Harry Mount

What makes a hero?

Harry Mount asks George MacDonald Fraser whether Flashman is a coward as well as a cad

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‘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 Tom 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-to-Glasgow 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 difference 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 sergeant-major, 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. I knew brave men who’d been brewed up three times in their tanks who ended up very shaken. After Arnhem and our last three ops, there was no such thing as a battle-hardened veteran.’

Socrates would have agreed. He thought you were only brave if you knew something was dangerous and scary and you carried on regardless.

Carrying on regardless is Flashman’s forte, with his unwilling starring roles throughout the blood-soaked annals of the Victorian age. At the retreat from Kabul in 1842, Flashman is so terrified of falling victim to a badmash’s jezail that he tries to hand over the regiment’s colours to the enemy, only to be rescued in the nick of time, colours still in hand, unconscious, once more the accidental hero.

Flashman’s slug-like trail winds its way up the peaks and down the troughs of the 19th century; he shoots General Custer at Little Big Horn, he launches the Charge of the Light Brigade with a volley of farts brought on by some dodgy Russian champagne, and he stars in the Chinese Opium Wars, the Indian Mutiny and Rorke’s Drift. He always behaves odiously, but his fraudulent triumphs lead him into more and more unwelcome fixes. And he does it all with lashings of élan. Even Fraser acknowledges that Flashman has style.

‘I do remember thinking he was by far the most attractive character in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. The book fell apart after he left. My own feeling is that Thomas Hughes realised that Flashman was in danger of taking the book over and so he dropped him.’

That devil-may-care aura means the title of the real Flashman has plenty of claimants. ‘My old housemaster wrote to me and said, “I know who this is; knew him in India.” Everybody thinks he’s based on Sir Richard Burton. I knew nothing about Burton. A bit rough on Burton, who so far as I know wasn’t a scoundrel and certainly wasn’t a coward.’

There is no one original Flashman, although Fraser acknowledges there are plenty of people who take after him. ‘I see Flashy characteristics on the political scene; I won’t say where. They haven’t got his style. David Niven was keen to play him; he would have made a wonderful Flashman. Or his friend Errol Flynn, who had that shifty quality.’

Bits of Flashman are drawn from Fraser’s war service in India and Burma, before he was commissioned in the Gordon Highlanders. ‘The army’s always had its share of Flashmans.’

But the greatest inspiration for Flashman is Fraser himself. ‘I think like him. It’s like Charles II — “My words are my own; my actions are my ministers’.”’ And Fraser, too, has his heroic qualities. At the end of the war in Burma, he came under heavy fire. ‘Two men went down, dead, on either side.’

Fraser dresses like a modern dapper Flashman; he resembles George Cole, bandbox neat in blazer, cheesecloth shirt and cravat. He dons a Russian fur hat to take on the cold wind that smacks into the Isle of Man from the Arctic Circle through the channel between Belfast and the Mull of Galloway. As he trips across the car park with a jaunty gait, waving goodbye, I get a whiff of a 79-year-old Flashman, a man who must once have been frightened, but no less brave for that.

Flashman on the March by George MacDonald Fraser is published by HarperCollins (£17.99).