George Macdonald Fraser

Article excerpt

Writer whose tales of the cowardly philanderer Flashman changed the face of British historical fiction

It needed only a few moments exposure to one of his reminiscing public performances to establish that George MacDonald Fraser had led quite a life. His experiences included being held upside down by his heels, while strafed by Japanese sniper fire, as he foraged for water during the Burma Campaign of the Second World War, basking in the admiration of Charlie Chaplin and worrying about whether Burt Lancaster disliked his film scripts. Posterity, on the other hand, will remember him for a single achievement. This was the creation, or rather the re-creation, of Harry Flashman, originally the villain of Thomas Hughes's Victorian morality tale Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857), but remodelled, under MacDonald Fraser's expert grasp, into the star of a dozen books that changed the face of British historical fiction.

MacDonald Fraser came late to authorship: he was already in his mid-forties when the first Flashman novel inspired in P.G. Wodehouse what he called "that watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet stuff", with a quarter-century's military service and bread-and-butter journalism behind him. Though no one could have been more Scottish in his outward demeanour, George MacDonald Fraser was a Carlisle doctor's son, and educated at the town's grammar school, before indifferent exam results prompted a relocation to Glasgow Academy. A fan of blood-and-thunder historical novels since pre-teendom - he discovered Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood at the age of 10 - MacDonald Fraser was also fascinated by the history of the Anglo- Scottish border. This interest later produced two full-length novels (The Candlemass Road, 1993 and The Reivers, 2007) and a historical work, The Steel Bonnets (1971).

In 1943, aged 18, and fearing that he would never amass the qualifications necessary to enter Glasgow University's medical school, he enlisted in the Border Regiment and was sent to India. Quartered Safe Out Here (1992), his memoir of the Burma Campaign, is one of the great military autobiographies: unsparing in its head- first immersion in the horrors of war, but also - a characteristic of nearly everything MacDonald Fraser wrote - extremely funny. Among other exploits he was promoted to lance-corporal on four occasions, but three times broken to private for minor infringements of army routine. One of these involved losing a tea urn. Subsequently he was given a commission in the Gordon Highlanders and served with the regiment in the Middle East and North Africa, eventually leaving the army in 1947. This period in his life forms the back-drop to the semi-autobiographical "McAuslan" stories, collected in The General Danced at Dawn (1970), McAuslan in the Rough (1974) and The Sheikh and the Dustbin (1988).

Returned to Carlisle, MacDonald Fraser embarked on a career in journalism. Beginning with a post on the Carlisle Journal, this took him briefly to Canada and then to Glasgow, where he settled with his family in 1953. He had married Kathleen Hetherington, a reporter on a rival paper, in 1949. Passed over for ultimate preferment on the Glasgow Herald - though at one point he rose to the post of acting editor - he determined, as he put it to his wife, "to write us out of this".

The result was a novel based on "The Flashman Papers", supposedly a mass of hand-written manuscripts discovered during a sale of household furniture at Ashby, Leicestershire in 1965 but in fact deriving from MacDonald Fraser's own exhaustive researches among the Victorian history books.

The distinguishing mark of the Flashman series, which eventually ran to a dozen instalments, is its historical detail. Harry Paget Flashman, its motivating force, may in the end be only an inspired invention, but the world in which he moves is sharply and accurately laid out. As well as offering readers the comparatively rare spectacle of an unreal person at large in a real world, MacDonald Fraser added a further refinement. …