|George MacDonald Fraser|
|Born||2 April 1925|
|Died||2 January 2008(2008-01-02) (aged 82)|
Isle of Man
|Known for||The Flashman Papers series of novels; McAuslan short stories; screenplay for Octopussy|
|Children||Caro Fraser, writer, Nick Fraser & Simon Fraser|
George MacDonald FraserOBEFRSL (2 April 1925 – 2 January 2008) was a Scottish author who wrote historical novels, non-fiction books and several screenplays. He is best known for a series of works that featured the character Flashman.
Fraser was born to Scottish parents in Carlisle, England on 2 April 1925. His father was a doctor and his mother a nurse. It was his father who passed on to Fraser his love of reading, and a passion for his Scottish heritage.
Fraser was educated at Carlisle Grammar School and Glasgow Academy; he later described himself as a poor student due to "sheer laziness". This meant that he was unable to follow his father's wishes and study medicine.
In 1943, during World War II, Fraser enlisted in the Border Regiment and served in the Burma Campaign, as recounted in his memoir Quartered Safe Out Here (1993). After completing his OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit) course, Fraser was granted a commission into the Gordon Highlanders. He served with them in the Middle East and North Africa immediately after the war, notably in Tripoli. In 1947, Fraser decided against remaining with the army and took up his demobilisation. He has written semi-autobiographical stories and anecdotes of his time with the Gordon Highlanders in the "McAuslan" series.
After his discharge, Fraser returned to the United Kingdom. Through his father he got a job as a trainee reporter on the Carlisle Journal and married another journalist, Kathleen Hetherington. They travelled to Canada, working on newspapers there, before returning to Scotland. Starting in 1953, Fraser worked for many years as a journalist at the Glasgow Herald newspaper, where he was deputy editor from 1964 until 1969. He briefly held the title of acting editor.
In 1966, Fraser got the idea to turn Flashman, a fictional coward and bully originally created by Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown's School Days (1857), into a hero, and he wrote a novel around the character's exploits. The book proved popular and sale of the film rights enabled Fraser to become a full-time writer. He moved to the Isle of Man where he could pay less tax. Covers for the Flashman novels were illustrated by Arthur Barbosa.
There were a series of further Flashman novels, presented as packets of memoirs written by the nonagenarian Flashman looking back on his days as a hero of the British Army during the 19th century. The series is notable for the accuracy of its historical settings and praise it received from critics. For example, P.G. Wodehouse said of Flashman, "If ever there was a time when I felt that 'watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet' stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman."
The first Flashman sequel was Royal Flash. It was published in 1970, the same year that Fraser published The General Danced at Dawn, a series of short stories which fictionalised his post-war military experience as the adventures of the rather unassuming "Dand" MacNeill in a Scottish Highland regiment. This series of short stories is noted for the strong and strange characters surrounding McNeill, including an aged and prototypical colonel, a perfect-soldier regimental sergeant-major, a Wodehousian adjutant, an active and dedicated pipe sergeant, a die-hard Algerian revolutionary, various blackguards and spivs, and, most memorably, Private John McAuslan, the dirtiest soldier in the world. Featuring games of golf, scrapes, and run-ins with the police both military and civil, the transfer of the die-hard to the French, and McAuslan's various disasters, these works form a picture of the British army in the period immediately after World War II.
The following year Fraser published a third Flashman, Flash for Freedom!, as well as a non fiction work, The Steel Bonnets (1971), a history of the Border Reivers of the Anglo-Scottish Border.
The film rights to Flashman were bought by Richard Lester, who was unable to get the film funded but hired Fraser to write the screenplay for The Three Musketeers in Christmas 1972. This would be turned into two films, The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, both popular at the box office, and it launched Fraser as a screenwriter. For the next 20 years, Fraser alternated between writing novels and film scripts; he also worked as a script doctor.
Following Flashman at the Charge (1973), Fraser wrote the screenplay for the movie Royal Flash (1975), also directed by Richard Lester. It was not a success at the box office.
There was another collection of Dand McNeill stories, McAuslan in the Rough (1974), then Flashman in the Great Game (1975) and Flashman's Lady (1977). He was hired to rewrite Crossed Swords (1977) and Force 10 from Navarone (1978). The latter was directed by Guy Hamilton who arranged for Fraser to do some work on the script for Superman (1978). He did some uncredited work on the film Ashanti and wrote an unused script for Tai Pan to star Steve McQueen. He also wrote a biopic of General Stilwell for Martin Ritt which was not filmed.
Fraser tried a more serious historical novel with Mr American (1980), although Flashman still appeared in it. Flashman and the Redskins (1982) was a traditional Flashman and The Pyrates (1983) was a comic novel about pirates. He was one of several writers who worked on the James Bond film Octopussy (1983). Richard Fleischer arranged for him to do work on the script for Red Sonja (1985).
After Flashman and the Dragon (1985) he was reunited with Lester on The Return of the Musketeers (1988) then released a final volume of McAusland stories, The Sheikh and the Dustbin (1988) and did another history, The Hollywood History of the World (1988). When that film book came out he was reportedly working on a science fiction film Colossus and adapting Conan Doyle's The Lost World for TV but neither project was filmed.
Following Flashman and the Mountain of Light (1990), Fraser wrote a version of The Lone Ranger for John Landis which ended up not being filmed. He did his memoirs of his experiences during World War Two, Quartered Safe Out Here (1992).
He wrote a short novel about the Border Reivers of the 16th century, The Candlemass Road (1993), then Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (1994) and Black Ajax (1997), a novel about Tom Molineaux, which featured Flashman's father as a support character.
Flashman and the Tiger (1999) consisted of three different Flashman stories. The Light's on at Signpost (2002) was a second volume of memoirs, focusing on Fraser's adventures in Hollywood and his criticisms of modern-day Britain. The latter could also be found in Flashman on the March (2005), the final Flashman, and The Reavers (2007), a comic novel about the Border Reivers in the style of The Pyrates.
Following his death a novel was discovered amongst his papers, Captain in Calico. This was published in 2015.
George MacDonald Fraser was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1999. A traditionalist, he was an Honorary Member of the British Weights and Measures Association, which opposes compulsory conversion to the metric system.
Fraser was an opponent of the United Kingdom's inclusion in the European Union.
Fraser married Kathleen Hetherington in 1949. They had three children, Simon, Caroline, and Nicholas. He had eight grandchildren. Fraser died on 2 January 2008 from cancer, aged 82.
The Flashman series constitute Fraser's major works. There are 12 books in the series:
- Flashman (1969)
- Royal Flash (1970)
- Flash for Freedom! (1971)
- Flashman at the Charge (1973)
- Flashman in the Great Game (1975)
- Flashman's Lady (1977)
- Flashman and the Redskins (1982)
- Flashman and the Dragon (1985)
- Flashman and the Mountain of Light (1990)
- Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (1994)
- Flashman and the Tiger (1999)
- Flashman on the March (2005)
The "Dand MacNeill" or "McAuslan" stories is a semi-autobiographical series of short stories based on the author's experiences in the Gordon Highlanders, in North Africa and Scotland, soon after World War II. Some of the stories were originally bylined "by Dand MacNeill", a play on the regimental motto BYDAND, meaning standfast:
- The Steel Bonnets (1971), a history of the Border Reivers of the Anglo-Scottish Border.
- The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now (1988, revised 1996) The book discusses how Hollywood deals with history. It concludes that the standard of historical analysis in most movies is far better than one might imagine. The text is illustrated by comparative images of figures from history and the actors who portrayed them in film.
- Mr American (1980), a novel about a mysterious American in England.
- The Pyrates (1983), a tongue-in-cheek novel incorporating all the possible buccaneer film plots into one.
- Black Ajax (1997), a novel about Tom Molineaux, a 19th-century black prizefighter in England. (As in Mr American, this novel is also connected to the Flashman series—in this case Sir Harry Flashman's father plays a minor role.)
- The Candlemass Road (1993), a short novel about the Border Reivers of the 16th century.
- The Reavers (2007), a comic novel of the Border Reivers, loosely based on the Candlemass Road, in the style of his earlier novel The Pyrates.
- Captain in Calico (2015), a novel posthumously issued.
Fraser wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for:
Fraser also wrote the following scripts which were never filmed:
- "Long before the decay of lying", Chicago Tribune (1963) [Chicago, Ill] 9 Nov 1969: p6.
Fraser adapted Flash For Freedom and Flashman At The Charge for BBC radio plays. Fraser was also a staunch critic of political correctness and enlarged upon his views on this matter (and others) on the BBC radio show, "Desert Island Discs."
In the film All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane (2007), the character of Michael (Matthew Zeremes) has an ideal image of a woman, which includes her being a fan of George MacDonald Fraser novels.
Fraser's Flashman at the Charge (1973) was serialized in the April and June 1973 issues of Playboy. The climactic sequence of Flashman in the Great Game (1975) was also excerpted there.
- ^ ab"Obituary of George MacDonald Fraser Author who brought new life to Flashman, the cad to end all cads". The Daily Telegraph. London. 4 January 2008. p. 27.
- ^ abSchudel, Matt (4 January 2008). "Obituary". The Washington Post. Retrieved 19 June 2010.
- ^"George MacDonald Fraser". The Daily Telegraph. London. 3 January 2008.
- ^"Obituary". The Scotsman. 4 January 2008. Archived from the original on 31 July 2012. Retrieved 19 June 2010.
- ^ abSheil, Pat (4 January 2008). "Harry Flashman finally buys it: George MacDonald Fraser (1925–2008)". The Sydney Morning Herald.
- ^Toby Clements, "Flashman flies the Jolly Roger: George MacDonald Fraser's lost pirate novel" Daily Telegraph8 August 2015
- ^Hitchens, Christopher (21 January 2008). "Farewell to Flashman; The singular creation of George MacDonald Fraser, 1925–2008". The Weekly Standard. Washington. Retrieved 5 June 2012.
- ^Shivas, Mark (August 5, 1973). "Lester's Back and the 'Musketeers' Have Got Him". The New York Times. p. 105.
- ^AT THE MOVIES; by tom buckley; brad dourif's long association with 'ragtime.'. (1980, Nov 07). New York Times Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.sl.nsw.gov.au/docview/424015798?accountid=13902
- ^LAWRENCE, V. G. (1988, Aug 13). Zipped kilts a rare faux pas in annals of hollywood history. The Globe and Mail Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.sl.nsw.gov.au/docview/385887616?accountid=13902
- ^Buck, J. (1990, Jul 08). HBO hoping to build success on a `Dream'. Chicago Tribune (Pre-1997 Fulltext) Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.sl.nsw.gov.au/docview/282918118?accountid=13902
- ^"Queen's Birthday Honours". The Times. London. 12 June 1999. p. 46.
- ^"Patrons and Honorary members". British Weights and Measures Association. Retrieved 5 June 2012.
- ^Fraser, George MacDonald (22 June 2016). "Betrayal of Britain". DailyMail.
- ^An adjectival use of the Middle Scots present participle of bide(SND: Bydand)Archived 17 January 2012 at the Wayback Machine.
- ^Fraser, George MacDonald (2008). The Complete McAuslan. HarperColins. ISBN 9780006513711.
- ^Fraser, George MacDonald. The Light's on at Signpost, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd (7 May 2002)
- ^George MacDonald Fraser, The Light's on at Signpost, HarperCollins, 2002 p 280-283
- ^Landis fulfills HBO's dreams of gold: [FIVE STAR SPORTS FINAL Edition] Buck, Jerry. Chicago Sun - Times [Chicago, Ill] 20 July 1990: 63.
- ^AT THE MOVIES; by Tom Buckley; Brad Dourif's long association with 'Ragtime.' New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast) [New York, N.Y] 07 Nov 1980: C.6.
- ^George MacDonald Fraser (2005-04-02), Flash For Freedom, retrieved 2017-07-02
- ^George MacDonald Fraser (2002-10-13), Flashman At The Charge, retrieved 2017-07-02
- ^bayster912 (2010-07-20), George MacDonald Fraser on 'Desert Island Discs' - Part 1, retrieved 2017-07-02
- ^bayster912 (2010-07-20), George MacDonald Fraser on 'Desert Island Discs' - Part 2, retrieved 2017-07-02
- ^"Playboy & Flashman", harryflashman.org, archived from the original on 17 June 2006, retrieved June 8, 2016
I met George Macdonald Fraser when he was the features editor of the Glasgow Herald. He was a very good newspaperman on what was a fine daily paper. James Holburn was the editor, Reggie Byers his deputy, Chris Small the literary editor, all admirable and amiable journalists. When Holburn retired, Fraser was for a while acting editor and should have been made editor and would have been fair and fearless. Had he tired of the daily grind he might have become cantankerous; but his devoted readers and Hollywood would only have had to wait another 20 years for the flowering of his prodigious talents.
When I left the Glasgow Herald, I spent three years on the Scotsman doing the book pages and then became an editor at an embryo publishing conglomerate within which was the house of Herbert Jenkins, publisher most famously of P.G.Wodehouse. The first volume of The Flashman Papers came in the following year, 1968. It was read initially by the music editor, David Sharp, and then by everyone in the office, including Leopold Ullstein, the publisher, who loved it, and by his Russian wife, who didn’t understand a word of it.
The immediate success of the book owed something to the inspired choice of Arthur Barbosa to design the cover. He was chosen by Richard Wadleigh, the production director, because for years he had made beautiful jackets for the novels of Georgette Heyer. George was delighted by all the paintings Barbosa made for his books, though there may have been one — for Flashman and the Redskins — that was adjudged unbecoming.
Flashman was launched in Edinburgh, of all places. The Ullsteins came from London; the American publisher, Sidney Kramer, and his wife came from New York. In the course of dinner at Prestonfield House, punctuated by the shrieks of peacocks, it began to dawn on Kramer that it was a novel that he had acquired. Yet he never wavered.
That colourful evening may have been only a short time before the Frasers went to the Isle of Man for a weekend to reconnoitre a possible future home. They never did come back, or saw their Glasgow home again until years later (I was with George at the time, and he evidenced a minimum of nostalgia). They lived near Douglas, in glorious and studious isolation, to the ends of their lives. Every tea break resembled a leader-writers’ conference, with Kathy giving as good as she got, as wise and as well-read as her husband.
George somewhere makes the woeful claim that he had never been a bestseller. He certainly was when Flashman was published. It was a straightforward matter to arrange it in those days: four copies of the book would be bought in Foyles, four in Hatchards and four in Dillons. The final Flashman novel was vigorously published by Susan Watt at HarperCollins and was also, as gave the author great pleasure, crowned a bestseller.
Most evidently the Flashman novels were not to everyone’s taste. I know of only eight women in 45 years who professed to have been seduced by them. My father, once a publisher and subsequently a vicar, read a very few pages of the first novel and said: ‘Take it to Handyside Buchanan of Heywood Hill. He was my contemporary at Rugby. He may find it comical.’ He didn’t, in fact, but he in turn said: ‘There is a young man downstairs [John Saumarez Smith], who positively enjoyed the book. I shall not stop him selling it.’ Nor did he, and Heywood Hill’s loyalty to Fraser has never failed.
George filled his days with work and with reading. I was happy to discover that the research for The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers, was done together with Kathy in libraries in Dublin. It too has a cover by Barbosa and the two reivers pictured on it are portraits of Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles — a homage typical of Fraser. The book is masterful history, a thorough account of the enmities and skirmishes and battles between 80 distinct families (including Kathy’s forebears, the Hetheringtons, described as blackmailers and murderers). The narrative, over a broad geographical and historical span — more than 300 years — is utterly beguiling. George could not accompany the photographer Alexandra Lawrence throughout the Borders, but he himself supervised the journey from afar and all but drew the superb maps made by William Bromage.
The last book of George’s I published was The Hollywood History of the World. It is an authoritative and extravagantly illustrated work, which explores in a way both personal and critical a subject that was close to his heart. I seldom heard about how exasperating it was to work in Hollywood, with all its manias and egomaniacs and the burden of being away from home; and I will never forget the joyful accounts of his dealings with Steve McQueen — who once read a page of George’s dialogue and said he would sooner act it than say it, and proceeded to do so, shifting an eyebrow, a nostril, a lip … and the work was brilliantly accomplished. Or tales of dinner with Burt Lancaster and Oliver Reed. George, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the film industry, must have been a pure delight for all of them too.
His best book is Quartered Safe out Here, which I have often heard described as the finest military memoir ever written. It is the exceptionally modest story of Private Fraser’s war against the Japanese, published almost 50 years after the events it describes. The blurb for the first edition reads:
After 25 years of chronicling the military misadventures of Flashman, the Victorian arch-cad, George MacDonald Fraser has temporarily deserted fiction to write his own factual and highly personal account of the Burma War. Quartered Safe out Here describes life and death in Nine Section, a small group of hard-bitten and (to modern eyes) possibly eccentric Cumbrian borderers with whom the author, then 19, served in the second world war, when the 17th Black Cat Division captured a vital strongpoint deep in Japanese territory, held it against counter-attack and spearheaded the final assault in which the Japanese armies were, in General Slim’s words, ‘torn apart’. It is very much a private’s-eye-view of a strange, almost guerrilla-like war; as a description of the Fourteenth Army infantryman’s lot — night attacks, ambushes, patrols, close encounters with a fanatical enemy, and set-piece battles, and of the thoughts, words, and deeds of the men themselves — it is unusual, and possibly unique. It is war in close-up: fearsome, sometimes appalling, often funny, and always a disturbing reminder of how the world and its attitudes to soldiers and soldiering have changed in 50 years.
You will recognise the hand.
George supposes in one of his memoirs that he must have been a nightmare for an editor. He wasn’t. You just knew where you stood. If you queried the spelling of a word he would say: ‘And what dictionary are you using?’ I would say: ‘Chambers.’ And he would say, ‘Well, I’m not!’ His American publisher asked him to remove the n-word from Flash for Freedom, the story of the slave trade and the undergound railroad. All he said was: ‘Would you have dared to say as much to Mark Twain? Send back my contract.’ In the event not a voice was raised in protest.
As features editor on the Glasgow Herald he did not hesitate to slash your copy to ribbons; as an author he turned in flawless prose, wrote the blurbs and never made a mistake, save possibly one. He misspelled an ancient aunt of his paperback publisher, Clarence Paget, who was involved somehow in the retreat from Kabul. The happiest mistake he didn’t make was to have remembered, at the end of Flashman at the Charge, that Flashman — having been rescued from the brink of execution in Lucknow by a British officer — should be brought the news that a book had just been published in London entitled Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
I think the only thing I did for him that he could not have done for himself was to have persuaded P.G.Wodehouse to read his work. And the latter wrote: ‘If ever there was a time when I felt that watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman.’ A whole new planet indeed.
Finally, perhaps not well enough known, a snippet of autobiography, from his introduction to a new edition, 20 years ago now, of Treasure Island:
Sixty years ago the superintendent of Carlisle swimming baths decreed that no boy of 12 years or under should use the high diving board. R.L. Stevenson was to blame for this, and would no doubt have been gratified, if not at the prohibition, at least at the reason for it. The film version of Treasure Island, with the immortal Wallace Beery as Long John Silver, was showing at a local cinema, and no incident in that splendid production had so excited our juvenile admiration as the moment when Israel Hands, played by that matchless villain, Douglas Dumbrille, dragged his way up the shrouds of the good ship Hispaniola, dirk in teeth, in pursuit of Jim Hawkins, only to be properly shot and make his fatal, twisting plunge into the watery depths. It cried out for emulation, and the deep end of the baths was rendered perilous by a constant swarm of urchins struggling to the high board and toppling backwards with realistic death-screams, regardless of the orthodox bathers below. Hence the ban. But that is Fame, and Stevenson would have been the first to recognise it.
George Macdonald Fraser’s Working Library Sale will take place from 2 June–31 July at the Mayfair bookseller Heywood Hill. The preview is open. Catalogue available at www.heywoodhill.com. Christopher Maclehose is the founder of the Maclehose Press, devoted to the translation of literature and crime fiction into English.