I picked up a voice mail this morning from a distraught Shanghai Bob telling me that George MacDonald Fraser had passed away. In a way, I’m glad I wasn’t there to receive the call—it would have been a tough one to get through and, anyway, not long before I’d received the same news (cancer) in an email from Nicholas Latimer at Knopf.
I wish I had it in me to write the kind of eulogy that Fraser deserves, but I know many others with a stronger connection to the great man will deliver those in the coming weeks. I will look for them online. What I can do, in the meantime, is post an interview I conducted with Fraser in December 1999. The story originally appeared in a 2000 issue of American Way magazine. Following the convention of the magazine, it has a somewhat overlong introduction and regrettably short Q&A section. However, if you aren’t already a Fraser or Flashman fan, perhaps the intro will serve as a decent primer.
As for the Shanghai Bob connection, I can only say that while struggling through a difficult and often socially barren year in Japan alongside Bob and our mutual friend Robert Glasser (both Shanghai Bob and Glasser make several appearances in “Smile When You’re Lying”), Flashman and Fraser’s other books quite literally helped us make it through the dark days. Through his books, I think all of us experienced that most strange and satisfying byproduct of the reader’s life—getting to know and become “friends” (of a sort) with someone they’ve never met. Fraser’s books had that kind of personal impact on people and his way of facing every situation, no matter how grave, with a sense of humor certainly had an impact on my way of thinking about writing and, indeed, living. That sort of perspective was much needed that year in Japan.
Fraser is beloved around the world, but he has a particularly large fan base among expats. I don’t say this simply because it was as an expat that I discovered Fraser, but because his outsider’s outlook, irreverence, and subversive wit aligns so perfectly with the sensibilities of many Westerners who often find themselves in tricky situations abroad. Meeting Fraser and conducting this interview in the lobby of a London hotel will always be one of the great thrills and privileges of my professional life.
Hed: GMF (TK)
Subhed: After a four-year hiatus, Victorian rake Harry Flashman is back in a new novel by the master of military tales from Balaclava to Burma.
By modern standards, George MacDonald Fraser might be considered a lunatic. It’s a description he’d probably approve of. For three decades the British author has used military loonies, unpopular causes, and some of history’s most infamous characters as the unlikely basis of his wildly popular Flashman novels. Now, at 75, Fraser is smiling along with legions of Flashman addicts as the series’ latest installment—Flashman and the Tiger, the eleventh volume, is the first in four years—is set to be published in the United States.
A collection of three stories, Tiger differs in format from the usual full-length novels, but is filled with the comedic villainy, cowardice, and amoral antics that have earned Sir Harry Flashman a worldwide following. The fictional Victorian-era British officer puts his usual irreverent, eyewitness spin on historical events and figures, fleeing from Zulu warriors, trading insults with Oscar Wilde (“an overfed trout in a toupé”), traveling on 1883’s maiden run of the Orient Express, dragooned into service in Africa, and quivering alongside the brave (and crazy) British defenders of Rorke’s Drift in an action that would become a Victorian legend.
Comedy may be Fraser’s trump suit, but his hole card is keen attention to historical minutiae and scholarly eloquence. Quartered Safe Out Here, Fraser’s autobiography of his WW II service in Burma, ranks among the best military writing ever—an excerpt appears in the landmark collection of war writing, The Book of War, in which editor John Keegan, probably the world’s most-respected living military historian, calls Fraser’s memoir “one of the classic literary achievements of the Second World War, indeed of any war.” His three volumes of McAuslan stories are among the most heartbreaking and hilarious depictions of the decaying world of the British Empire. Screen credits include The Three Musketeers and the James Bond film Octopussy.
Born in Carlisle, Scotland, Fraser fought in Burma in 1945, left the military in 1947, and worked as a newspaperman in Canada and the U.K. until one day telling his wife he was “going to write us out” of a stable but predictable future. His first book—Flashman—was published in 1969. Taken for the historical send-up it was in Britain, America didn’t get the joke at first. Many reviewers, confused by the legit historical documentation, mistook the fictional Flashman for an authentic figure and reviewed the book as straight history. The mess was soon sorted out by a smiling Fraser, and a growing legion has been smiling ever since.
In person, Fraser is a surprise. Neither irascible nor argumentative like his title characters, he is warm and friendly. Living with his wife on the Isle of Man, Fraser is a barely graying veteran now settled comfortably into extra pounds, easy laughter and stories of dash and daring that credit the tradition of Scottish adventure writers from Sir Walter Scott to Robert Louis Stevenson to Arthur Conan Doyle.
AW: How does the new Flashman stack up against the others?
GMF: I’m never happy with the last one. Never. And I’m just surprised that it’s outselling the others [in the U.K.]. I’m told that every new Flashman has outsold the previous one.
AW: Is it fair to call these books male fantasies?
GMF: I suppose so. They’re escapist. They’re adventure stories.
AW: Flashman collects enemies and girlfriends with equal efficiency. Have you got favorites?
GMF: The best villain I think I’ve done is John Charity Spring, the Oxford don [Flash for Freedom!, Flashman and the Angel of the Lord]. I may have been a little hard on Otto Bismarck [Royal Flash], though no harder than he probably deserved. As for women, the mad queen of Madagascar [Flashman’s Lady] is a very interesting one. She must have been an awful cow. (Laughs) But, I would say that Flashman’s favorite is the Rani of Jhansi. [Flashman in the Great Game] There are pictures of her. She was stunningly beautiful and a very interesting woman. No one is sure about her character—whose side she was on in the Indian Mutiny and so on—but she was entirely virtuous as far as I can see. Although Flashman thinks she wasn’t. And I had to explain this in a footnote.
AW: The footnotes are really the secret weapon of the series, aren’t they?
GMF: They were just sort of an idea in the first couple of books. And then I realized that in fact this was a good way of filling in history. I mean, I could go back now and do 40 footnotes for the first book, but I had probably about 15. It just didn’t occur to me to do more. But people like them. And it’s a good way of getting the truth across.
AW: Is there any truth to the running speculation that Flashman’s Civil War exploits are written and tucked away in a drawer?
GMF: No, that isn’t true. It’s a long time ago that I wrote his Who’s Who entry and had him on both sides of the U.S. Civil War. And I’ve been stuck with that ever since. I’ve done a lot of research for it, I just haven’t got down to committing it to paper. But I know what roughly is going to happen. That might be the next one.
AW: What would Flashman think of modern England?
GMF: Not much. We have had a succession of real rubbish in parliament. Never more so than now. They’ve turned the country into an open sewer, frankly. I know I sound like an old reactionary and indeed in many ways I am. The worst thing, of course, is that we have been betrayed into Europe. You know, this European Union thing. It’s a personal opinion of mine that our natural alliance is and always has been with the United States. And should remain that way. We have nothing in common with the French, the Germans. And I have got into very nasty trouble by saying that I am very reluctant to see our laws interfered with or dictated by the children of the people who gave us Belsen and Dachau.
AW: The National Review published an essay of yours that included typically controversial views on Lady Diana.
GMF: I was sickened by the public’s behavior when Princess Diana died. Let’s face it, if she looked like the back of a bus it never would have happened, there never would have been that kind of outpouring. That should have sent the feminists into a great rage. But it didn’t. But here’s this young woman and she’s getting this huge amount of attention and people are beating their breasts and weeping. They didn’t do that over Churchill when he died. OK, he’d had a long life. But even Kennedy didn’t get this kind of thing. And he was a president.
AW: In your autobiography Quartered Safe Out Here, the man you call Captain Grief seems to have lent some qualities of lunacy and heroism to the British military figures in Flashman books.
GMF: The Second World War was full of guys like that. Mad as bloody hatters, you know. I don’t know why. It seems to be a sort of British military type. You get people like [Charles] Wingate and General [Charles] Gordon and so on, and they are nuts!
AW: After the rigors of becoming an officer, why didn’t you follow through with a military career?
GMF: Because what’s the point of being a soldier in peacetime? For a Scottish highlander—which I am—there are three good reasons for fighting. One is briefly in a good cause. Another is for money. And the third is for fun. And in peacetime you don’t have much opportunity for any of them.
AW: Are fans disappointed to find that you’re not like Flashman?
GMF: They’re disappointed to find that I’m not six feet two inches tall and extremely handsome and distinguished looking. (Laughs) For one thing, I’m not English, I’m Scottish. And I’m writing about this polished, charming English cad and I’m obviously not. To that extent, it is a disappointment. No, I’m not like him. I couldn’t stand the pace. Who could?
AW: Does Flashman represent your alter-ego?
GMF: No, I’ve never had the slightest desire to be like Flashman and I think my military experience killed any particular idea of derring-do. There was a young lady this morning at a book shop who told me about playing a game at a dinner party asking men who they would like to be and three of them said Flashman. Now, I don’t know that they’d thought hard about it, but I don’t think they’d really like to be Flashman.
AW: Royal Flash was made into a movie with Malcolm McDowell long ago. Has there been any recent interest in a Flashman movie?
GMF: Oh, yes, all the time. But Royal Flash is the only one that doesn’t involve great race movements and battles and crowds of extras. They would be murderously expensive to do. I can’t say I’m all that keen on the idea. Because the film or the television of the book seldom does justice to the book. Anyway, who’s going to play Flashman? Errol Flynn’s dead a long time ago, you know? And I don’t see anyone of that style around now.