Harry Mount

What makes a hero?

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

‘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….

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