Sunday, June 24, 2012

Flashman at the Charge by George MacDonald Fraser

 I’ve never been interested in the Crimean war, much: a war fought by two relatively modern colonial powers, it lacks the all-important element of exoticism or orientalism that I enjoy in most colonial-era history. Nevertheless, in Flashman at the Charge, Fraser rather predictably paints mid 19th-century Russia as a backwards, barbaric and thoroughly alien place, and whether or not this is true to any sort of historical reality, it keeps things interesting enough for me to pay attention. And he even sticks in some Arabian Nights-type scenarios in central Asian locations towards the end too, to ramp up the exoticism.

Charge is one of the volumes where we get to learn a little bit about what Flash’s civilian home life is like, which I find rather interesting. It’s the upper-class version of Dickens’ London: Flash plays billiards in Piccadilly, goes whoring in St John’s Wood and gets ‘roaring tight’ just about everywhere. I do wish there had been a little bit more of this stuff; with the amount of time Flash spends moaning about the barbaric places he gets shanghaied into soldiering in and the idiots and hypocrites he’s forced to schmooze with, it’s interesting to see just what kind of things he does approve of, and to see how he behaves when he’s in his element (he claims in this book that he really is ‘all for a quiet life for everyone’). Predictably enough, he acts like a complete cad, and the reader is glad of it!

At the beginning of the book, Flash’s troubles start when he unwittingly makes the acquaintance of a cousin of Prince Albert’s while out prowling the pool halls with his cronies. When the army decides that young Willy will require a mentor to accompany him into military action in the Crimea, Flash realises that it’s him who they’ve got in mind, and as usual is incapable of wriggling out of the job.

The reasons the Crimean war broke out are not easily explained, and Fraser doesn’t try much. Flashman gives us a lot of background about how much the British public and the papers were spoiling for a fight, though, and sometimes that matters just as much as any solid military reasoning. He humorously points out that once the British had decided to make war on Russia, they were somewhat stumped on exactly how to do it. It is a pretty big place, after all. In the end, they settled on making a start on the Crimean Peninsula, and so that’s where Flashy gets packed off to first.

Once there, Flashman becomes involved, despite himself, in all the major battles of the campaign, including the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. I often find military engagements tedious and difficult to follow in novels; no matter how hard I try, I just can’t keep up with all the terminology and troop movements. Military writers so often expect us to know what redoubts, jemadars and fusillades are without the benefit of a glossary. The battles in Charge are no exception; they were complex and convoluted affairs in real life, and Fraser does his best to stick to the historical record. Overall, it’s the small touches that work better than the sweeping vistas here- soldiers swearing, horses bleeding, that kind of thing. Fraser’s attempt to depict the bungled communication that caused the suicidal charge is probably about as confusing as the real thing was- he makes it clear that nobody had any idea what was going on at the time, and neither do I now.

Following the charge, Flash is taken as a prisoner, and from there he undergoes a convoluted odyssey across Russia and eventually, central Asia, where he meets up with Tajik warlords who are opposing the Russians. Again, Fraser has identified a historical period that is rich and fascinating, but rarely explored in media: Russian military expansion in Central Asia. An ardent colonialist, Fraser whines in the endnotes that while the Western powers are now endlessly derided for their empires, the brutal Russian land-grabbing of the 19th Century is all but forgotten, even though most of the countries involved remained tied to Russia right up until the end of the 20th century. The political intrigue between Britain and Russia in Central Asia was known as the Great Game, and it’s an amazing background for storytelling. Thousands of tribes rose against the Russians, famous and exotic silk road cities like Bukhara and Samarkand were the scene of attacks, escapes and sieges, secret agents travelled incognito, buttering up local leaders and collecting intelligence for their respective powers: we need more books and movies set against this scenario! Admittedly, the connection to the first 2/3 of the book feels slightly stretched. I do get the feeling that Fraser just wanted to get Flash back somewhere where he could be a hero again, amongst the kind of wild tribes that adored him in the first book, and jam in a bit of orientalism too. Fraser mentions Stoddard and Connelly, and once again comes dangerously close to mentioning my all-time favourite colonial story, the journey of Joseph Wolff to Bukhara.

 Charge is a short book in which rather a lot happens- it’s expansive in terms of action as well as geography- though it never feels rushed or forced. Each chapter follows more-or-less naturally on from the one before, and it’s only when you finish the book that you think ‘wow, actually, Flash must have travelled about a thousand miles in only four pages.’ But it never feels like this when you’re reading it, and that’s down to Fraser’s amazing prose. I recommend Flashman at the Charge as one of the most entertaining of the old lecher’s memoirs.

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