George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman series of historical novels, died on 2 January 2008 aged 82.
Although Fraser was undoubtedly best known for his stories about Flashman (the character taken from Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays), he started out in professional life as a journalist with the (now defunct) Carlisle Journal. He also later worked for the Cumberland News and the Glasgow Herald, both of which comment on his skill. This from the Herald:
Murray Ritchie, 66, former political editor of The Herald, was a young reporter on the Dumfries Standard when he first met Fraser in the 1960s.
He said: “George Fraser went around Scotland with the other journalists to the outposts giving tuition and that’s how I met him.
“In journalism, he was great in all respects. He was a great writer, great sub-editor, great layout man, great headline writer, he was just a very talented individual…”
But changes in the way newspapers were run also discouraged him from continuing his career in journalism.
This hints at his conservatism, which many of the national newspapers comment on. D. J. Taylor in The Independent tells us:
Exposure to a typical MacDonald Fraser audience, which tended to reflect these opinions, could occasionally unnerve some of his more “literary” admirers. A younger acquaintance who had conducted a conversazioni with him at the Royal Army Museum in Chelsea, in front of an audience largely composed of serving soldiers, remarked that the experience made him feel “vaguely homosexual and left-wing”.
The Daily Telegraph notes:
A short, heavily-built man, Fraser held unashamedly reactionary views on law and order. He was particularly firm in his conviction that the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima was justified, believing that among the lives it had saved had been his own.
The Guardian has this to say about Fraser’s retreat to the Isle of Man, which Fraser himself described as not a tax exile but an exile from the modern world:
He said the island was like England used to be. He became something of a rightwing figure, hating political correctness (the Flashman books are full of the word “nigger”), and claiming to be surprised at the way the liberal left had cheered the Flashman novels as attacks on the British empire. They were not meant to be, he said. He liked the empire, a marvellous force for good in the world.
The Times focuses on Fraser’s Army service in Burma during the Second World War, the subject of an autobiographical reminiscence (“considered one of the great personal memoirs of the Japanese war”, the Guardian points out) and source for his “McAuslan” stories about the “dirtiest soldier in the world”:
His time in Burma resulted in a memoir, published in 1992 under the title Quartered Safe Out Here, which ranks among the best of the kind of modestly understated barrack-room books that provide a picture, more vivid than the military historians can provide, of the harshness, squalor and black humour of war on the ground. […]
He noted drily that when the 1945 general election came (after the war in Europe ended but the soldiers of the Japanese Emperor showed no sign of surrendering) he was not old enough to vote, although he was old enough to lead jungle patrols.
But it is his Flashman series for which he will be most remembered. This from the Daily Telegraph:
The fag-roasting bully of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Thomas Hughes’s 1857 tribute to Dr Arnold’s Rugby, was last seen being expelled for drunkenness. Age had not improved him. Fraser’s appropriation in 1969, Flashman, joyously confirmed him as a thoroughgoing rotter and cad of the first water.
The book and its 11 sequels purported to be the memoirs of General Sir Harry Flashman, VC, discovered in a saleroom at Ashby-de-la-Zouch and entrusted to Fraser for editing. This device allowed Fraser to pilot Flashman through a picaresque series of encounters with some of the choicest episodes of Victorian history.
Despite his success with readers, Fraser went largely unrecognised by the literary establishment, as the Independent notes:
An OBE and a belated Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature aside, MacDonald Fraser received no formal recognition for his work, won no literary prizes and goes unmentioned in the Oxford Companion to English Literature. This neglect did not appear to trouble him. But he belonged to what in these days is an almost exclusive category – the blood-and-thunder merchant who, however much he shies away from the fact, is also a genuine literary artist.
(George MacDonald Fraser OBE, born 2 April 1925 in Carlisle, died 2 January 2008 in Strang, Isle of Man.)