on 19 February 2003
A friend of mine last year had to spend some time in the delightful town of Kabul. Prior to his departure I managed to secure a copy of this book for him; I hoped that he would see the funny side of me giving him a story which involved one of the greatest military defeats ever retreating from the very place he was being sent to.
I knew though that I was also giving him the start of the most enjoyable series of books I had ever read, and that if he gleaned even half as much enjoyment from it as I had, then he would have his stay brightened considerably.
For those of you who have never heard of Harry Flashman before, he is the bully and cad from Tom Brown's Schooldays (and incidentally the only character worth remembering amongst the various hypocritical do-gooding manly little Christians that are otherwise described). The story starts where his exit from Rugby in Tom Brown had ended, his being expelled for drunkenness. He consequently joins the army, not with a view to doing any valuable service but as an occupation he could loaf and skive to his hearts content (not that much has changed at Horse Guards since). With a constant eye for the ladies his tale makes an interesting one (especially as he was such a nasty piece of work) even before he was posted to Afghanistan. When he arrives in India we discover, as he does, that he has a talent for horse-riding and languages as well as with the ladies, and so makes an interesting correspondent for us as readers, as he can be shifted to wherever the action is with relative ease. The fact that when the author does so he tends to either be chasing skirt, or running away like the coward he is (directly into trouble more often than not), again makes the whole thing more interesting.
I do believe that although there are no redeeming qualities about Flashman's character we are dragged into liking him due to his honesty as a writer (for these papers are his recollections) and his bucket loads of style. He's also damnably funny.
I recommend this book to all who love life being lived at full throttle (even if the gear selected is usually reverse), also all those who wish to learn about the Empire as it truly was. Go on, treat yourself today, buy a Flashman!
on 16 November 2013
I recently decided to endeavour to collect first edition copies of each of the 12 novels that make up the 'Flashman papers', such has been their impact on me. George Macdonald Fraser's excellent, informative and continuously amusing historical novels detail the most eventful life of Harry Flashman; English Gentleman, coward, cheat, womaniser and scoundrel, a man whose prime concerns are that of self-preservation, and a good tumble.
To those unacquainted with the story, Harry Flashman is the cad and bully expelled for drunkenness at the end of Thomas Hughes' classic novel 'Tom Brown's Schooldays'. From here, Macdonald Fraser takes up the reigns of his story almost immediately, as a disgraced seventeen year-old Flashy is sent home from Rugby school to make his explanations to his father. After duly bedding his father's mistress, young Flashy joins the 11th Regiment of Light Dragoons commanded by Lord Cardigan. Here he discovers he has a talent for riding and for foreign languages, cheats at a duel, and by a totally self-inflicted twist of fate ends up at the frontier of the British Empire in Afghanistan, and subsequently at the infamous retreat from Kabul (1842), a military disaster which resulted in the loss of more than 16,000 troops and civilian workers (and only one survivor), from which he of course runs away.
MacDonald Fraser was a damned fine writer, and his attention to historical detail is such that the books are brimming with highly accurate information throughout the series, and from which I have actually learned a great deal. In this first installment Flashy encounters a slew of historical figures; Lord Cardigan, General Elphinstone, William Hay Macnaghten, Akbar Khan. Their characters and movements have been meticulously researched and are woven into the narrative and Flashman's story quite brilliantly.
Flashman himself is no less than a work of genius. The Flashman papers are presented as Flashman's own personal memoirs from a great mass of manuscript discovered in 1965. This format allows MacDonald Fraser to create a character of real depth and complexity as Flashy bears his soul and pours out all his feelings and recollections with sometimes shocking frankness and plenty of salty language. The real triumph of Macdonald Fraser here is creating a character that should be morally repugnant; Flashman is after all a spineless, whore-mongering, toadying bastard, but he constantly wins over the reader with his honesty, wit and occasional lapses into near decency.
Flashman is a novel that works on so many levels; comedy, history, adventure. It is devilishly funny and educational to boot, a rip-roaring read that I cannot recommend highly enough.
on 10 September 2004
The first and possibly best of the Flashman tales. If you've not read and Flashman books then you've not lived. You've certainly not read anything like them. He's the original anti-hero. You've no doubt watched heroic action films and thought "why doesn't he just shoot the guy in the back right now and run for it?...I would" - well Flashman would too and a whole lot worse, if it gets him off the hook or into bed with his many lovers.
It's a unique blend of historical research, incredible adventures, philandering, thieving, bullying and above all - brilliant story-telling shot through with a breath of refreshing cynicism. Utterly brilliant stuff. I just wish George McDonald Fraser could write some more.
One caveat - GMF tells it like it is. If people in 1820 used a certain word for slaves then he uses it too. If you are a bit PC you might not like it.
on 2 December 2012
People are always asking authors, "Where do you get your ideas?" The answer is, "We steal from those who have gone before us." My novel Scoundrel! grew out of my love for George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels, which I cannot praise highly enough. Flashman is the ultimate anti-hero--a coward, bully, liar, cad, and all-around bounder--who nonetheless manages to emerge with fresh laurels after every mis-adventure, eventually retiring as a respected and admired general in the British Army.
The key to any anti-hero is the author's ability to make the reader like (or at least identify with) a character who is, by definition, a villain. In this, Fraser succeeds in spades. Thanks to his brilliant use of humor, he transforms a character who has no redeeming traits into someone who is so delightfully villainous that the reader can't help but fall in with Flashman's malevolent point of view. Flashman is a self-proclaimed scoundrel, opportunist, and coward--and proud of it. And yet, ironically, it is these very character flaws that make him such an insightful observer of the historical figures and events of his time. He doesn't care a fig for anything but himself, so his views are not colored by patriotism or idealism or heroic myth. Rather, he views it all with a sort of sneering dispassion--the very voice of history itself.
Fraser is a startlingly good writer. His descriptions absolutely transport you back to the good old days of the British Empire--and the bad old days, too. The Flashman books present a surprisingly balanced view of not only what made the Empire great, but of the rotten underpinnings that eventually doomed it. There are no apologies for what transpired. Fraser is a firm believer in the now unpopular doctrine of historical inevitability. "I don't condone it," says Flashman, speaking about the mistreatment of native peoples by the white race, "and I don't condemn it either. It happened . . . (Some will say) it was all the white man's fault for intruding, but by that logic, Ur of the Chaldees would be a damned crowded place by now."
The Flashman books have everything a reader could want--humor, adventure, solid history, and great writing, all presented from a uniquely entertaining and enlightening perspective. Books simply don't get any better than this.
on 26 September 2012
Sexually incontinent, self-centred, spineless and shameless - what's not to like about Harry Flashman, George McDonald Fraser's timeless comic character? This is the first book, originally published in 1969, and it began one of the greatest series of historical fiction in the English language. The Hornblowers and Sharpes have their place, but heroic types can be dreadful bores at times. Give me a promiscuous, drunken coward nine times out ten; the tenth time being when it was my hide or Flashman's and I can be sure he'd sell me into slavery to protect his own skin.
This first novel in the series begins where the fictional caddish bully of "Tom Brown's Schooldays" is left by Thomas Hughes - expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness. It takes him to a commission in the army, unwanted marriage to the pretty and faux-naïf daughter of a Scottish cotton magnate, a passage to India, and from there involvement in the last official war Britain lost - the First Afghan War of 1839-42. History records only one survivor from the party that retreated from Kabul, but we have Fraser to thank for the tale of the otherwise unrecorded second who left many better men and several wronged women behind.
The Flashman novels demonstrate that serious history does not have to be po-faced; and that there is no need for light fiction to be poorly researched. Fraser is meticulous about the historical detail, with Flashman inserted effortlessly and entertainingly into the gaps that exist in any account of real events. This book and its sequels are great examples of how to research and write historical fiction, and shame on lazy writers who are simply "inspired" by a period and then change established characters and events to suit their own purposes.
A phenomenal achievement from a writer who was serious about his history while equally serious about his mission to entertain.
on 23 May 2012
Tom Brown's School Days (Thomas Hughes) is a long moralising tale based on the author's own experiences at the famous Public School. Set in the 1830s, key characters are young Tom, his bosom pal Harry (Scud) East, Rev Dr Thomas Arnold the newly-arrived Headmaster, and the bullies aged about 17, led by Harry Flashman, who make the lives of younger boys difficult. There are several scenes (in the words of modern prissy TV) 'which some readers might find distressing'.
Dr Arnold has sworn to stamp out bullying. Flashman is expelled for drunkenness. Several film versions of the story have been made, the most recent (quite good) with Stephen Fry as Dr Arnold, and a young Alex Pettifer as Tom, largely shot at Rugby School with real pupils as extras. Viewing it led me to re-read the Thomas Hughes book which I have had since age 11. That in turn reminded me of the marvellous FLASHMAN series by the late George MacDonald Fraser (10 in all) of which this is the first. They recount stages in the disgraceful army career of Flashman after he was expelled from Rugby, and are of course entire fiction.
However, George MacDonald Fraser wrote as one with sound historical knowledge, so Flashman's exploits in various parts of the globe make frequent reference to real characters & events. What sets them apart and makes for hilarious reading is total disregard for political correctness. I do not readily laugh out loud when reading, but Flashman's voracious sexual appetite, complete disregard for common decency, hair-breadth escapes and single-minded self-publicity had me near helpless with mirth. I cannot recommend this Flashman highly enough.
on 4 March 2011
I am relatively new to the exploits of Mr Harry Paget Flashman and came about the series by accident but I'm so glad that I did. As others may have mentioned on here Flashman gets himself into some very tricky and sticky situations, then somehow gets out of them usually smelling of roses and being lauded as a hero (connecting with very powerful people along the way).
The novels are set during Queen Victoria's reign and arguably at the zenith of her Empire's prestige and power, so if like me you're interested in the British Empire and Victoriana then this is a series of books you should pick up. I have to be generally interested in a books subject matter for me to bother reading it, as there are so many books out there and life's too short.
Flashman himself is selfish, a coward and total bounder (amongst other things too) who treats women purely as sex objects; "things" to be used and abused and then discarded, so these books may not appeal much to women (and feminists in particular) but then again I could be wrong. His appetite for female company (whether he buys it or not) knows no bounds as for instance, early on as a 17 year old he seduces his father's (more than willing) mistress.
His general attitude to "natives" may also raise a few eyebrows for some but then again Flashman treats most he meets with equal disdain. In fact if you're left-wing leaning and/or politically correct then you definitely will not enjoy Flashman's adventures.
George Macdonald Fraser cleverly weaves historical fact (places, events and people) with fiction and sometimes you have to remind yourself that the Flashman character is a work of fiction. Some of the language used is what you may call "colourful" and may even be offensive to some (same could be said of some of the subject matter) but you have to remember the context and the times these stories occur in. All too often people judge the past by social and moral "norms" of society today, which you cannot do. A lot of things were different back then and things have certainly moved on from those times (for better or worse). I believe it's called "Progress".
It is sad that George Macdonald Fraser is no longer with us as the British Empire offers almost limitless source material for more rip-roaring Flashman adventures. Lets not forgot we are talking about a quarter of the world's population at the time and nearly a quarter of its land mass here, so plenty of scope!
In closing, if you like a) good military oriented yarns set against a historical backdrop and are b) an Anglophile and/or c) are genuinely interested in the British Empire and/or d) Victoriana (or all of the aforementioned) then you really need to read these books! You really won't be disappointed.
on 16 January 2008
So GMF's dead. Sad to learn that.
But Flashy ain't dead. Far from it. And won't be for a long time either. If he was going to be, he would have been a long time ago.
And as long as there's life in Flashy, there'll be life in GMF.
Pity Tony was too goody-goody to read this sort of book.
GMF, may he rest in peace.
He won't be forgotten
In fact, he's more likely than most
to go up in official esteem
(while he goes down in readership??)
as time rolls on
and the fashion for political correctness fades.
I daresay this happened with the other writers I mentioned.
Compare and contract GMF, Rabelais, Joyce and Burgess. Two of them are consistently readable, the other two are mostly unreadable. Why's that if the basic talent's the same? The Army. The b--y Army, that's why. Fraser and Burgess served in the British Army, nor just National Service, years afterwards as well. They would have learned self-discipline and this must have stayed with them all the way. I doubt Rabelais as a Frenchie would have wanted to serve in the British Army, and Joyce would have been turned down had he offered, which he wouldn't. So thank you, HMF. I mean, GMF. I mean, HMF. One of the many hidden factors behind a famous person's achievement (bet he also had a good native servant girl to look after his daily needs so he had time for all that researching and writing).
As for me, as knows (bit late now) wish I'd stayed longer in the b--y Army instead of mis-spending my youth and whatever else I had to spend. Sigh. As my old Commanding Officer, Col. Bloodbucket, was wont to say, your problem's not talent, Snaithwaite, it's discipline, self-b--y-discipline! Splenetically and tmetically he would interject this with intermittent bursts.
on 15 October 2008
This was the first of the Flashman books that I read, and I bought it expecting to be disappointed. Well, I wasn't. It was very enjoyable and, although I had expected a whole lot more humour, there were a few laugh-out-loud moments. It's true there are some shockingly awful scenes in it: kicking one's batman, thrashing the natives and having it away with a fellow officer's wife just ain't the behaviour of a gentleman, but even they'll make you smile unless you're a complete prude. It's a splendidly well written story and the whole things hangs together, even if it is asking a bit much of the reader to believe in the several strokes of luck that the hero enjoys.
Now I'm off to read the next in the series.
on 11 August 2013
Ever since my big brother introduced me to The Flashman Papers many years ago I have loved these books with a passion. Yes, he's a cad, but never has an anti-hero been so appealing - maybe GMFs biggest triumph. I think this is achieved by the clever portrayal of Elspeth - Flashman's wife - as a wee flirt herself. Flashy never gets proof of her shenanigans but it's a case of what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander - and with prime ministers too. In addition Sir Harry's lifelong "love" for her is evident, despite a shotgun wedding.
It's testimony to George MF's writing and his meticulous research and understanding of political, social, military and economic history that we have these gems today. And they are unbelievably funny. You can actually learn a lot about present day world politics too - in particular the situation in Aghanistan - and also get inside the psyche of naughty, duplicitous men! Ahem, and there's Elspeth of course - Good on you girl!
The books have made me smile so much that I recommend that if life ever deals you a rough hand you'd do better reaching for Flashman than any happy pills; in short - the books are a sheer joy, delight and an adventure. And now I'm in love with my new kindle I'm going to download them in that format too.