns out to be a translucent English rose with sharp thorns at the stem. Uninterested in motherhood, she is caught up in the ceaseless whirl of London society. In the hands of the conservative novelist, she has the cast-iron confidence of the upper-class, evolving into a trickster who deceives her husband into paying for the ship that transports guns from Germany to Ulster rebels. 

I wasn’t the only reader to wonder about Franklin’s disarming response in the face of such betrayal. Had he grown fatalistic confronted by the aristocratic greed and treachery which partly explains his ancestors earlier departure for the New World? Certainly reading about Peggy and the militant suffragette Lady Helen Cessford who has a cameo role in the story, made me reflect that a harmful doctrine like socialism is far more effective (and dangerous) when advocated by single-minded upper-class figures than by engineers or dockers. 

In the last part of the book, Mark makes his plans to quit an unfulfilled life in England and return to America. He has made his peace with his ancestors and performed many good deeds in the village. Before he catches the Aquitania from Liverpool, he has the last of several encounters with General Flashman, by now 92, who is adamant about the folly of going to fight for Belgium.

This is a picture of Britain in the years before a great catastrophe overtook it as seen through the eyes of an observant visitor with a turbulent past of his own. I wonder who could emerge from the ranks of the ‘Gotcha’ age of British journalism and provide a similarly vivid portrait of Britain with a jaunty but passive Uncle Boris as PM, mobs of middle-class neo-Marxists toppling statues and cancelling their elders, all this glimpsed by frightened and bewildered ordinary citizens fearing the economic blizzard to come in the wake of the pandemic. Journalism has purged itself of writers who acquired their craft by exploring real life as experienced by ordinary people. Instead, just like a political world dominated by social science graduates whose only life experience has been working for an MP or a lobby group, the profession is now infested with hopelessly political types. This means that it has largely disqualified itself from being a reliable chronicler of our times.

Self-righteous radicals have swarmed through the professions and dominate literary festivals and prizes. The idea of a writer as talented as Fraser obtaining a Booker Prize nomination is pure science fiction. He would be unable to avoid the fate of JK Rowling who faces ostracism by many of the young staff in the sprawling Hachette publishing house for her eminently sensible views on gender. 

How censorious the left-liberal media has become is shown by a review of one of Flashman’s novels in the Guardian of yesteryear:

‘...britches mostly around his ankles, and once again the hero of the hour...the randiness is as staunchless as ever, the battle scenes as masterly.’

 

Fraser’s bawdiness and sensibly conservative interpretation of history will enthrall readers far into the future just as long as the entire human race is not cancelled by an extremist mob whipped up by a Guardian editorial. 

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University. He has written 16 single or main-authored books on European and British politics and contemporary history. 'Scotland Now: A Warning to the World' appeared in 2016. His latest is a biography of Portugal's Antonio Salazar which is appearing in July on the 50th anniversary of his death.

Top photo; a Frank Frazetta litho print, Flashman On The Charge

 

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