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Grandmaster Flash

George MacDonald Fraser will always be overshadowed by his best-known creation, writes Ashok Malik.

books Updated: Jan 07, 2008 14:39 IST

As he walks into the Great Library in the Sky George MacDonald Fraser, who died of cancer on January 2, 2008, aged 82, may want to consider a conservation with a fellow Scottish author, Arthur Conan Doyle.

Like Conan Doyle, Fraser was a polymath. A soldier during World War II, he had served in India and written a book about his army stint in Burma. He had a reasonable career as a sports journalist and a newspaper editor, was a prolific writer - switching seamlessly between fiction and non-fiction - and even put together screenplays for admittedly forgettable Ems such as Octopussy (perhaps the biggest Bond yawn of a11time) and Red Sonja (which noted thespian Arnold Schwarzenegger described as "the worst Em Ihave ever made").

Yet, like Conan Doyle - whose 'serious' literary career was entirely hijacked by Sherlock Holmes - Fraser found himself overshadowed by his best-known creation: Brigadier-General Sir Harry Flashman, war hero, winner of the Victoria Cross, one of the most famous men of the late 19th century Fraser invented - or, as the plot insists, 'discovered' - Flashman and the 'Flashman Papers' when he wrote the eponymous Flashman in 1969.

He picked an obscure character from Tom Brown's Schooldays - which describes Flashman as Tom Brown's schoolmate at Rugby, and as a bully who was expelled for drunkenness - and gave him a first name and a second future.

Flashman, as Fraser saw him, was everything Tom Brown was not - dissolute rake and cowardly cad, not honourable schoolboy and upstanding gentleman. He was almost Souray Ganguly to Tom Brown's Rahu1 Dravid. Yet, over 36 years and 12 adventure books, Flashman accomplished more than boring teacher's pets ever hope to.

With a combination of high fortune and low cunning, he survived the ill-fated aftermath of the First Afghan War (Flashman), lived to tel1the tragedy of the Charge of the Light Brigade (Flashman at the Charge), fought for both sides in the American Civil War (Flashman and the Angel of the Lord), thwarted Russia's attempt to invade India during the Mutiny blundered into fame in the AngloSikh and Opium Wars and had affairs with queens and commoners across continents, not sparing Chinese and Indian royalty nor Ranavalona I, the mad queen of Madagascar Fraser's ska lay not so much in his pacy prose and electric humour (or that, as a Scot, he was poking fun at the English), but in accurately contextualising his character.

By using the now familiar literary contrivance of putting a fictional person in a 'real' historical setting, Fraser was careful to get every detail right.

The Flashman books are a rare species: the endnotes are as exciting as the main text. For the history buff, keen to get a grasp of the British-Afghan conflict, the scramble for Central Asia, the intrigues of the Chinese and Sikh courts and the obsessive dislike that Lord Palmerston (the Cold War warrior of the Victorian Age) had for the Russians, there is no more entertaining primer than the Flashman novels.

Clearly, Flash fans took Flashman seriously It makes Fraser's death, about a year after announcing he was planning a new novel in the series, harder to live with. So long Flashy, and thank you for the memories.

Ashok Malik is a senior journalist and an unrepentant Flashman buff.