OLD FLASH HARRY by Harry McAvinchey

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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.

4 Responses to OLD FLASH HARRY by Harry McAvinchey

  1. Am Ghobsmacht February 23, 2015 at 4:48 pm #


    Fantastic Harry! I’m addicted to the chronicles of the Empire’s favourite poltroon.

    Did you ever watch Wes Anderson’s ‘Grand Hotel Budapest’?

    Look at Feines’ character (the hotel manager) and tell me that he wouldn’t be perfect for a televised role should they ever wish to have another crack at making a Flashman movie.

  2. paddykool February 24, 2015 at 12:19 pm #

    Ha… Am Ghob !! I’m glad to hear from someone out there .Sometimes I think that unless it’s a bitchfest about politics or religion ,nobody reads past the first few lines.Even better when the respondant has experienced that same mad merrymaking that is Flashy’s modus operandi and got hooked like myself. The books can stand a lot of re-reading too. There’s a lot of great historical detail in there too. Although I enjoyed the first film attempt years ago, I don’t think it was entirely successful. If someone like the HBO guys could do a Sopranos or a Boardwalk Empire type of thing , on the whole run, it could work . It would have to be completely uncensored ,of course, to work properly but all the elements are there for somebody with imagination . Nothing beats the joy of the written text , of course and nothing prepares you for the total immersion. It’s like reading Larry Mc Murtry’s “Lonesome Dove” for the first time , which I would highly advise…you’ll want the rest of the books because those characters really take on a life of their own. If you haven’t tried them , also take a look at Robert Brightwell’s four books on that other Flashman…He makes a great fist of continuing MacDonald’s work .He’s almost finished writing the fifth book too so long may he run….
    Re Grand Hotel Budapest ..it’s waiting on the back -burner at the moment behind a short stack of films in-waiting.I’ll get around to it soon.

  3. Am Ghobsmacht February 24, 2015 at 7:53 pm #

    One of the most appealing aspects of the books is that he is so deeply flawed.

    Most men would like to be James Bond but accept that it’s nigh on impossible, but Flashy, with all his failings and cowardice makes his position seem so much more ‘accessible’.

    Though to be fair, I’d be found wanting on the natural born flair for horse riding or languages, though, to be fair, I do find the vocab sheet at the end of some of the books fascinating…

    Oh, and I’m crap with women too.

    That’s another major difference….

    I have to say, I did find the Dublin research aspect of your article interesting as I noticed a certain affection that he had for some Irish characters (and regiments) in the book.

    The Irish contribution to the British army during the Victorian era is a fascinating and under explored topic.

    Scotland had the Monroes, we had the Brookes and no doubt many more besides…

    • paddykool February 25, 2015 at 8:54 am #

      Yes , Flashy seems to get on with the Irish and certainly even In Brightwell’s third book about Thomas Flashman {an earlier relative….who is really a time -displaced “Flashy” again} the Irish are written about with some background knowledge as to how many land-displaced men of the West joined regiments out of necessity but had no great love for their absentee landlords…. There ‘s a great description how the reluctant English poltroon is hustled into the thick of a skirmish with the French by enthusiastic fightin’ Irish troops and how he is introduced to the mind-altering possibilities of poitin at the end of the battle….Great stuff!!