Sunday, 6 January 2008

Don’t remember him for this

So far as I know, the only connection that the writer George MacDonald Fraser, who died last week aged 82, ever had with comics was that he co-wrote the script for the 1985 movie adaptation of Red Sonja. Not his finest hour, though he never disowned the film.

The notices of Fraser’s death (such as this one in The Daily Telegraph) have largely concentrated on his Flashman novels, in which he placed the villain of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, still a cowardly bully, but now also a lecherous cowardly bully, at the scene of numerous events of the nineteenth century. They are well worth reading – the sort of fiction that doesn’t require you to use your brain much, but also doesn’t require you to have it removed from your head and locked in a cupboard in another room in case it protests while you’re reading.

Although Fraser became a full-throated reactionary in later life, the Flashman books started as very much a product of late-1960s sensibilities, exposing the self-serving hypocrisy of earlier generations, with added sex and a wardrobe that customers of “I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet” would kill for. Or, at least, run away red-faced and pretend to have killed for. But if Flashman was a cousin of Tony Richardson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, Fraser’s work was also a clear descendent of Sir Walter Scott’s. Ivanhoe, too, presented a cracking new adventure story as being the product of recently uncovered historical papers, and mixed established fictional characters with new creations and actual historical people and situations. Fraser may have had less impact on the world than Scott, but at least he got his history straighter.

Entertaining though the Flashman stories are, my favourite books by Fraser are not part of any series.

Quartered Safe Out Here is Fraser’s book of war memoirs. They are unusual in that they reflect the life of a private soldier in front-line service, but one who was also a fine professional writer. They also deal with a relatively unfamiliar front of the Second World War: Britain’s campaign against Japan in Burma (reconquering the British Empire is not as popular a subject as, say, defending western civilisation against its own worst monstrosities).

The Hollywood History of the World is a lavishly illustrated account of what the American film industry, and its British tributary, has collectively got right and wrong in its portrayals of world history from One Million Years BC to Full Metal Jacket. While he has a lot of fun with mistakes and distortions, Fraser’s basic position is that, “There is a popular belief that where history is concerned, Hollywood always gets it wrong – and sometimes it does. What is overlooked is the astonishing amount of history Hollywood has got right, and the immense unacknowledged debt which we owe to the commercial cinema as an illuminator of the story of mankind.”

The Pyrates is a vastly silly romp, which throws together every imaginable cliché of pirate stories, with copious anachronisms and a narrator who likes to point out the conventions of stories like these as he goes along. This is Fraser’s funniest book. He tried to repeat the trick with what is, presumably, his last novel, The Reavers, which is set in Anglo-Scottish border country in the Elizabethan era, and draws upon the research that Fraser, a native of Carlisle, undertook for his non-fiction book The Steel Bonnets and his earlier, more serious, novel The Candlemass Road. The glaring flaw is that there aren’t any clichés and conventions to border reiver stories, because the subject matter is neither clichéd nor conventional; so The Reavers doesn’t really measure up to The Pyrates.

By the way, that’s the pirate queen Sheba on the cover, described by Fraser as looking “like something out of Marvel Comic”. Singular. Not really his field, then. Did Flashy ever read Comic Cuts, I wonder?

Brigitte Nielsen in Red Sonja (directed by Richard Fleischer, 1985)

Cover illustration by John Rose to the 1984 Pan Books edition of The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser


Greg said...

I love The Pyrates, and also dig Mr American, a rather weird book about a survivor of the Hole in the Wall gang who moves to England. I dig his Hollywood History of the World, too. And, perhaps surprisingly, I've never read a Flashman book. I suppose I ought to.

Steve Flanagan said...

I think that Flashy makes a brief appearance in Mr American, but it's not really the same. My brother hasn't read the Flashman books either, because, he says, there are so many that he doesn't know where to start. But you can start anywhere. Only Royal Flash is unrepresentative, because it's a pastiche of The Prisoner of Zenda. Still a lot of fun, though.