Flash for freedom against PC partypoopers

For readers, the Flashman novels were a jolly romp. But for author George MacDonald Fraser, they were also a swipe against political correctness.

James Delingpole

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About half way through George MacDonald Fraser’s Flash For Freedom comes one of those scenes which, like as not, you’ll skim quickly over on first reading because it doesn’t involve sharks, intrigue, copulation or chaps having their testicles hacked off by ululating Amazons. But you can tell the author enjoyed writing it because it goes on for quite a long time.

The scene involves future president Abraham Lincoln – ‘the ugliest man you ever saw, deep dark eye sockets and a chin like a coffin’ – holding forth on the slave trade. Abe may be an abolitionist but, it turns out, he is no namby-pamby bleeding heart.

‘There are moments, God forgive me, when I become a little tired of nigras’, says Lincoln, going on to describe a conversation he had the other day with a worthy gentleman, which appears to prefigure by more than a century Enoch Powell’s 1968 Rivers Of Blood speech. ‘I believe I concluded by wishing the whole parcel of them back in Africa. He was shocked: “Strange talk, this,” says he, “from the sponsor of a bill against slavery.” “I’d sponsor a bill to improve bad drains,” says I. “They’re a confounded nuisance, too.”’

You can imagine what an exquisite pleasure it must have been for a reactionary like George MacDonald Fraser to put words like these into the mouth of one of America’s most revered statesmen. Even by the more relaxed standards of the early Seventies (cf. all those unacceptable, ‘darkie’ jokes in the sitcom Love Thy Neighbour), this would have been considered pretty strong stuff. And not something, one suspects, that Fraser could have got away with – except behind the convenient disguise of comic historical fiction.

But this was the secret purpose of the Flashman series – 12 comic-historical novels that tell of the escapades of Harry Flashman, an un-PC brigadier and cad, written between 1969 and 2005 by George MacDonald Fraser, who has died at the age of 82. For readers, the books may have been just a jolly romp through Victorian military history featuring a moustachioed bully, coward and philanderer, but for the author they served a far more serious purpose: both as a hymn to the fast-vanishing virtues of a better, nobler age and as a sustained critique of what we now call political correctness.

One of the early reviews that always amused Fraser was the one in the Daily Worker praising Flashman’s send-up of Victorian Imperial values. ‘And they couldn’t see, or they didn’t want to see, that there was – not expressed by Flashman but by me – a considerable affection for the Empire’, said Fraser. In fact, he would frequently declare, the British Empire was ‘one of the best things that ever happened to the world’.

Depending on your point of view this is either the round unvarnished truth, or just the sort of Blimpish drivel you’d expect to hear from a right-wing old buffer in tax exile on the Isle of Man. Fraser never ceased to be mystified by those in the latter camp. How, he wondered, could you look at the world on any objective level and fail to conclude that things were so much better when the map was mostly pink and traditional British virtues like honour, decency, selflessness and restraint still prevailed?

The modern way of dealing with old-fashioned weltanschauungs like Fraser’s is to call them ‘racist’. But though – true to the historical context of his writing – Fraser is liberal in his use of words like ‘nigger’, this doesn’t necessarily make him guilty of racism. Au contraire, as Fraser himself pointed out, having fought shoulder-to-shoulder in Bill Slim’s XIVth Army in Burma with Sikhs and Ghurkas, West Africans and East Africans, the men of his generation probably had a greater understanding of, and bond with, people of different races than any white liberal today.

Consider modern Pakistan. Is it really in a better, safer state today than it was when the Imperial Staff college was based at Quetta and when administered by the heroically dedicated educated civil servants of the Raj. And what of Kenya, Nigeria or even Sudan? Can we honestly look at these countries today and say that their people are happier, more secure or free, now they’re no longer run by sunburned public schoolboys from the Home Counties?

Fraser, for one, would have thought the answer to these semi-rhetorical questions was utterly, bleeding obvious. The reason we dare not discuss these matters honestly, he used to say – and the rules apply as much to sex, class and religion as they do to race and nationality – is that ‘People don’t like the truth. It worries them.’ This is what he most detested about the politically correct modern world: ‘Its determination to avoid facing the truth.’ And that is why he sought refuge in another century. And why we have to thank the inanities of the PC age for one of the most delightful comic creations in literature: Flashman.

James Delingpole is an author, journalist, broadcaster and TV and rock critic for the Spectator, the Mail on Sunday and the Daily Telegraph. His most recent book is Coward on the Beach, reviewed on spiked here.

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