I posted a week or two back that I was greedily devouring George MacDonald Fraser’s The Complete McAuslan, aMcAuslan collection of short stories nominally centered around what MacDonald refers to as “the Dirtiest Soldier in the World (alias the Tartan Caliban, or the Highland Division’s answer to the Pekin Man)” but is really a very thinly disguised account of MacDonald’s experience in North Africa and Scotland just after WWII as a young subaltern in the Gordan Highlanders.

Well, I’ve done now, and let me just say that seldom have I been so taken with such a set of stories.  For one thing, they’re filled with fascinating historickal detail.   For example, one story is devoted to the question of which tune Piper George Findlater actually played when, on October 20, 1897, having been shot through both legs, he nonetheless propped himself up against a rock and piped on to encourage the Gordons in their storming of a tough Afridi position on the Dargai Heights on India’s Northwest Frontier, thereby winning a Victoria Cross for himself.   Another story has to do with the narrator’s command of a train running from Cairo to Jerusalem in 1946 and the danger of sabotage by the Lehi, or Stern Gang, a group of Zionists so radical that in the early 40’s they offered to wage war against the British forces stationed in Palestine in exchange for Hitler sending thither all the Jews the Nazis rounded up in Europe.  (The Germans ignored the offer.)

For another, these stories are chock-a-block with trivia of the sort in which I positively delight.  For instance, in one story Fraser notes the popular tradition that the word “cabal” originated as an acronym of an influential group of Charles II’s ministers:  Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley and Lord Lauderdale.

For yet another, the stories are just so bloody well written.  One of them, “McCauslin in the Rough”, is a golf story as good as anything I’ve read in Wodehouse.  Another involves a battle of wits between a clan of Scots poachers and the Local Authorities, and reminds me a great deal of Somerville & Ross’s The Irish R.M

And finally, they’re just so obviously written out of love and respect, pride and nostalgia, that one cannot help being moved.

Quartered SafeNaturally, I had to move on from the McCauslin stories to Fraser’s autobiographical account of his time as an infantryman in Burma in WWII, Quartered Safe Out Here.  And as I read the introductory paragraphs to that work, I came across a paragraph that, at least to me, speaks volumes not only toward Fraser’s treatment of that great dirty Scot, Private McCauslin, but also toward his portrayal of Sir Harry Flashman, that Victorian rogue extraordinaire, in the Flashman Chronicles:

We were Fourteenth Army, the final echo of Kipling’s world, the very last British soldiers in the old imperial tradition.  I don’t say we were happy to be in Burma, because we weren’t, but we knew that [General] Slim was right when he said: “Some day, you’ll be proud to say, ‘I was there.'”

Mind you….we had to get out of the bloody place first. 

Pride.  Fraser was, first and foremost, proud of his service, and of his unit’s, and, more broadly, of that of the British Army in general and, if this quote is anything to go on, its Imperial record.  This confirms my long-held opinion that Fraser created Flashy – that paragon of cowardice, faithlessness and cynicism, as a sort of duck blind behind whom Fraser could express his admiration for the extraordinary men (and women) at the forefront of Empire during the Victorian Age in what he himself might have called a “slantendicular” way.  You will note in the series that Flashy always gives credit where it is due, and occasionally can’t help recognizing What Is Right himself, and even acting on it. 

I doubt seriously if any young English PhD candidate groping about for a dissertation topic has though of this but, oh mayun, if I were in that position I would jump on it with both feet.   And I wouldn’t give a single, solitary damn about what anyone thought of my research.  I’ve any idea that the pleasure of studying Fraser and his writing would be reward enough in and of itself.

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