Novelists have to get used to answering the question: ‘Which authors have most influenced you?’ This is not an easy question to answer. One response would be to list all those books that had ever appealed in some way — as well as a few which were so dreadful that the novelist shuddered, swearing never to emulate that style. In my case, however, I can state there was one author who, more than any other, inspired me to write as well as shaping the way I wrote: George MacDonald Fraser.
I first came across Fraser’s Flashman series when I was in my early teens. His writing instantly attracted me for its combination of meticulously researched history and thrilling writing. And as a leading character, Flashman – cowardly, but gloriously honoured by a grateful nation – was immediately compelling. At the time, like most young teenagers of my time, I was keen on Frederick Forsyth and other writers of thrillers, but I’d always loved history, and to discover an historical series with an anti-hero as protagonist was wonderful.
Fraser borrowed Harry Flashman from Tom Brown’s School Days. This 1857 novel by Thomas Hughes follows the career of an eleven year old at Rugby School, and his experiences at the hands of Flashman, the school’s notorious bully, who is finally expelled for being ‘beastly drunk’. The first of Fraser’s series begins with Flashman noting that even with his Victoria Cross, knighthood and other honours, he is still ‘a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward’. Yet readers swiftly come to the conclusion that it is worth spending time with him. When Flashman begins his chronicles with the line, ‘This story will be completely truthful; I am breaking the habit of eighty years. Why shouldn’t I? When a man is as old as I am, and knows himself thoroughly for what he was and is, he doesn’t care much’, the reader wants to know more.
It is not the depiction of this one man, however, that made the books such a delight, especially to the Jecks of tender years; it is the concise, clear writing that George MacDonald Fraser learned as a journalist in Canada and Scotland. Even the beginning of his first novel, Flashman, shows this clarity, as well as his irrepressible sense of fun:
Hughes got it wrong, in one important detail. You will have read, in Tom Brown, how I was expelled from Rugby school for drunkenness, which is true enough, but when Hughes alleges that this was the result of my deliberately pouring beer on top of gin-punch, he is in error. I knew better than to mix my drinks, even at seventeen.
He had a strong sense of place, and his descriptions are immediate and visual. Here he describes the landing beaches at the Crimea in Flashman at the Charge:
by the time we had spent five days crawling ashore, with everyone spewing and soiling themselves in the pouring rain, and great piles of stores and guns and rubbish growing on the beach, and the sea getting fouler and fouler with the dirt of sixty thousand men — well, you may imagine what it was like.’
Yet he could be self-deprecating about his writing. In The Reavers, he states in his Foreword that ‘This book is nonsense. It’s meant to be’. He avows that he is ‘not a “serious” writer’, claiming that ‘I have the word of an eminent critic for this, and I know he meant it as a compliment, because he put the word in quotes’. No; The Reavers, he insists, ‘is simply G.M.F. taking off on what a learned judge would call a frolic of his own’.
Fraser could be very serious about his history, however, as is shown by his extensive footnotes — although he maintained the humorous fiction that the footnotes were appended to Sir Harry Flashman’s chronicles. So Note 14 in Flashman speaks of ‘Flashman’s account’ of clearing up issues in the murder of Burnes in Afghanistan, and note 17 begins ‘Flashman, like many other European writers’ — and so on. But it is the notes themselves that show Fraser’s dedication to the facts. From the 30 notes in Flashman to the 45 or so typical of his other books (apart from Flashman and the Redskins, which has over 80), he worked hard to give the reader an understanding of the period — while, clearly, not wanting to have the history get in the way of the story.
His research for the Flashman series was to be of use later when he tried his hand at writing non-fiction. Reviewing Fraser’s first historical work, The Steel Bonnets: the story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said: ‘It is the only work I know that imposes form on the anarchy of the Border history[…] Mr Fraser has hitherto been known as a novelist. This is a book which an historian can envy’.
In The Steel Bonnets it is his depiction of fighting men that is so convincing. Fraser grew up intensely aware of the violence that was inherent in the landscape about him. For him, the past was echoed in the present. The local names were redolent of the brutal period during Queen Elizabeth’s reign when the Reivers would ‘shake loose the border’ and go on extended raids into neighbouring territory to rob, steal and murder. In the introduction to The Steel Bonnets, he describes watching President Nixon’s inauguration ceremony, with Lyndon Johnson at one side and Billy Graham at the other:
To anyone familiar with Border history it was one of those historical coincidences which send a little shudder though the mind: in that moment, thousands of miles and centuries in time away from the Debateable Land, the threads came together again; the descendants of three notable Anglo-Scottish Border tribes[…] it took very little effort of the imagination to replace the custom-made suits with leather jacks or backs-and-breasts.
It is clear that his writing was strongly influenced by his experiences in the Second World War. Fraser was one of the ‘Forgotten Army’ serving in Burma in the 17th Infantry Division. It was those experiences which subsequently led to his interest in soldiers and their lives in battle. In his autobiography, explaining why he took up his pen to write about his own experiences, he wrote:
It is satisfying, and at the same time slightly eerie, to read in an official military history of an action in which you took part, even as a very minor and bewildered participant. A coloured picture of men and guns and violent movement comes between the eye and the printed page; smells return to the nostrils, of dusty heat and oil and cordite smoke[…]
The memory of the sights, smells and sounds of his battles must have lived on with him. Reading his depiction of the First Afghan War, or the battle of Balaclava, or Custer’s Last Stand, one is immediately convinced that he knows the scene of battle. He can describe the battle because he has experienced it, from the panic and terror to the calmness of a soldier picking off the enemy at some distance.
More than that, he understands the type of army involved. He was, he once said, a member of the last imperial army, one in which every soldier had to carry their own weapons and gear. For the men of the 17th Infantry Division in Burma, vehicles were a luxury. The soldiers had to march, carrying everything they needed, from one battle to the next. It was this, I believe, that lead to his empathy for the soldiers of the Victorian era. And yes, while he wrote about an adulterous, cowardly, cheating, drunken braggart, there is no doubt that Fraser was deeply patriotic. He had an admiration for soldiers, but particularly for his companions in the Border Regiment. Perhaps it was partly the time he spent in their company that enticed him towards historical novels and then serious historical studies.
His dedication to strongly researched stories, built firmly on a bedrock of historical fact, but always with an eye to the humour of a situation, was the core of what appealed to me when I was young. It still appeals, and I read his books with as much pleasure now as I did 40 years ago. But the strongest influence that his writing had on me was not a matter of style or stance. It was more existential than that. Were it not for his glorious Flashman books, I believe, I would not have made my own first halting attempts at writing novels, and I would not be a writer today.