I have to confess to a secret love affair that has lasted many years. Okay , it is maybe not so secret as to endanger my marriage, but it is there steadily bubbling away in the background like some cosmic,post creation, static noise in my particularly unique mental universe .
1969 was the year that the “Flashman” books began to appear. I have to concede that at the end of those “Swinging Sixties” I was totally unaware of their creation. I was seventeen. I probably had my head stuck in Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool -Aid Acid Test” or Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” at the time . You’ll know how it is if you are a “reader”….there is so much to read and as life goes by there seems to be less and less time to read everything , so the books begin to stack up in frustrating piles as you deal with the minutiae everyday life ; vainly trying to read some of them two at a time sometimes . One book for those rare, spare daytime moments …one for just before sleep snatches you away. I now rarely simply sit down and read a book from cover to cover in a couple of sittings, as I may have had time to do as a youngster. A very old friend of mine would do that, sitting up throughout the night , engrossed totally in the world of words.He ‘d read a book until it was consumed, disregarding everything else.That’s not for me ; especially now with so many other things to do. In any case, life has a way of gently curbing your enthusiasms.
I’ve always been a “reader”. Somehow , as a child , it was probably partly social ,partly genetic, because my father was a storyteller and one of his sisters wrote stories too, but however it happened, I was infected with the mysteries of storytelling and books. I’ve always loved comics , of course, but I’ ve also read anything that appealed and the habit has stayed with me for a lifetime.Of course I’ve sucked up all the usual subjects like folk tales, histories , Mark Twain, Orwell, Hemingway, Steinbeck and all the rest…and thousands of others..but alongside that I’ve always had a fondness for a rattling good yarn.You might call it “pulp”, if you like. I do ,without a hint of irony. “Pulp ” was designed to be consumed quickly and without any literary pretensions or fanfare.Jack London’s stories such his “Call of the Wild” probably truly set the tone.He was one of the first true “pulp” writers .He was certainly one of the very first to make money writing fiction for the magazine market.
When I was a boy I loved the Richmal Crompton “William” books and the Greyfriars stories of Billy Bunter which were formulaic setpieces about quintessentially English schoolboys , but very well written. As an Irish schoolboy, there was still much to identify with and enjoy and I couldn’t get enough of them.There were also wee gems like Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” too, but I suppose what set me off were the Western tales of Oliver Strange and his cowboy hero “Sudden”. These stories were written by a man who’d never seen the American West but wrote and described uncannily real vistas and peppered his “good versus evil” morality stories with wry , humourous dialogue and exciting scenarios of gunplay. Writers like Strange made you want to read more. it was like H.G. Wells or Jules Verne introducing you to science fiction or Tolkien’s yarn-spinning leading to Howard’s Conan the Barbarian yarns, or Edgar Alan Poe taking you onwards to the mad and arcane worlds of H.P. Lovecraft. There were so many roads to follow, even outside of the realm of “proper” literature. I always made an effort to try and follow some of them.
Like I say, I was unaware of Harry Flashman until years later when I discovered one of the books in a second-hand charity shop.At one time , it was the kind of thing that you’d see in multiple copies , both hardback and paperback in those kinds of shops.I could never resist a browse through a shelf of books, you see. .The books gained a certain popularity in much the same way that the Ian Fleming James Bond series took off . You’d read that President Kennedy enjoyed a good old nightime rattle with a Bond thriller when he wasn’t chasing down Marilyn Monroe or some other starlet.. or that President Ronald Reagan chilled out with some old pulp western fiction by Max Brand. I imagined , at the time that old Ronnie mightn’t actually have read anything else in his life .He wasn’t too popular with us longhairs..
I thought the “Flashman” books would fall into that kind of category.Of course they were rattling good reads and once you had consumed one of them , it was imperative to find the rest . They were much more than that though….
They were written by George MacDonald Fraser . Fraser , a Scot, who served as a British soldier during World War Two ,so he learned about soldiering first-hand, which gave his later writings an air of authenticity.After being demobbed in 1947 he started as a journalist and alongside the “Flashman” series he also wrote very entertaining memoirs and other “character ” stories based on his real wartime experiences ,besides becoming a film scriptwriter. He wrote screenplays for several films , including one of the James Bond series and the Three Musketeers films. The fact that he was basically a British conservative , by all accounts , made little odds to me .It was all about the writing and the stories , you see. I didn’t much care if it was a chimpanzee with a typewriter bashing out these splendid tales. He could keep on doing it as far as I was concerned .I wasn’t prejudiced in any way by the author’s background….
Each Flashman book had its roots in very real events and Fraser researched each novel in great detail at Trinity College, Dublin.Flashman ‘s world had him mixing with the military gentry of his day, but keeping tightly to its grisly and usually impecunious underbelly. The books were based on historical events although the Flashman character was a literary invention. Fraser had stolen him from the book “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, written in 1857 by Thomas Hughes, which had been very popular and prominent on the reading lists of several generations ,alongside such stalwarts as “Treasure Island “, “the Man in the Iron Mask” and “the Three Musketeers” .
In the “Tom Brown” book , Flashman was a schoolboy bully, but in Fraser’s hands his chararcter as a man and throughout his following life, in the series, became much more subtle and complex. He became a cowardly poltroon, drunkard and schemer, of course…but one with enough charm and foolhardiness to engage the reader favourably and to become something of an anti-hero and anti-authority figure . The conceit was that he created and was celebrated for heroic deeds which occurred completed by accident or happenstance and in doing so , became a key figure and fulcrum in many major historical events.The joy of the books is that they allow history to be consumed while acting only as a backdrop to that rattling good yarn.
The actual “books” are based on “the Flashman Papers” , themselves a fiction ,that were purportedly “found in an auction house “. Flashman , for the purposes of this fiction, died in 1915. The exploits concerned a variety of nineteenth century events and encompass everything from the Old West in America ,with the Battle of the Little Big Horn to the Indian Mutiny and the Charge of the Light Brigade. He even does a turn in China where the social complexities are described in some detail.These famous events are seen from a wholly different perspective in each case than that which might otherwise have been supposed or applied.I would stress that the books never bow the knee to anything that might smell of political correctness..a thing that would be an alien concept to “Flashie”, as he referred to himself , even when finally knighted by Queen Victoria. He was an incorrigible womaniser who seemed to charm his way into as many beds as that other aforementioned charming cad , one James Bond.Being a product of his appointed times, I’m afraid that had he lived today , much of his time would be spent in the courts of law.
The conceit of the books was such that initially many reviewers, especially in America , took them as historical truth and although full of praise, thought that Harry Flashman had actually existed . Leave it to the Americans, not to get the joke!
Sadly the author died some seven years ago in 2008 so there will be no more than the dozen books in the series, but the good news for fans is that other authors have taken up the literary challenge and continue in the same spirit ;writers such as Robert Brightwell , whose new Flashman series ,which deals with yet another branch of that same bawdy family tree but covers an earlier period of history.He’s already written four new stories. Anyone who has not dipped into any of these books could do worse .Just expect to chuckle when something such as Flashie ‘s unwholesome and unwelcome flatulence appears to be the explosive cannonade that sets off the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade.It all goes downhill from there.
Like I said somewhere before , “history” is not always as it at first seems. It’s usually only a shadow of the whole truth, written by the survivors or the victors .Harry Flashman’s uproarious and entertaining, hysterical, historical “life” is proof enough of that.