It’s hard to imagine anyone settling down to write the further adventures of that Harry Potter of the 1830s, Tom Brown; even harder to imagine anyone settling down to read them. (Thomas Hughes did in fact write a sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford, but it’s never done as well as Tom Brown’s Schooldays: Amazon.co.uk hasn’t even heard of it.) It’s a different matter for young Tom’s Voldemort, ‘that blackguard Flashman, who never speaks to one without a kick or an oath’. George MacDonald Fraser’s series of novels about him – known collectively as The Flashman Papers, the first of which appeared in 1969 – are, I would guess, read much more widely than their worthy Victorian forebear, and deservedly so. Ditching all that pious ‘muscular Christianity’ in favour of stories of high adventure, in which the totally undeserving narrator gets mistaken by all for a hero and wins out every time, couldn’t fail to be a smart move. Flashman’s Lady is a good ten thousand places ahead of the most popular edition of Tom Brown’s Schooldays in the Amazon league, despite being five times the price. Here is a fullish description of the ‘cowardly brute’ from Thomas Hughes:
Flashman, be it said, was about 17 years old, and big and strong for his age. He played well at all games where pluck wasn’t much wanted, and managed generally to keep up appearances where it was; and having a bluff, off-hand manner, which passed for heartiness, and considerable powers of being pleasant when he liked, went down with the school in general for a good fellow enough.
He’s expelled after Brown and his friend East – the one who denounces Flashman as a ‘cowardly brute’ – challenge him to a fight (two against one isn’t unfair because they’re only little). Flashman, ‘though strong and big, was in poor condition from his monstrous habit of stuffing and want of exercise’. So he loses, gets chucked out of Rugby for drinking, and is never heard from again, until . . .
George MacDonald Fraser’s memoir, The Light’s on at Signpost, is published this month (HarperCollins, £18.99). Fraser lives on (or, rather, has retreated to, in a British version of those soi-disant patriots in the US who take to the mountains of Montana to safeguard their liberty) the Isle of Man. His title refers to the TT (Tourist Trophy; nothing to do with tax) motorcycle race, ‘the nearest thing to the Roman circus’, Fraser says, ‘since the hermit Telemachus got the shutters put up at the Colosseum’. If a rider’s scoreboard light is on at Signpost Corner, it means he’s only a mile short of the finish line. The expression is also used of someone nearing the end of their life. His subtitle is ‘Memoirs of the Movies, among other Matters’, which has a certain Old English alliterative charm. The memoirs of the movies are mostly anecdotes about Hollywood Legends, the likes of Burt Lancaster and Steve McQueen – we don’t glimpse much of the men behind them, or indeed of the women beside them. Fraser has written a number of screenplays, including Octopussy, The Three Musketeers (the one with Raquel Welch and Charlton Heston) and its sequel, The Four Musketeers. But it’s in the other matters that Fraser’s brilliance as a pasticheur really shines.
Ten satirical ‘Angry Old Man’ rants punctuate the book, attacking, among other targets, homosexuals, feminists, Europe, Catholics, republicans, and any other manifestations of vile ‘liberalism’. Here’s the beginning of ‘Angry Old Man 5: The Truth that Dare not Speak its Name’ (note the subtlety with which the allusion to homosexuality undermines what follows).
That political correctness should have become acceptable in Britain is a glaring symptom of the country’s decline. For America . . . well, a country that could tolerate Clinton in the White House and Edward Kennedy in public view will buy anything, as P.T. Barnum observed, and the transatlantic tendency to embrace the latest craze is one of their more endearing traits, but for Britain to swallow – or at least to accept at the prompting of its media and supposed intelligentsia – the most pernicious doctrine to threaten the world since Communism and Fascism, with both of which it has much in common . . . that truly beggars belief. [His ellipses.]
Fraser enjoys patronising America, the voice of the Old Empire condescending to the New, much as if they were the junior boys at a monstrous global public school. When the first Flashman book came out, posing as the recently unearthed memoirs of Sir Harry Flashman, VC, apparently ‘one third of about fifty reviews’ (his italics) in the States ‘hailed it as the real thing’. The fools. But now The Light’s on at Signpost has been serialised in the Daily Mail as if it were the genuine memoir of a reactionary old git, an object lesson in the way bad boys corrode into boring old men.
A book about which Fraser might have mixed feelings is The Gift: New Writing for the NHS, an anthology edited by David Morley (Stride, £7.95). The shortest contribution is ‘the underfunder’s utopia’ by Tom Leonard, an asthmatic poet: ‘the state hospital/ with one bed/always full/always efficient’. David Morley is the director of the Writing Programme at Warwick University. The initial print run of The Gift is 31,000 – one to be given free to each NHS worker in Birmingham (and a few extra, such as the one sent to the LRB). Donors are being sought to finance a second printing of a million copies, one for every NHS worker in the UK. The book will, I imagine, be gratefully received, even if some of its wind has been stolen by the latest Budget. George MacDonald Fraser is grateful for ‘the new miracles of surgery’, which have saved his life; but he thinks New Labour is the worst Government the UK has ever known (runners-up include Ethelred the Unready and Henry VI). It’s almost enough to make you want to vote for them.