Flashman and The Unmentionable Memoir

George MacDonald Fraser died this week. On the evidence of his published obituaries, Fraser’s sole claim to fame was his creation of the Flashman novels, a dozen of them in all, published between 1969 and 2005.

There was, needless to say, more to Fraser than Flashman, although one can see why the broadsheets and BBC might find themselves implying otherwise. For one thing, the minority who still read newspapers might reasonably be suspected of having encountered Fraser’s endearing antihero, too. And then there’s the opportunity to engage in some lazy, reflexive, unfunny anti-Americanism. Let’s award this week’s Hugh Trevor-Roper prize for notably attractive British journalistic humility [sic] here again, shall we? Finally, there’s the sloppy equation of huge, enduring importance with huge, recurring royalty cheques. Most journalists would like to have written a book that anyone remembered a fortnight after publication; to have written the sort of series that makes people think you’ve left the UK and moved to the Isle of Man for tax reasons is, more than any of Flashman’s own escapades, the stuff of memorable legend.

To be fair, the Daily Telegraph obituary mentions some of Fraser’s other publications — and not just the screenplay of Octopussy, either, which is more than one can say for the BBC. No, for some of us, Fraser’s greatest achievement lies elsewhere. Fraser, born and raised in Cumbria, spent the latter part of the Second World War serving with the “forgotten” Fourteenth Army in Burma. In 1992, at the age of 67, at the end of a successful journalistic career and long after Flashman had made his name world-famous, he published Quartered Safe Out Here, a memoir of his time in Burma.

For anyone remotely sympathetic towards his fellow creatures, most competently-written memoirs have something to recommend them. A few, however, manage to convey the dirty, awkward, confusing specificity of daily life while never losing their grip on universal, transcendental themes. Quartered Safe Out Here is surely one of the latter.

At one level, the nature of Fraser’s experiences dictate that this must be a book about war — about the experience of combat, and how that experience changes those who take part in it. So it’s to Fraser’s credit that soldiers, defence correspondents and military historians so often list it as one of the best, if not indeed the very best, personal recollection of modern warfare. But at the same time, Quartered Safe Out Here is in every way a bigger book than all that might imply. For those of us fortunate enough to have always had our fighting done for us by someone else, Quartered Safe Out Here both offers an insight into a life we’ll never know, while at the same time delivering a recognisable, if unavoidably specific and sometimes painfully intense, account of the pleasures and pains of growing up.

And pleasure is certainly part of Quartered Safe Out Here, which is only one of its problematic qualities — qualities which, I suspect, played a part in excluding it from, or downplaying it within, the register of Fraser’s achievements. At the time of its publication and afterward, the memoir was praised for its clear-eyed prose and flawlessly engineered narrative thrust. Some readers, however, cannot accept what they see as the mature Fraser’s “editorialising” on issues such as combat stress (a symptom of our soft and irresolute age), the sex lives of infantrymen (“Aye, weel, Ah’d sooner ‘ev a pint anyways”), and atomic warfare (put simply, Fraser believed the atomic bombs dropped on Japan saved many thousands of Allied lives, his own included, and had little patience with those who, then and now, value enemy lives more highly than the lives of Allied servicemen).

It is all very well, such critics imply, to describe wartime experiences, but to attempt to draw conclusions from those experiences, especially decades after the fact, won’t quite do — not, at least, if the conclusions depart in any particular from the dogma, central to the orthodoxies of present-day polite society, that war is nothing — indeed, can be nothing — other than pointless, tragic waste. But how does Fraser sum up his experience of war? “Glad I was there; I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

None of which ought to suggest that Fraser, to use a word he hated, “sanitises” combat, or lets the imperatives of derring-do story-telling malform his narrative. On the contrary, his text is a lot more bloody, explicit and upsetting than the colourful wallpaper served up to us by Sky News. People really do die, and are seen to die. Soldiers behave badly as well as bravely. There is what we would now call a “friendly fire incident”, described fairly unsparingly. And anyway, to allude to a point I made above, if Fraser’s writing did not reflect realities of war, it seems unlikely that soldiers, journalists and historians would compete with each other, in public and in private, to praise its accuracy. Nor is Fraser notably soft on the moral issues raised by the organised slaughter of our fellow human beings. Dropping bombs on people is “a hideous thing” — “if that was not barbaric, the word has no meaning”. But that, in a sense, makes Fraser’s problem even worse. How can he describe the horrors of war, both physical and spiritual, so clearly, while at the same time seeming almost to treasure his experience of them? Why it is that Quartered Safe Out Here is extremely funny in places — and not always bleakly funny, either? Why, in a book where all those Cumbrian “fook offs” are merely the tip of an iceberg of baroque irreverence, is the ultimate impression so clearly one of profound, even loving respect for the men, an avowedly rough and ready lot, amongst whom Fraser served?

The answer, I suppose, lies exactly in the near half-century separating Fraser’s time in Burma from the year in which he published his memoir. By 1994, Fraser was doing more than simply remembering (in passing, was there ever a more starkly oxymoronic construction than ‘simply remembering’?) the past — he was writing within, which is to say against, a half century of memoirs, novels, histories, plays and films depicting the Second World War, as well as all the lesser conflicts subsequently fought in that war’s long mythic shadow. What’s more, the introduction to Quartered Safe Out Here makes it perfectly clear that he knew that this was what he was doing.

So while parts of Quartered Safe Out Here are explicitly polemical, actually the entire book implicitly furthers a single polemical purpose, conveying a difficult message: which is to say that, in many ways, the past was better than the present. There was a time, Fraser seems to assert, not so very long ago either, when people were clear that they believed in particular things, often quite traditional in nature, and were not afraid to fight for them — a time when concepts like “duty”, “loyalty” and “responsibility” still counted for something — when people responded to big moral choices not with the habitual detachment and reflexive cynicism which tend to frame our own moral spectrums, but instead with humour, courage and resignation.

All of which sounds pretty dreadful, put crudely like that, except that Fraser virtually never puts things crudely. (This is true of his books, anyway. In his published interviews he was clearly quite happy to shock, to the extent that his interviewers seem ocassionally unsure where the self-parody stops and the hard stuff starts flowing.) In Quartered Safe Out Here, his message, indeed, is all more dangerous for being packaged in a believable tale about a young man forced to accept an almost incredible degree of responsibility, who confronts extraordinary violence and tragedy, only to emerge strengthened, newly mature and self-confident, from the experience. War, for him, is in some sense a macrocosm of the little conflicts that face us every day, in which we test and prove ourselves.

Fraser, obviously, acquitted himself well. I sometimes think that the reason soldiers love Quartered Safe Out Here so much is that the book says for them something they are invariably too modest to say for themselves: as Dr Johnson (clearly a hero of Fraser’s, by the way) put in, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea”. Deprived of formative experiences on such an epic, impersonal scale, the rest of us simply muddle along as best we can. But most of the choices we have to make hinge on the same oppositions: brave or lazy, strong or morally vacant. Quartered Safe Out Here is, first and foremost, a moral book. Like Fraser himself, it is unabashed in its distain for political correctness, group rights, special pleading and anything else that stands in the way of the exercise of moral responsibility. And as such, it is a fairly unsparing indictment not only of the age in which it was published, but also of our own.

And this is why Quartered Safe Out Here deserves no place in what the media wish us to remember about Fraser’s life. Better, by far, to concentrate on the Flashman novels. Flashman, after all, is funny, unthreatening, and — at least as long as one abstains as a point of principle from reading any of Fraser’s many, many published interviews on the subject — it is possible to read the series as, in the words of the Guardianpiece cited above, articulating “that mixture of cynicism, shame, and pride that contemporary Britons felt about Victorian values and Great Britain.” And of course anyone who suggests that the Flashman novels themselves depend, however left-handedly, on the affectionate recognition of so-called “Victorian values” in order to work their magic, is self-evidently a reactionary fool.

(Oh, I can’t resist: guess, oh Man from the Guardian, who used the following words in a 1999 Daily Telegraph interview quoted here ?

Nowadays the view of the British Empire was that it was a bad thing about which we should feel guilty. I still can’t subscribe to that. I think it was one of the best things that ever happened to mankind, and we should feel extremely proud of it.

Any ideas? Maybe it’s just me, but that “mix” is looking a bit thin on cynicism, let alone shame.)

In any event, George MacDonald Fraser, rest in peace.

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