Huzzah, pish-posh and tally ho. If I hesitate to label the late George Macdonald Frasier an empire apologist, that’s only because ‘apologist’ is too soft a word to describe a man who reckoned the British Empire was the best thing ever to have happened to an ungrateful world. It’s not an attitude that fits in very well with today’s world of globalisation and political correctness. But damn could the man write.
To whit- Britain today is not a bad place to live, overall. A bit grey perhaps, a bit twee. Not so much better or worse than here, really (Ireland, that is). It’s certainly not the stuff fantasies are made of. And yet, not more than a century ago, Britain was the beating-heart of a globe-spanning Empire, the setting-off point for thousands of well-meaning stiff-upper-lipped adventurers who departed for exotic climes in order to civilize the world. In the face of malaria, cannibals, hostile tribes and common sense, these brave souls sought to paint the map red (quite often literally) in order to spread the virtues of christianity and afternoon tea to all the most exciting, alien parts of the earth. The contradictions and mores of this time are fascinating, and are particularly relevant to the Irish, having been (in many cases) on both sides of the great colonial ‘adventure’. No wonder the British are getting a kind of ‘Empire nostalgia’.
In 1969 George MacDonald Fraser had a capitol idea- what if there was one man who had been through all this? One unsung hero, present at every major offensive of the nineteenth century, somehow absent from the history books, to act as our guide to this turbulent time? His name is Harry Flashman. He’s fought Afghans, Sikhs, African slave traders and Indian Mutineers. He was at the charge of the light brigade, and fought alongside Michael Caine against those dastardly Zulus at Rorke’s Drift. So far, so Young Indiana Jones.
But this man is no hero. He poxes around the empire with no thought in his head beyond where his next wench is coming from. He skewers the hypocrisy of the age through his own lack of artifice- he’ll cheerfully tell you that he’s only looking out for number one, and he’s got nothing but scorn for the pious Empire-builders that surround him, all trying to mask their greed, ambition or racism. Flashman feels no need to mask his greed, ambition or racism. He may admire the bravery of others in battle, but through a film of wonder that anyone could be so careless about their own well-being. He’s cheerfully racist against anyone who’s not English, and makes no excuses for it. Anything less would have been unconvincing during this period, especially from such a cad.
And yet, Fraser’s own politics do come to the fore. Flashman claims that his brutal honesty and acceptance of his own shallowness make him a reliable narrator (he has no real biases, and calls it as he sees it). He is likely to respect a brave Afghan chieftain, or to deplore a fellow British officer, and accepts that other peoples are not all savages, but he at no point questions Britain’s right to colonise or control other countries. This viewpoint is to be expected from Harry Flashman circa 1857, but it occurs so frequently that it must be close to what Fraser himself believed over one hundred years later. Thus, as well as being stirring reading, the Flashman books provide plenty of opportunity for discuss about the morality of Empire (if you’re into such things).
The books read fantastically, the attention to historical detail combined with Flashman’s more earthy thoughts remind you that the past was a real place, peopled with persons just as mortal and flawed as yourself. Battle scenes are vivid and memorable, characters are hilarious, and the dialogue is incredible. Flashman uses a catchy but period-appropriate vocabulary of salty terms, including more than a few you won’t have heard before but will use after. And the best news of all is that there are twelve books in the series. Many of the same elements re-occur throughout the series, and if they become a bit Iain-Flemming-crank-em-out, well, they’re the best damn crank-em-out books ever written.
George MacDonald Fraser died in 2006, so we’ll now never know if Flashman was sent across the pond to sort out those beastly Fenians. Perhaps it's for the best.