Archive for the ‘George MacDonald Fraser’ Category

This is a fine book of historical fiction by George McDonald Fraser, famous for the Flashman books. It is a story of the harsh borderlands between Scotland and England, during Queen Elizabeth’s reign. There were powerful families, terrible feuds, and poor folk living in unimaginable squalor, preyed on by raiders from both sides of the border.
In this story, the destitute inhabitants of a tiny wretched village–already heavily taxed–are threatened with violence unless they pay protection money to a group of raiders. The queen’s officers, responsible for keeping the law in those parts, recommend keeping quiet and paying the fee, but not only is there no money to pay it with–to pay it means it will become the custom forever more. The owner of the property–a woman newly arrived from court, her father having just died (murdered, of course) vows to protect her tenants. But how? She has as yet no group of armed guards. It happens that a masterless man–a “broken man”—-has been caught stealing from her kitchen. Archie Noble–sometimes called Lang Archie Waitabout– turns out to be a man of some learning and great military ability. By dint of threatening him with hanging (she apparently has the perfect right to do so), she forces him to take on the job of protecting the village, and he manages to do so, arming the few men strong enough to engage in such activity, and setting a trap for the raiders. The villagers’ retaliation on the raiders is brutal and terrible, and Archie does not restrain them. The lady is disgusted and horrified, but offers him a post as her constable and chief at arms. With perhaps more to come, is hinted–of a more personal nature. He is a comely man! However, knowing that he has invited the wrath of more than the raiders–the borderlands are a powder keg– he politely refuses. She is furious, he leaves. Sure enough, the Queen’s officers and other authorities come pounding in, bellowing and raging: they resolve to capture Archie and execute him, before the whole border erupts into a war of bloody revenge.
And there the story ends. We hope he made it to the more tranquil south without being caught.
The story is based on an actual raid, as noted in a letter of Lord Scrope’s, who was Warden of the Western Marches in the late 1300’s. Fraser’s research is phenomenal, and the details he furnishes of contemporary events are fascinating–but that is not all. He has a philosophical point to make here: one that was uncomfortable then and is uncomfortable now. Society needs protection, which can only be provided by warriors–men ready to do violence. And yet, society shrinks from the violence these men do in preserving society, and punishes them for it. Is this just? Yet it is so.


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I have just finished an account of WWII in Burma, written by the truly formidable George MacDonald Fraser, famous for the Flashman tales among other things. I never got on with the Flashman books, what with Flashman being such a rotter and all—hard to read a book when you cannot love the protagonist. But, the history is accurate and in fact my favorite genre is exactly this, historical fiction where the history is real and the fiction is charmingly woven over it. As written for instance, by Patrick O’Brian, Hilary Mantel, Dorothy Dunnett—and, yes, even Diana Gabaldon. Perhaps I shall revisit the Flashman books.

But meanwhile, what a splendid book is Quartered Safe Out Here! Which should immediately start Kipling’s poem sounding in your head,

You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ’ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ’im that’s got it.

George MacDonald Fraser was of that generation of heroes who saved the world and who died in such astonishing numbers—every English village has its war memorial, honoring the young men who died not only to save their country from becoming a Nazi slave state, but to save civilization. My father fought in that war, and my father-in-law—the latter actually in Burma, seeing the action as described by Fraser, and suffering from bouts of malaria ever afterwards, as did many of his colleagues. Those who were lucky enough to survive.

A quote from the book:

“Fourteenth Army’s distinguishing feature was the bush-hat, that magnificent Australian headgear with the rakish broad brim which shielded against rain and sun and was ideal for scooping water out of wells.. . . It looked good, it felt good; if you’d been able to boil water in it you wouldn’t have needed a hotel. Everyone carried a razor-blade tucked into the band, in case you were captured, in which event you might, presumably, cut your bonds, or decapitate your jailer by stages, or if the worst came to the worst and you were interrogated by Marshal Tojo in person, present a smart and soldierly appearance.”

Neil Hare, my father in law in his Burma gear

Fraser’s book ends with a fine celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of VJ-Day, and with thoughts about the current state of the country he and his comrades fought for. Not much enthusiasm there. Coincidentally, the plot of a recent Inspector Gently episode echoed an incident reported by Fraser, but with very different conclusions. Gently served in the same war, and he, like Fraser, was involved in a war crime—enemy prisoners killed—and though neither was directly involved, neither reported it. Fraser says that “the notion of crying for redress against the perpetrators (my own comrades-in-arms, Indian soldiers who had gone the mile for us and we for them). . . would have been obnoxious, dishonorable even.” Gently’s reaction—to make an official report 10 years after the fact—does not seem admirable somehow. (though possibly it was the reaction of those sensitive BBC writers–I am not convinced that this was in the original books upon which the series is based). But whatever their moral struggles, they were great men, that generation.

He said, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’
Grandpa said, ‘No, but I served in a company of heroes.’

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