Magazine article The Spectator

What Makes a Hero?

Magazine article The Spectator

What Makes a Hero?

Article excerpt

'Flashman's just a monster,' says George MacDonald Fraser. 'He's extremely unpleasant but he knows how to present a front to the world, and at least he's honest about himself. But that was because he assumed that his memoirs would never be published.'

I'd just been putting to the author of the Flashman novels the theory of this magazine's editor: that far from being a scoundrel, Flashman - the fag-roasting rotter thrown out of Rugby in Torn Brown's Schooldays only to pop up in the great historic moments of the Victorian age - was in fact the toppest of eggs; an accidental hero who's actually the genuine article because he at least admits to his flaws.

'It's usually my female readers who write and say that,' Fraser says in his perfectly modulated Miss-Jean-Brodie-goes-toGlasgow vowels, unflattened by 35 years as a tax exile on the Isle of Man, '- that he's actually a very modest hero who makes himself out to be a coward and a cad. If that's the way they want to see him, fair enough. But you must remember, he raped a girl in the first book; since then, he's never needed to.'

Fraser's 80th birthday on 2 April coincides with the publication of Flashman on the March, the 12th in the series. This time Flashman materialises in the Abyssinian War of 1868, when General Napier threaded his way through the treacherous valleys of the Horn of Africa to rescue a small group of British citizens captured by the mad tyrant Emperor Theodore.

Flashman is scared witless at the prospect of taking on the debollocking Amazons of deepest Africa, but realises that he must maintain his reputation; that he must keep up the bravado of despair and the fraudster's instinct to play out the charade. To keep pace with what he calls his 'Flashy brag', he realises that he must do it with a flourish, asking only for 'a revolver and 50 rounds.... Oh, and a box of cheroots, if you have one to spare.'

As Fraser was discussing Sir Harry Flashman VC, another Victoria Cross - the first since the Falklands - was being bestowed on Private Johnson Beharry. Beharry saved eight soldiers as a rocket-propelled grenade exploded a foot from his head, firing bone splinters into his brain, pouring blood into his eyes.

On the face of it there is the world of dif-ference between the fictional coward and the genuine hero. Johnson Beharry was content to face such horror, saying of his decision to join the army, 'I just wanted a change of life. It was a good decision.' And, once he recovers, he has said he is longing to face more of the same.

But is Flashman really any the less heroic? You could argue that his conduct is in some sense as noble, precisely because the prospect of military action fills him with such dread.

W.F. Deedes, who won a Military Cross in April 1945 attempting to secure a crossing over the Twenthe Canal under dreadfully accurate crossfire from German Spandaus and mortar fire, agrees that fear is the natural bedfellow of courage and heroism. 'You do get some cool customers, like my sergeantmajor, Hooper. We'd just been through the Charge of the Light Brigade and all he said was, "Bit of a rum do, sir."'

'But nobody fights without fear. Antagonism to the enemy may mask it, but no one is immune to it. Courage is like capital. If you spend it, you lose it. …

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