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You'll have it heard said that the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absence of mind - one of those smart Oscarish squibs that sounds well but is thoroughly fat-headed. Presence of mind if you like - and countless other things, such as greed and Christianity, decency and villainy, pride and lunacy, deep design and blind chance, pride and trade, blunder and curiosity, passion, ignorance, chivalry and expediency, honest pursuit of right, and a determination to keep the bloody Frogs out. And often as not, such things came tumbling together, and when the dust had settled, there we were, and who else was going to set things straight, and feed the folk, and guard the gate and dig the drains - oh, aye, take the profit, by all means... Absence of mind, my arse. We always knew what were doing; we just didn't always know how it would pan out.
That is the inimitable voice of Sir Harry Paget Flashman, brigadier-general, V.C., K.C.B.; Chevalier, Legion of Honour; Order of Maria Theresa, Austria; Order of the Elephant, Denmark (temporary); US Medal of Honor; San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth, 4th class; and veteran of nearly every major conflict and battle of the 19th century, including the Charge of the Light Brigade, the India Mutiny, Gettysburg, Custer's Last Stand at the Little Big Horn, Rorke's Drift in the Zulu Wars and many, many more. He was the most remarkable fighting man of the Victorian Age - and a coward, liar, braggart, lecher and all-around scoundrel, who through a combination of luck and his own conniving ended up one of the legendary heroes of his day.
He is also, of course, entirely fictional, the creation of the British novelist George MacDonald Fraser, who died earlier this month at 82 after chronicling Flashman's adventures in a dozen volumes. As a Flashman fan for over three decades the loss is deeply felt, for these are quite simply the most entertaining series of historical novels - or books of any kind - that I have had the pleasure to enjoy during a lifetime of reading
BUT THE Flashman chronicles are far more than that, which is why they have also won critical plaudits rarely bestowed on popular fiction. It was Fraser's brilliant conceit to recreate the Golden Age of the British Empire as seen through the eyes of a cynical rogue - who actually makes his first literary appearance as an adolescent bully in the English children's classic Tom Brown's School Days - who embodies some of the worst characteristics and prejudices of Western imperialism, yet sees clearly through both the pieties of Victorian England and the leftist post-colonial romanticism through which many now regard the Third World societies that soldiers like Flashman helped conquer. Fraser believed that in most cases the latter benefited from their period of British rule - and living in this former outpost of the Empire, I take his point.
Though Fraser, a curmudgeonly Scottish-born ex-journalist, detested political correctness, especially when it came to women and minorities, his Flashman books paint a portrait of the age that is more alive, convincing and, in its own way, more fair-minded, than any found in most history books. You heard Flashman on the Empire, above. Here he is in Flashman and the Mountain of Light describing one of their most formidable opponents, before taking them on in the First Sikh War of 1845: "You know something of them: tall, splendid fellows with uncut hair and beards, proud and exclusive as Jews, and well disliked, as clannish, easily-recognized folk often are - the Muslims loathed them, the Hindoos distrusted them, and even today T. Atkins, while admiring them as stout fighters, would rather be brigaded with anyone else - excepting their calvary, which you'd be glad of anywhere. For my money they were the most advanced people in India - well, they were only a sixth of the Punjab's population, but they ruled the place, so there you are."
ALAS, FLASHMAN never made it to this part of the world, at least in print, although the novels make reference to him having stood alongside Gen. George "Chinese" Gordon during the last stand of Khartoum in 1885, when the British garrison there was wiped out by the radical Islamic forces of the Mahdi, the 19th-century Sudanese jihadist who prefigured Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Fraser died before he could write up that story. I've no idea what he thought of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and Flashman, no doubt, would have tried to have steered clear of a fight in which there was little opportunity for profit or glory, or even a chance to grab some ripe female pulchritude.
We do know, though, what the old-line Tory Fraser thought about the Middle East Quartet's new special envoy to the region; Flashman's creator detested Tony Blair, describing him as having done harm to Britain that is "incalculable and almost certainly irreparable."
This includes Blair's own military ventures in partnership with US President George W. Bush. When the NATO mission in Afghanistan began to bog down, more than one pundit suggested that the leaders would have done well to have first consulted the very first Flashman novel, which recounts in vivid detail the disastrous 1842 retreat from Kabul of 16,000 British forces and civilians, of which only one man made it out alive (or two, if you believe Flashman's version).
AS FOR the Iraq invasion, in his last Flashman novel, Flashman on the March - which deals with the obscure Abyssinian War of 1868 - Fraser uncharacteristically inserted a direct contemporary reference in the foreword: "For Flashman's story is about a British army sent out in a good and honest cause by a government who knew what honour meant. It was not sent without initial follies and hesitations in high places. Or until every hope of a peaceful issue was gone. It went with the fear of disaster hanging over it, but with the British public in no doubt that it was right. It served no politician's vanity or interest. It went without messianic rhetoric. There were no false excuses, no deceit, no cover-ups or lies, just a decent resolve to do a government's first duty: to protect its people, whatever the cost."
Fraser's attitude seemed have been: If you're going to do empire-building, then do it, dammit! And if not, then keep the troops home, rather than dilly-dallying with all this high-minded "democracy-building" nonsense.
Indeed, I can only imagine what Fraser - or Flashman - might have said about Bush's swing this week through the Arab world, in which in one moment he is seen raising swords together with the sheikhs who rule the Gulf, and in the next is lecturing them on the natural rights of man (and woman).
Still, the days of the British Empire are long gone, as Fraser was in his own way as much an anachronism of our time as "Flash Harry" would be, and Bush and Blair are surely right in believing that bringing the Muslim world into the modern world is the only real solution to the threat of radical Islam. Still, even as I salute their good intentions and wish them luck on this vital task, I can't help wonder if they'd have better luck going about their task with less "messianic rhetoric" and at least a touch of Flashman.