Flash as they come
So statue-destroying has reached a provincial British city, as Edward Colston was toppled from his plinth and dumped into the river by a mob of protestors/rioters. I’ve expressed my views about the foolishness of pretending one can eliminate the bits of the past one doesn’t like before, so I’m not going to repeat it all again, but there are just a few comments – first, who’s next? And secondly, the revolution always eats its children – just ask Robespierre, Danton, Trotsky, for example. Also, a pendulum can only swing so far before it has to go back the other way. Oh, and if we start with statues today, then of course we can move on to books we don’t like tomorrow – “burn them, burn them!” – and then we can get to the people who don’t fit our narrow view – maybe make them wear a mark on their clothing, perhaps?
History, though, is the subject today, but history as entertainment as well as learning. We do – finally – appear to be slowly seeing the coronavirus lockdown beginning to unwind, but nevertheless I thought it worthwhile to make another reading recommendation, particularly since it’s all been going on so long that Netflix/Amazon Prime/Sky Atlantic have all been flogged to death.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, Thomas Hughes wrote a book called Tom Brown’s School Days. Frankly, it’s very much a piece of its time – at least, as far as I remember – detailing the life of the schoolboy Tom Brown at Rugby School. However, it introduces the character of Flashman, the school bully, and the direct opposite of Tom Brown who represents the Victorian ideal of virtuous, manly, loyal upper and upper middle class schoolboy – “play up, play up and play the game”, and so on. Flashman bullies and terrifies the juniors, then roasts them in front of the fire when they have displeased him, and is eventually expelled from the school for drunkenness.
And there he would have stayed, a minor character in a book long out of fashion, were it not for a journalist, screenwriter and novelist called George MacDonald Fraser. From the late 1960s, through to his death in 2005, he took the character and in a series of books turned him into a major figure of Victorian Britain, present at almost all of the seminal moments of the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly (but not exclusively) the battles and colonial expeditions that defined the British Empire. Flashman remained a bully, a liar, a cheat, a coward, a lecher and yet he ended up a general, with a knighthood, a Victoria Cross and a (platonic) friendship with the Queen herself.
How did a self-styled cad and poltroon achieve this? Well, that’s why you have to read the books. There are twelve of them in the series, and Flashman is present at Kabul and Gandamack, the Indian Mutiny, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the destruction of the Summer Palace in Peking, Harper’s Ferry, Little Big Horn, Sarawak with Rajah Brooke, Madagascar under the thumb (and more) of Ranavalona, Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, and lots of other places and battles along the way. There is even a kind of pastiche of Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau, with overtones of the Schleswig-Holstein problem (that’s the one of which Palmerston said only three people had ever understood it – ‘the Prince Consort, and he’s dead – a German professor, and he’s gone mad – and me, and I’ve forgotten it’).
Fraser was a good writer, and the stories flow well, but equally importantly he was a meticulous historian, and the background against which Flashman’s adventures is set is accurate, genuine history – apart from the insertion of Flashman, of course, and the extent to which many of the prominent women of the period succumbed to the charms of the bewhiskered hero – or anti-hero.
So if you like to have your history with a bit of gratuitous lechery and fortuitous swash and buckle, this series is definitely the one. It doesn’t really matter which order you read them in, as each book is broadly self-contained, but there is the underlying narrative of the passing century, so it kind of makes sense to read them in some sort of chronological order. They’re all equally entertaining and equally educative – can you get better than that?
And just one last point on the statues – I’ve just heard one of the #rhodesmustfall crew on the radio explaining that the man was involved in the slave trade; mmm, perhaps a look at some dates may be in order, but of course that would be treating history as real fact, not just, you know, my feelings.