Friday, 13 October 2006

george macdonald fraser

Douglas lent me the first Flashman novel recently. Although I really enjoyed George MacDonald Fraser's short stories about life in the postwar army - and they were as good when I reread them recently in The Complete McAuslan before lending them to Douglas - I had never been interested in the Flashman novels, mainly I think because I have an aversion to historical fiction (why read a fictional version of a historical event rather than a non-fictional account, is my general rule) and in particular the idea of basing them on an unpleasant peripheral character in another work of fiction. But I've learned that these are very well researched, and it was fine.

I've just started reading Quartered Safe Out Here, which is his memoir of his time in the war in Burma, and it's shaping up well. He's written a later volume about his screenwriting career, which will be interesting too, although by all accounts those bits are interspersed with 'old right wing man railing against the government and political correctness' passages, but I'm sure I could put up with those.

I've no idea how I came across the McAuslan stories in the first place, during my schooldays - probably picked one up at a sale of work. It's quite often pretty random what you discover and what passes you by.

QSOH has at its start a section from Kipling's Gunga Din:
You may talk o' gin and beer
When you're quartered safe out here,
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 blooming boots of 'im that's got it.

In First Year English at Uni one of the set books was a volume of Kipling short stories, which I enjoyed. Accounts featuring interviews/contributions from ordinary soldiers make clear how often they are operating in combat on little food and no sleep, and no idea of the bigger picture.

From GMF's introduction to QSOH: 'With all military histories it is necessary to remember that war is not a matter of maps with red and blue arrows and oblongs, but of weary, thirsty men with sore feet and aching shoulders wondering where they are .... I must emphasise that at a private soldier level you frequently have no idea where you are, or precisely how you got there, let alone why.' He understand much more now, having read military histories, of where their little activities and actions fitted into bigger strategy and circumstance.

One of his reasons for writing his war memoir is 'to assure a later generation that much modern wisdom, applied in retrospect to the Second World War, is not to be trusted. Attitudes to war and fighting have, as I said earlier, changed considerably, and what is thought now, and held to be universal truth, was not thought then, or true of that time.' He's scathing of the revisionists and the fashionable and the backward imposition of the modern worldview on the past. Later generations, he says, 'have a tendency to envisage themselves in the 1940s, and imagine their own reactions, and make the fatal mistake of thinking that the outlook was the same then. They cannot see that they have been conditioned by the past forty years into a new philosophic tradition, requiring new explanations; they fail to realise that there is a veil between them and the 1940s. They want to see the last war in *their* terms; they want it to conform to *their* notions. Well, it won't.' Such modern views are false, and also dangerous, because they 'may be taken as true by the uninformed or thoughtless, since it fits fashionable prejudice. And that is how history is distorted. You cannot, you must not, judge the past by the present; you must try to see it in its own terms and values, if you are to have any inkling of it. You may not like what you see, but do not on that account fall into the error of trying to adjust it to suit your own vision of what it ought to have been.'

No comments: