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Flashman’s Nemesis

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In Slightly Foxed No.33, Andrew Nixon paid homage to George MacDonald Fraser’s splendid creation, the appalling Flashman; and Patrick Mercer, himself an infantryman, drew attention to Quartered Safe Out Here, Fraser’s autobiographical account of his own service as an Other Rank in the Border Regiment. But both omitted mention of Fraser’s other marvellous creation, the infamous Private McAuslan, the dirtiest soldier ever to grace the tartan of a Highland regiment.

McAuslan, whose adventures are described in three books – The General Danced at Dawn (1970), McAuslan in the Rough (1974) and The Sheikh and the Dustbin (1988) – is an invention whose time has now passed. He is, in the words of any regular soldier, ‘A Thing’. Always offending the tender susceptibilities of the professional soldiers among whom he is deposited, Private McAuslan, a shrunken, grey, greasy and shambling figure, is the very antithesis of the elegant Flashman. The premise is simple – whatever is good and noble about soldiering is subverted by the shameful conduct of McAuslan, who never intentionally behaves badly, but who is such an excuse for a soldier that disaster trails him.

His time has passed because the books were written in a period when many readers had an extensive memory of serving in one of the armed services, either during the Second World War or as part of National Service. They – we – all knew about similar ‘Things’. We had encountered them throughout our service, however short. The perspiring figure pan-bashing in the cookhouse, the perpetual adornment of the guardroom cells, the one man who could be relied upon to leave his weapon behind or drop a shell on his foot – they are familiar. I had one called Gunner . . . but I won’t name him, for that would be cruel. The brilliance of McAuslan was that George MacDonald Fraser could use him as a vehicle to tell the story of soldiering

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In Slightly Foxed No.33, Andrew Nixon paid homage to George MacDonald Fraser’s splendid creation, the appalling Flashman; and Patrick Mercer, himself an infantryman, drew attention to Quartered Safe Out Here, Fraser’s autobiographical account of his own service as an Other Rank in the Border Regiment. But both omitted mention of Fraser’s other marvellous creation, the infamous Private McAuslan, the dirtiest soldier ever to grace the tartan of a Highland regiment.

McAuslan, whose adventures are described in three books – The General Danced at Dawn (1970), McAuslan in the Rough (1974) and The Sheikh and the Dustbin (1988) – is an invention whose time has now passed. He is, in the words of any regular soldier, ‘A Thing’. Always offending the tender susceptibilities of the professional soldiers among whom he is deposited, Private McAuslan, a shrunken, grey, greasy and shambling figure, is the very antithesis of the elegant Flashman. The premise is simple – whatever is good and noble about soldiering is subverted by the shameful conduct of McAuslan, who never intentionally behaves badly, but who is such an excuse for a soldier that disaster trails him. His time has passed because the books were written in a period when many readers had an extensive memory of serving in one of the armed services, either during the Second World War or as part of National Service. They – we – all knew about similar ‘Things’. We had encountered them throughout our service, however short. The perspiring figure pan-bashing in the cookhouse, the perpetual adornment of the guardroom cells, the one man who could be relied upon to leave his weapon behind or drop a shell on his foot – they are familiar. I had one called Gunner . . . but I won’t name him, for that would be cruel. The brilliance of McAuslan was that George MacDonald Fraser could use him as a vehicle to tell the story of soldiering in a way that rang true to those who had experienced it. His McAuslan books were funny in much the same way as The Navy Lark was on the wireless – full of little jokes and subtleties that the reader recognized from his or her own experience. The stories are told by Dand McNeill, a platoon commander and long-suffering owner and guardian of Private McAuslan. They refer to an unspecified Highland regiment in that period immediately after the last war when infantry battalions were garrisoned around the world keeping the peace. In these stories, the parent unit starts in North Africa and is brought home to Scotland. McAuslan remains a constant theme, but other characters are drawn in, and they populate the familiar family of a good regiment going about peacetime duties. The Pipe Major and his early-morning sonic attacks on the junior officers, the awful moment when McAuslan stands on his glory and demands a court martial, the perfection of the description of an inter-regimental golf match – all are tales to treasure. Dand McNeill was Fraser himself, the battalion that of the Gordon Highlanders. In creating McAuslan, Fraser brought together a description of all the ‘Things’ that he had served with as an Other Rank and had commanded as a subaltern when he was commissioned. None of the tales could be attributed to one individual – Fraser was too canny for that – but each was instantly recognizable as being plausible. So many of us had experienced something similar, an impending disaster that would outrage our superiors, that would call down shame and punishment on us and, more importantly, besmirch the good name of the regiment, ship or squadron. Often unfathomable to civilians, the stories were for those who had served, a series of private jokes. I had a long and happy discussion with the author about McAuslan. The Border Regiment had been part of the 17th (Indian) Division in Burma – called the Black Cats because of their divisional identification flash. My father was there at the same time, commanding a platoon and later a company in the Royal Scots. He had fought in the same sort of intense battles as Fraser, but elsewhere. He had enjoyed Quartered Safe Out Here, thinking it as good an account as any, and I had caught him with a far-away expression, the book on his lap, when he had borrowed my copy of the McAuslan anthology. He had died by the time I could waylay Fraser, which I did quite shamelessly at the Oxford Literary Festival. I told him about my father’s enjoyment of his books. He in return told me an awful story about my father’s regiment, and confirmed that the battalion called ‘The Royals’ in the McAuslan tale about the golf competition was, as my father recalled, the very same Royal Scots. Flashman was not mentioned once. Short in stature, and modest, George MacDonald Fraser made a lasting impression on me. The rumbustious nature of the Flashman novels had suggested he would be a polished raconteur, while the affectionate way in which McAuslan is depicted had presented a more tolerant man, wise before his time in the ways of the fighting soldier. I found the understanding, protective and long-suffering Dand McNeill to be the true nature of the author. So I commend McAuslan to you, even if you don’t quite appreciate the fine detail of the jokes. The stories are of a time now gone, for the McAuslans of this age do not survive the selection process of the modern armed services. But, above all, I commend George MacDonald Fraser to you. Read all his books, and there you will find your man.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 37 © Brian Payne 2013


About the contributor

Brian Payne, once a regular soldier, is a barrister and might, if he is very lucky, have his first novel published shortly.

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