It was announced today that a man named Gordon Murray had died at the age of 95. The name meant nothing to me, but the achievement did. Gordon Murray produced children’s TV series for the BBC from the late Fifties through to the Seventies, and his most memorable productions were the Trumptonshire trilogy.
That’s Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley to you Johnny-(and Jenny-)come latelies who weren’t around in the Sixties. There are so many classic children’s series’ from that area of which I specifically remember watching the very first episode (these include The Magic Roundabout and Play School, though I always considered myself too grown up for that).
But I remember that very first Camberwick Green: Brian Cant’s calm, even, almost rhythmical introduction: “Here is a box. A Musical box. Wound up and ready to play. But this box can hide A secret inside. Can you guess what is in it today?”
Then the turning of a key, the beginning of a little hurdy-gurdy tune, the box spinning and its hexagonal top splitting into six parts as up through the new hole rose… on that first occasion, Mrs Honeyman. Week-in, week-out, a different member of the tiny community – small village, cotton mill, brutal fascistic Army camp disguised as picturesque castle – would appear to lead us though very calm ‘adventures’ set in an idyllic, and strangely hypnotic world.
Then our hero or heroine of the day would return to their little plinth, nodding and waving replies to Cant’s quesions, beforefreezing into their original pose and sinking back down into the Musical box, which would wind down and stop.
There were only thirteen of them, but thirteen can feel like infinity to a nine-year old boy. There were thirteen only of Trumpton, set in the nearby ‘big town’, which dispensed with the fantasy of the Musical box and simply took us straight into the story. I remember less of this, except of course for the Fire Brigade and their rollcall, which it is mandatory to repeat (and who would want to resist?): “Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb.”
Chigley was the last, but by then I was too old for such childish things, and never ever saw more than a few seconds of the country dance, which was the perennial ending, just as the Fire Brigade brass band concert in the Park was the only way out of Trumpton. Chigley was my younger sister’s thing, so you’d have to ask her what she remembers, when or if she looks back on her childhood.
But these are the obvious things, the forever-remembered peak of Gordon Murray’s career, and this piece is about something far more esoteric, older and buried deeper in my memory. The obituary tracks backwards from Trumptonshire, to approach the ‘present’ of that trilogy via Murray’s earlier career and there was mention of the33 episodes of A Rubovian Legend, at which point I nearly shouted out loud.
A wild surmise had come to me and I sprang to a Wikipedia link in search of confirmation, and there it was. For decades, literally, I have had floating in my mind, a few dim memories of a TV puppet series I used to love. It was set in a strange kingdom, with silly characters playing semi-serious parts and my one, clear, unanchored memory of it was that the Queen, or Empress, or Grand Duchess of which, whatever she was, had a pet that she used to summon with the bell-like call of ‘Pongo! Pongo! Poll-ollol-ollol-ollol-Pongo!’ (I may be an ‘ollol’ or two out there in strict accuracy but we are talking about something contemporaneous with Andy Pandy here, but much less famous).
A Rubovian Legend clicked instantly with such long-untraced memories, and there was a Wikipedia entry of that very name, every word of which seemed to fit my vaguest memories, and then there were the words: Queen Caroline’s pampered pet dragon, Pongo!
And another piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is my childhood memories slots into place, properly labelled. Gordon Murray, I probably never noticed your name at all before today, but I bow my head to and to the wonderful times you gave my childhood. You deserve to be buries with full military honours as Captain Snort orders the boys from Pippin Fort to fire a 21 gun salute to you.
I struggled to watch this week’s Horace and Pete, not due to any deficiency in the content but rather because the Council are cutting the grass around our block and the motor-mowers have been roaring on for the best part of two hours and making it impossible to hear the quiet parts of the dialogue. Oh, Uncle Pete was as audible as can be, which on one level was a shame, because he’s a true monster, a true blue-collar, ignorant, prejudiced, hidebound, chauvinist monster. He’s a very real monster and he’s presented unashamedly, and the audience that I imagine Horace and Pete attracts, will see him for what he is, but in his gross reality, he is in many ways a distillation of the things I loathe, and to which I have been ultra-sensitive since the events of seven days ago.
In real life, I would avoid him like a highly avoidable thing. Alan Alda’s performance (is this really Hawkeye Pierce?) is astounding, which only adds to the queasiness I am beginning to experience whenever he opens his mouth, and I’m forcibly reminded of the late Johnny Speight’s Till Death us do Part, and warren Mitchell’s Alf Garnett: a figure of fun, the complete Sixties’ reactionary and bigot, a satirical figure that instead found an audience of people who decided that he was speaking for them in a way no other character on TV was allowed to do.
But I ended up stopping the show after about 14 minutes, and starting again during a lull, realising I’d missed dozens of lines without which I wasn’t getting the full idea (even in trivialities, every line in this show is vital). And even then i got to 22 minutes and had to pause for over another five before it was quiet enough to continue (the mowers are still blaring as I write).
Since the opening episode, the subsequent episodes have been growing shorter, until this one barely scraped over thirty minutes (it is, however, the shortest of the series). The theme this week was sex: there was a bar discussion about abortion to begin with, in which Uncle Pete’s opinion was the loudest and most vehement, and the only woman’s was the one nobody was interested in hearing.
And it ended with Uncle Pete’s violent rejection of oral sex (even when the man is receiving) as, well, dehumanising, and his presentation of the romantic ideal, the only true love as, well, the missionary position, only as if you were standing up. It was laughable, though not in a funny way, except that in describing what real, rare love is, Alan Alda gave the sense of someone insensitive revealing something deeply private and vulnerable about themselves. Disorienting.
In between, there was Horace. Horace was depressed. You may justifiably ask, when isn’t he, but this was depressed by Horace and Pete standards. Uncle Pete, with a crassness above and beyond the call of something I’d rather not think about, diagnosed it as a need to get laid and headed for the phone to call up an Asian girl to fuck Horace (he’s never had an Asian girl, which makes him a prejudiced m*therf*cker in Uncle Pete’s vocabulary, Asian girls being there to fuck and for no other purpose).
It’s plainly deeper and more complex than that but Horace decides to act on something he can act on, not to mention the superficial pleasure of getting laid, and text’s Maggie for a booty call.
Maggie, splendidly played by Nina Arianda, as a superficially attractive blonde barmaid type, with long skinny legs in unsexual hotpants, covered by patterned opaque tights, turns out to have been an ex-lover of Horace, a waitress at the bar until she left a year ago. Turns out she left because Horace was in love with her then.
They haven’t been in touch for a year until now, and she’s happy to come round for some casual sex, for which she brings a bottle of Russian bourbon so she can get herself a bit fucked-up in preparation. But though Maggie is perfectly down with being called up by an ex-lover for a one-night stand, Horace is a bit ashamed of himself for resorting to such a thing and wants to treat this as more of a date kind of thing, have a drink, catch-up, relate, and still fuck at the end of it.
Only Maggie’s had things happen to her. She’s gotten married, to a pilot who lives in Atlanta, whirlwind romance, gloriously happy, things are brilliant, week after the honeymoon, he dies of a heart attack in Montreal, she retrieves the body, buries him gets challenged over his estate by his sister, says fuck it, walks away, back in New York. And it’s all happened so fast, like a dream and nightmare, in a few weeks, that she’s left with no feelings about it.
Nor can she really get it on with Horace, because what she really dug about him was that he was fun. And he’s not fun now.
This was a compact, but far from bijou episode, Mostyn. I’d like to say this was another thread in a tapestry, but really it’s another patch in a patchwork quilt, only not one being sewn up by some sweet, white-haired old lady. Nor was the body of the episode what necessarily the impression I took away with me.
No, the episode ended with Uncle Pete, having taken bills from the cash register, putting a pistol in his coat packet before leaving. The camera followed him to the door, which he shut behind him. It stayed in place as his silhouette turned right, and it kept looking at the door. The credits ran in absolute silence, without the Paul Simon theme music.
Part of me says they won’t do that, that television logic says you don’t kill off a character like Uncle Pete, not when you’re not even halfway through the series. But this is not a television series governed by television logic. The gun, so casually introduced, opened up my imagination: if episode 5 should feature Uncle Pete having been killed in a mugging, I would not be shocked one little bit.
Hopefully, next week it’ll be as silent as it finally is now.
As soon as it became clear that this was going to be a Jardzia Dax episode, I had my doubts about the story. I’m sorry, but to me Terry Farrell just isn’t good enough as an actress to be the central figure, nor indeed to carry through an episode with involved emotions. But despite my reservations, I did find myself moved before the end of this story, albeit by the deaths of two of the guest stars.
The set-up was that Odo was being plagued by a couple of aged Klingons, the drunken Kor and the aloof Koloth, who referred to a third, Kang. As soon as Dax heard those names, she recognised them and why they were here. Original Series fans would also have recognised the names, and the quite wonderful touch of having these parts played by the original trio of actors of a quarter century before.
The trio were on Deep Space Nine to recruit Dax, the fourth member of a Blood Oath, sworn 81 years ago, an oath of vengeance against a former pirate known only as the Albino who, after being broken by these three Klingon captains, had exacted revenge by killing the son of each man: Dax was godfather to Kang’s son.
Or rather they were here to recruit Curzon Dax, and had decidedly different responses to young, beautiful, unconvincing warrior material Jardzia. Kor, the Falstaffian one, couldn’t care, Koloth didn’t regard her fit and Kang not only released her from her oath but refused Jardzia a place.
As a Trill, each new symbiont is a new life for Dax: Jardzia owes none of the debts of Curzon, though nearly every time DS9 decides it has to give Jardzia the spotlight, it tends to involve Curzon (who, by now, is coming over as a far more interesting character than Jardzia). But Jardzia felt the obligation and forced her way onto the flight.
Needless to say, there was a by-now characteristic fumble in the storyline. Before Jardzia can request a leave of absence, Sisko, alerted by Kira that his Science Officer is planning to go off and kill somebody, furiously refuses her leave. Jardzia goes anyway, disobeying a direct order, with no consequences whatsoever: service oaths and military discipline? Pfah!
So the quartet fly off to the Albino’s satellite. It rapidly becomes clear that they have no strategic plans whatsoever but to burst in waving their bat’leth’s and crying ‘this is a good day to die’ in the sure and certain knowledge that they won’t last a minute. Indeed, that was the main reason Kang didn’t want Jardzia along: the Klingons had decided that they couldn’t win and were fixed on the next best thing, an honourable death (excuse me if I’m not up on the nuances of Klingon honour, but I’d have thought that planning to get killed failing to revenge their young sons was the very opposite of ‘honour’).
Thankfully, Jardzia knows tactics and science, so the quartet succeed in beating up the Albino’s private army. It comes at the cost of Koloth’s life, promised songs by Kor (who is himself wounded) that Klingon children would never forget. It comes at the cost of a mortal would for Kang, in a one-to-one battle with the Albino.
And it leaves Dax facing the great question, the one she’d asked of Kira to begin with. She disarms the Albino, holds her bat’leth to his throat as he sneers at her, challenging her to strike, confident that she can’t. Does Jardzia have it in her? Of course we’re not going to find out, because Kang delivers the killing stroke, before expiring.
It’s disappointing, but inevitable, to find that the central question that dominates the episode, that speaks volumes to the centrality of a character, is left unanswered, is fudged. It’s fudged so much that the closing scene, a silent one of Dax returning to duty, without (onscreen) debrief, but with Sisko and Kira sniffing at her – and no consequences whatsoever for her disobeyance of a direct order, absenting herself from duty, going AWOL – is a fudge of fudges: not even a, ‘would you have killed him?’/’I’m glad I didn’t get to find out’.
What moved me most was the old Klingons, dying their honourable deaths in fulfilment of an oath sworn eight decades ago, going out in one last battle according to their kind, avenging the murder of their innocent sons. I have my sentimentalities and that sort of thing is one of the things that always gets me.
But I do wish that DS9 would lead with its gut once in a while, stop wimping out on the moral conundra it poses, and writes itself out of corners like Dax’s refusal to obey orders with impunity. It undermines the story badly.
The thing is, I like Neil Gaiman’s stories. I have all the collections, all the novels, loads of the comics and I just bought and read The View from the Cheap Seats last weekend. I like his viewpoints, I am fascinated by his visions, I am captivated by the sense of atmosphere he evokes with his ever so slightly archaic turn of phrase, his almost oral sense of formality. And I was intrigued that Sky Arts were turning four of his short stories into a micro-series under the above name, broadcast a short time ago.
I have now watched all four today. They were not well-received in the Press, and I can understand why, because they were uniformly dreadful.
The underlying theme in Neil Gaiman’s work is Story: what it is, how it shapes us, how it shapes itself. At least a part of all his work is about how stories are structured. Everything is self-referential to some degree. Stories are about telling stories: how and why people do this, and how stories transmit themselves from one person to another, taking on their own form of life, like a sexual disease.
That’s eminently suitable for stories that are written down, to be read in private or aloud. We are all of us capable (even if many of us do not exercise this aptitude) of reading through the story, of understanding and recognising that the story is about more than a single thing, about more than what is being told to us by a voice either external or internal.
The problem is that, when a story consists of someone telling a story, and a story in which very little actually happens, and you want to turn that into a television programme in which the events of the story will be seen happening, and actors will transform themselves into character to undertake those actions, a method needs to be found to make this into something that the audience will want to brings its senses to bear upon.
Things must be seen to be done, words must be heard to be spoken, and the problem becomes particularly acute when there are not actually things being done in the story itself, or when the words are not in the mouths of characters.
Practically every single artistic choice in Likely Stories taken to effect this did not work with me. The pace was less than funereal. Mixing an interview with Neil Gaiman, talking about writing and what goes into it, into every episode was inane at best and a massive disruption to any sense of reality these situations hoped to acquire. The music, by Jarvis Cocker, attempted to define atmospheres but only ended up defining itself as ‘atmospheric’. And the use of a repertory cast, with a single guest per episode, was also a distraction from any substance the story might have hoped to gain. What accent will Monserrat Lombard’s character be using this time? should never be the first thing you notice about a story.
It could be argued that the level of artificiality Gaiman brings to his stories is best served by this approach, but I disagree. I pointed out, when excoriating the relatively recent adaptation of An Inspector Calls, what problems can arise from concretising someone or something meant to be open to individual interpretation, and the moment the characters in Gaiman’s stories – especially the narrators – gained faces and voices and, in the case of the last one, tits, they became concretised and the change of format demanded a greater attention to the reality of things.
(This latter was the most serious failure: ‘Charlotte, 19’ is supposed to be an embodiment of erotica: on the page she is whoever we believe we see in our own minds when we are most in tune with our erotic natures. On the screen, she is Chloe Hayward, who is attractive but, if she’ll forgive me, not my dream woman).
Translated to television, four deeply intriguing stories fell flat on their arses: slow, ponderous, hollow and without point. Gaiman didn’t write that kind of story when the ideas came to him, no more than did Alan Moore write workable films when he was writing V for Vendetta, Watchmen or From Hell.
Ironically, BBC TV used to have a television format that would have been ideal for each and every one of these four stories. It ran for decades, very successfully. It was called Jackanory and it would have been brilliant.
I’d gone away in March, I’d got back into my boots for the first time in nearly a decade, and it hadn’t killed me. Let’s do this again.
I was enjoying myself at my new firm, settling into place. I’d started at a very busy time, too busy basically for anyone to properly speak to me that first week, or rather four days since it ran up to Good Friday. The firm’s principal client was the Housing Corporation and it had £7,000,000 to disburse on various Refurbishment and Newbuild schemes by Housing Associations in the North of England. It had to all be spent by Easter, or the budget for 1983/4 would be cut, and my new colleagues were working every hour God sent to get this done, and a newby who didn’t know the procedures couldn’t take any of the strain from them.
I had no interest in the conventional sun and sea holidays, I had no children restricting my holiday times to school holidays, I was happy to let my colleagues take the prime weeks as long as I got the days here and there for Roses Matches and the Old Trafford Test, and I booked my real holiday for the beginning of September, and went off once more to the Lakes, after the crowds had started to thin.
It was the same as before: set off on Monday for Ambleside, but this time I stayed two nights there, and two nights in Keswick. And from Ambleside on Tuesday, I set off to the Tilberthwaite Valley.
We’d visited once in the Seventies, the post-Dad family, changing into our boots, setting off into the gorge, heading for Tilberthwaite Gill falls. Which were about five minutes away. I can’t help but be amused by it: a complete failure of planning by my Uncle and Mother. Given the number of times I’d read the Wainwrights by then,I was far better prepared than anyone else to plan a walk in new country, but of course I was still part of the ‘children’, which meant that my voice counted for absolutely nothing.
We’d barely begun and here we were, sat around on the banks as if we were stopping for a much deserved drink, nothing to do and nowhere to go, since the gorge stopped there. Having not used up even the least amount of energy, I prowled around, discovered a path under the trees, scaling the flank of the gorge behind us and received official permission to see where it went. I scrambled uphill, under the trees, to where it debouched onto a wide, well-made track rising from right to left, just inviting exploration.
I descended, reported my discovery and, with a certain degree of resignation among the adults that seemed to be based on this being my idea and not their’s, led them up into the open air and along the track. Not far ahead, it would round to the right, into a shallow, upland valley, walled off by a green ridge at its further end.
The path – an old miner’s track to their mines – was beautifully graded. It skirted the edge of the valley to the old, abandoned mines, at the valley end, and we followed the track as it continued upwards, to the ridge, with Wetherlam rising majestically to the left.
I was all in favour of going for it. We hadn’t expended that much energy getting here, and we had ample time, but the adults were not in favour (I had gotten too much leeway today as it was). So we walked back, following the miner’s track all the way down, then round to the car parked at the foot of the Gill.
I walked ahead, all the way, separated from the rest of the family. I had begun to do that since my Peak Forest Canal sponsored walk in 1972. I didn’t go too far distant, but I was fitter and a faster walker than the rest, and I suppose that subconsciously I was demonstrating how I was continually straining at the leash.
As a family, we never went back to Tilberthwaite but I remembered the miner’s route and kept it in mind, and now I was in charge, it seemed a perfect opportunity to follow my interest, and not to stop at the foot of the ridge again. It was a sunny day, unlike my two expeditions in March, and after sweating a bit to get up the first climb out of Tilberthwaite – these miners really walked to work this way every morning? Cor! – I got into the upper valley and made good time round its rim and onto the ridge.
With the exception of my brief, rocket-fueled powering up Helvellyn from Striding Edge, Wetherlam Edge was the roughest thing I’d tackled thus far. It was a broken route, without a consistent path, and sometimes it took me to the literal edge. I was tense all the way, worrying about getting into a position from which I couldn’t retreat, but I negotiated my way to the summit, with its impressive views over towards the Scafells, and I had reached my first substantial, serious top on my own.
But it was the same as Helm Crag in the March: now I was here, what did I do next? Once again I hadn’t thought further than the summit I’d set out to attain and it was still far too early that day to just turn back and head for my car. It certainly wasn’t going to rain that afternoon.
So, because it was still early, not even 1.00pm, I ploughed on to the next obvious destination, Swirl How, across Swirl Hause. This meant facing the Prison Band or rather, at this early stage in my career, taking the path avoiding the crest and the scramble, to its right, until I was on the summit. I had completed my first ridge route, I had climbed two fells in the same day for the first time ever!
And from Swirl How’s summit, the ridge curved around the head of Greendale, to nearby Great Carrs, whose summit cairn was entirely too near for me to ignore it. A seven minute stroll, Wainwright called it, which was a challenge worth taking up. I didn’t exactly saunter, in fact I strode out enthusiastically rather than stroll, and I was at the cairn in exactly seven minutes.
Then it was another case of what next? Grey Friar was in sight, it was still only 2.30pm, what was to stop me? It was a consciousness of my inexperience, not in the sense of potential lack of competence, but a genuine lack of any understanding of my stamina. I could go on, but at what point was I going to start to flag? Thanks to my lack of foresight, every step forward was carrying me further away from my car, would be a step back I had to cover when I reach the limits of my stamina.
Reluctantly, because it was still a lovely afternoon, sunny and bright and hours of it to come, I turned back. Back round Greendale head to Swirl How – definitely not a seven minutes stroll that way – down beside the Prison Band and a somewhat wearing scramble back onto and towards Wetherlam.
The ascent of Wetherlam Edge had left me eager to avoid it on the way back, and the chance came when I was on the ridge, still climbing towards the summit. Grassy flanks opened up to my right, pathless but inviting. No need to climb any higher, I could detour across this flank, work my way onto the Lad Stones ridge, down towards the valley and, lower down, when the ridge began to bend west towards Coniston, and the path from Coppermines Valley to Tilberthwaite was visible in open country, I could divert eastwards to pick it up.
There were a couple of walkers camped on the path. It seemed churlish to aim to avoid them, though they were a pair of middle-aged women who’d stopped for a brew. And my inexperience had shown in my having carried insufficient liquid that I was dry and parched. Kindly, they poured out for me a cup of tea, though the milk was heading rapidly towards the turn and little bits of it floated in the cup, which made me feel a bit ill (which I tried to both ignore and not show).
And then it was the final leg, descending into Tilberthwaite Gorge, steeply beside the invisible falls, and out into the car park, approaching my car from the opposite side to that I had left six hours or so previously.
The next day, I moved on to Keswick, using the day to relax and move about. For some absurd reason that I wouldn’t grow out of for another couple of years, I had the impression that I wasn’t fit enough to go walking more than every other day, so I had no plans to do any more walking until Thursday.
As I’ve mentioned many times, my family was rooted in the southwest quarter of Lakeland, the Southern and WesternFells, with an expedition into the Central Fells, and I had dragged us into the Eastern and Far Eastern Fells on that final holiday near Ullswater. But none of us had done any walking in the North Western Fells, and Wainwright’s obvious love of that region had attracted my attention a hundred times when I had been reading the books.
Now was the time to break that duck, beginning with the attractive oddity of Causey Pike.
It looked seriously steep as I approached it from the road across the valley, parked in a corner of the road that didn’t obstruct anyone’s way. I was tossing over in my mind how to proceed, right up to the foot of the fell: did I take the narrow, exciting route over Rowling End, or did I play safe and take the boring, steady route to the base of the fell? Well, duh!
It was Rowling End, then a steep ascent, although I did bottle out on the short scramble over the final few feet of rock just below the cairn (this first time). And here I was.
And there was Scar Crags, further back, higher, much less distinctive, mind, so I set off in that direction. By the time I reached its whaleback top, the clouds were gathering and rain was no longer merely an option, so I passed straight on, there being nothing to detain me on the top, not even a decent cairn.
Down to the col and, the conditions being what they were, turning down on the right, into the narrow valley that would lead me back to the road and the car. Except that it didn’t come on to rain that quickly. It grew dim and grey, and there was a parallel ridge that wasn’t all that high above the valley, so I crossed over, across the damp, green-looking bed of what must once have been a tarn, and contoured my way awkwardly up to the top of Outerside.
I was now on a roll, down Outerside’s steep, long southern ridge, by-passing Stile End – it did not count as a Wainwright – and up to the top of Barrow: only two days and I had already exceeded my record number of fells in a single day. I had also, more by luck than good judgement, found the kind of walk I would specialise in in future. I had ascended by one ridge and descended by another, minimising to the point of almost obliteration, the ground I had to tread twice in a day (hence my use of the term ‘trodden ground’ for that part of the walk I had to tackle twice).
There being no direct way down from Barrow towards my car, I retreated to the col below Stile End and took the diagonal path heading back up the gill that would merge, further up, with the path descending it. Just where the two met, the heavens opened. I sat down and pulled on my waterproofs, and then walked back down the gill to the car.
Seven summits in two walks, but more importantly I had begun to accustom myself to the fells. To longer walks with more tops than my family had ever planned, to forward planning, so that I could arrange my walks to avoid repeating or retreading my steps. To realising that I didn’t need company on the fells, that solitude and autonomy were brilliant, and that I wasn’t maybe a liability to myself after all, who had to have someone around to tell me where to walk and get me out of the problems I’d inevitably stumble over if I was left to take responsibility for my clumsy, useless self.
I was already addicted to the fells. It hadn’t quite come to me that I could go on and climb all of them. The desire had been there, in every page of every Wainwright that I’d read and re-read, over and over. I needed to start to believe in my capacity for doing so. March had seen me get into my boots again, but September had start to build my never sturdy confidence that I could physically do it. The road to anywhere starts with a single step, but getting there requires understanding that you can indeed put one walking boot in front of another enough times to get to the end, and I was already looking forward to next year, and more places I’d never been, more paths I’d never followed, and more views that I would reach under my own steam.
The channge meant never going back to Throstlegarth from Brotherilkeld, or Goatswater from Torver again. It meant that climbing Mill Gill to Stickle Tarn was a means to an end, not a destination itself.
Why my mother,and my Uncle, weren’t interested, why they wanted only so many things and nothing more when there was the whole of the Lakes to be taken in and enjoyed, I never knew nor understood. My mother would enjoy the photos I brought back, but even if her slowly deteriorating health would have allowed her, she would never have dreamed of walking in those, to her, alien places (I do her one injustice: in the second Drought Summer, in 1984, she drove herself to Mardale, walked through the revealed Village of Mardale Green. But she wouldn’t even have considered little Latrigg, because it didn’t lie between Ambleside and Wasdale.)
We are all strangers to each other, no matter how close we are. I always imagine that my Dad would have followed ever footstep I made in the fells (except the stupid ones) if he’d had the opportunity. On Earth-2, I like to think that he did. Solitude and autonomy are one thing, but I’d have welcomed his company every single day.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
And thus it begins: Flashman, aka The Flashman Papers 1839-1842, packet number one of the ‘dozen or so’ found in a chest of drawers at an auction in Ashby, Leicestershire in 1965, and entrusted to journalist George MacDonald Fraser to edit and prepare for publication.
The dated discovery links to Fraser’s original idea. A well-respected journalist, Deputy (and on occasion Acting) Editor of the Glasgow Herald, Fraser conceived of Harry Flashman in 1966, and wrote the book art home, in the evenings. Progress was interrupted by a broken arm, at which time Fraser gave up the idea, but was persuaded to resume work by his wife Kathleen, who thought that what he was doing was too good to abandon.
Having completed the novel, it took Fraser two years to sell it. It was first published in hardback by Barrie & Jenkins and was immediately popular. The book’s impact was astonishing for a first novel, not least in America, where no less than ten reviews mistook the story for genuine memoirs and presented it as non-fiction.
P.G. Wodehouse greeted it, in words still quoted on the last edition of the paperback, with “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.” Film Director Richard Lester bought the film rights, though he was never able to get the film made (he would bring Flashman to the screen in a 1975 adaptation of the second novel, with a screenplay by Fraser). This latter success enabled Fraser to retire from journalism and become a full-time writer.
It also enabled him to move his family to the Isle of Man, where he would pay less taxes.
In short, Flashman was an immediate and enormous success, and the foundation stone of a series that would expand to a total of twelve books (one of them a collection of short stories), and extend over thirty-seven years. But what’s it about?
As I’ve already described in the Introduction, Fraser’s notion is that the minor figure of Rugby School bully, Harry Flashman, goes on to be a tremendous success, earning a vast public reputation as a hero, a warrior, the incarnation of the Victorian soldier-hero, whilst still remaining the coward, bully, toady, lecher, rake and cad that he always was. Flashman would be a game, a balancing act between the public character that brought him fame, wealth, honour, attention, women, and the snivelling funk and frustrated attempts to stay out of harm’s way without anyone noticing that was the real man.
And in being at the heart of an almost impossible number of wars, battles and incidents for the next seventy years, Flashman would be an almost unfailingly accurate witness to the reality of the great century of Empire, and the perfect symbol of the tension between public history and private incompetence that those who still worship the Empire either choose to ignore, or else are completely ignorant of.
What Fraser does in the first book is to create Flashman for us as the voice that will lead us through these adventures. The meat of the story, dictated by the history Fraser is adapting, is going to be the latter part of the First Afghan War, but first Fraser takes his time over dropping his man into the first of a great many sticky situations.
The book begins directly upon Flashman’s expulsion from Rugby, with Flash at pains to refute Thomas Hughes’ description – at least to the extent that Flashman was the author of his own ill-fortune. Flashman then diverts into the purpose of these memoirs: that he will be open, candid and truthful about his life, since at his advanced age he no longer cares for maintaining the face he has put on for so long (and is fully aware that after all this time, no-one would believe him anyway).
It’s 1839, Harry Paget Flashman is seventeen and there are a couple of years to fill in before there’s a military engagement for him to tremble through. So, without clogging up the account with unnecessary – and dull – detail, Fraser moves his pieces into position.
Flashman wants a commission in the Army: indeed, he’s chosen a regiment, the 11th Hussars, as they become, under Lord Cardigan. Great uniform, great style, and only just posted back from India so not going into action any time soon. His father’s dubious about the notion but comes round to it quickly (Harry has bedded Judy, his father’s mistress, overnight, though he only gets to do that once, much to his chagrin and anger) and Buckley Flashman seems to have sniffed the wind.
So Flashman cuts a figure with the 11th, the Cherrypickers, receives Cardigan’s favour for his turn-out and his ‘gentleman’s background, lives high, happily and viciously as is his wont, to the extent of stealing a fellow officer’s French prostitute mistress. Unfortunately, being too naïve and bumptious to keep his mouth shut, Flashy finds himself forced into a duel – with the Cherrypickers’ crack shot.
Typically, he saves himself by having a toady, Bryant, palm the ball in the process of loading Bernier’s weapon, but his real fame erupts when he casually fires to one side and shoots the neck off a bottle! This has the counter-effect of the real reason for the duel coming out, so Flashman has to temporarily transfer to a regiment based in Glasgow. He’s billeted with the dull, Presbyterian family of miserly merchant John Morrison, whose third daughter, Elspeth, is a gloriously empty-headed blonde beauty.
Naturally, Flashman takes the first opportunity to seduce Elspeth, who proves to be an exceedingly willing partner, but also too dumb not to refer to it in ordinary conversation. So Flashman finds himself coerced into a shotgun wedding (or maybe a cavalryman’s sabre wedding). It’s not too bad in its own way: Flashman is not one to love, but he has a tremendous affection for his new wife, over and above her willing passion. But by marrying ‘trade’, Flashman has disgraced himself, at least as far as Cardigan is concerned. He must leave the 11th Hussars – Prince Albert’s regiment – and transfer permanently. And this must be to India.
It’s the last place Flashy wants to go, with years of separation from his young bride to boot. He conceives a lifelong hatred for Cardigan, which will work its way through other books, though crediting him with, in his own stupid way, wanting to do the best for Flashman. But his real hatred is for his father, who forces him to go to India by threatening to cut him off completely. It’s not the threat, but his father’s callous dismissal of the idea that Flashman has any true feelings for Elspeth that cuts deepest.
Fraser has this, gently, easily and naturally, moved Flashman to India. Once Harry is there, acting of course like an utter brute, flogging the n***ers (the language is that of the times, authentically), he cannot but resist toadying to those in authority, showing off his horsemanship, lacing prowess and – most crucial of all – his knowledge of the local language. The result is that he is seconded as an aide to General Elphinstone, on his way to take command of the Army in Afghanistan. And Flashman is sent off to Kabul, to be right in the middle of a lethal situation.
This preparatory work takes 86 pages of a 294 page book, but it covers two full years of the Packet. It’s a slower start than modern publishers would accept nowadays, and even once Flashman is through the famous Khyber Pass, the tension still has further to go until the disaster begins to fold. But remember that this book is both a drama and a comedy. This extended approach gives us ample opportunity to get to know Flashy and, despite our better instincts, to like him.
Yes, he’s quite simply a cold, callous, self-centred man, without conscience or concern for others. He’s capable of all manner of bad things without ever becoming dishonest in the face of the law. He’s a rake, a cad and a brute. When Judy won’t lower herself to him a second time, Flashman strikes her in his fury. Later in the book, he rapes a dancer, with terrible consequences for himself, though this is not something that gets repeated.
Yet Flashman has charm. He’s unfailingly honest with himself, and is possessed with substantial charm. His writing style is smooth, flowing, conversational, and he is never short of opinions about what goes on round him, and the people he meets. He doesn’t particularly like any of them especially those who, to one degree or another, are good and caring, but he understands and respects soldiering and those who are good at it, and what it is, even if he wants nothing at all to do with it.
And he’s a lecherous brute, who sees women – with the exception of Elspeth – in terms of their beddability and not much else. Not really your New Man.
To some extent, he’s also a wish-fulfilment figure, already, living out his impulses, indulging himself: not without a care for the consequences, but nevertheless without those consequences, ultimately. He might suffer for it, which is only right and proper, but he rebounds from it next to heedlessly, with the narcissist’s only true concern, his own amusement. Flashman is a manifestation of the uncontrolled Id: he does what he wants, which is tremendously appealing to almost everyone at some level, and he gets away with it. By Kabul, you may not approve of Flashman, or respect him, or necessarily like him, but you’re with him, involved with him, and you want him to escape punishment for the things he gets himself into, not because you don’t believe in just desserts, but because you want him to be able to go on to the next thing, and drag you along with him to watch in fascinated horror.
And because you recognise that you are dealing with things that are very close to the reality of what happened then, and you feel the effects, and you want to know more about what the history books don’t tell you. And the First Afghan War is a prime example of that.
In reality, Flashman is joining the war at a very late stage. How late it is, Fraser doesn’t explain because Flashman isn’t really interested in anything but how dangerous it is for him personally. In later books, Flashman and Fraser will give some pertinent background, but here it’s omitted. I had to look up myself that the War had started in 1839, by British invasion as a precautionary measure against the threat of Russian infiltration from Central Asia – the earliest stages of the ‘Great Game’ that would become more threatening throughout the century.
Instead, all we get is Flashy coming in with,and just ahead of the new Commander of that Army, General Elphinstone, who would command that army into ruin, devastation and destruction, through the incredible incompetence of an elderly, unwell, unfit and indecisive man who has to be one of the worst Army Commanders of the century.
Certainly, Fraser is scathing, indeed savage, about Elphy Bey, and not just him but the Politicals, ‘Sekunder’ Burnes and Macnaghten, with their stupid self-confidence and their wilful blindness to the facts. But whereas Flashy is contemptuous of Elphinstone for placing him, personally, in such danger, Fraser, the ex-soldier, the ex-officer, responsible for the men of his company, is furious at the leadership that condemned an Army to death, that wasted the lives of men who were just like those he had served alongside and commanded, in Burma, North Africa and Palestine.
I’m not going to detail those events: even the least military of minds will be shocked at the slow, purblind step towards devastation, so easily foreseeable, with opportunities to act on all sides, yet which inexorably ended up in massacre.
No, these books are Flashman’s story, and it’s more pertinent to focus on his part in this war, and how he gets his completely undeserved rewards.
Right from the start, Fraser establishes that Flashy is going to be everywhere that something happens. At first, this is done via his missions as an aide de camp, delivering messages etc., but then this bleeds over into the flashpoints.
Flashy escapes with Sekundar Barnes when his Residency is attacked by mobs, and is witness to the Resident overplaying his hand in native dress, and his arrogance bringing down the mob and their knives.
He’s captured by his enemy Gul Shah, but passes into the custody of the man behind the Afghan rising, Abdul Khan who uses him as a messenger to Macnaghten, to test his capacity for treachery. Needless to say, the Governor chooses to go with his desperate desire that his enemies be more stupid than him, and Flashy gets to be present when he too is hacked to death.
He’s there for the negotiations that lead to the British Army throwing away every last advantage it has, due to Elphinstone’s weakness, haplessness and an approach to choices against whom Hamlet would be the poster boy for the decisive.
Recognising a ship that’s sinking, Flashman utilises his competent subordinate, Sergeant Hudson, to set up a way out for him personally. Hudson’s the first, but not the last good soldier Flashman comes across, a natural soldier, a sergeant to his boots, competent, straightforward, brave and committed to his duty. Flashman sneers at him, but Fraser makes us see that beneath the contempt Flashy has for one who has fallen for all the old ideals, Hudson is the kind of man upon which Armies are made: without his competence, Flashman, young and very naive, would never get a foot clear.
Fraser’s very good on the atmosphere of the terrible dying retreat. When it gets beyond a certain point, Flashman cuts and runs, telling Hudson they’re on special orders from Elphinstone. Their flight brings them at one point into sight of the last cutting down of the Army, but it also sees them captured and Flashy back in the vengeful hands of Gul Shah.
But still he gets clear, thanks again to Hudson. But their flight comes to an end at Jullulabad, where General Sale’s Army are besieged. No access to Jullulabad, but the pair reach Pipe’s Fort, a small isolated fort in a strategic position, being defended by a diminishing garrison against capture by the Afghans.
Flashy’s gone. He’s completely and utterly broken and doesn’t care if anyone sees his utter cowardice. It’ll be his lowest point, born of inexperience and the utter conviction of inevitable death, relieving him of the final shred of responsibility to his reputation. Hudson finally sees him as he is, setting aside the doubts he’s loyally been trying to maintain. As the siege rolls on, Flashy cowers, until Hudson forces him into aiding the defence, right up to the final attack. The fort is breached. Flashy grabs the flag, trying to hand it over, to surrender.
But in the grand Flashman tradition, this isn’t invaders, it’s a relief force, and of course they take his actions as Flashman the warrior preserving the flag to the last extreme. Hudson, the only possible survivor of the defence who might have been believed, is dead, and Flashy has everyone’s goodwill is interpreting the facts to his credit. Out of everyone else’s goodwill, or at least their urge not to think a soldier could be such a poltroon, they read the events as they want to read them: that Flashy got himself up off his death bed, not his coward’s pit, to give his failing strength to the cause.
This is the template that Fraser established from the outset. Flashy’s reputation would grow and grow from book to book. No matter how disastrous his performance, or especially everybody else’s, his powers of dissemblement, his quick thinking and eye for an opportunity would see him come out with credit, but as much if not more of this would be this case of give a dog a good name. People would flock to Flashman’s reputation, and shield their own eyes from the dodgy moments. It would only get easier. And for his exploits in this opening volume, Flashman gets two great rewards on his return to England, as practically the only ‘hero’ in the whole thing: an extremely rare medal pinned to his chest by the young Queen Victoria – and a handshake of thanks from the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington.
Of course, there would always be those who would see through Flashy for what he really was. Some of them were rogues themselves, and some had roguery in them. Over the course of the next eleven books, we’ll meet a hell of a lot of them.
History and Memories
This little section will follow each blog. It will focus on those moments in each book where Flashman’s reminiscences touch upon periods of his career not directly related in The Flashman Papers, and those moments when Flashman’s memory lets him down and contradicts his ‘official’ record.
This being the first novel, Fraser stays primarily in the present, with only a couple of moments where he escapes from the immediate story to reflect on times lying ahead.
p.34 In discussing his opinions of Lord Cardigan and his character, Flashman recalls the aftermath of the Charge of the Light Brigade, the solemn roll-call beneath the Causeway Heights as the names of the Brigade are read out and the extent of the dead are slowly discovered, with Cardigan denying any responsibility. This is however a failure of foresight on Fraser’s part: by the time we come to the Crimea, in Flashman at the Charge, Flashy is captured by the Russians at the end of the Charge of the Light Brigade, and cannot be present at this moment. We would have known of it, indeed discussed it with others who were present, but he was not himself the witness he implies himself to be.
p.220. The only other instance in Flashman comes when he and Sergeant Hudson are in Gul Sha’s jail, and Flashman compares it, in passing, to other jails he’s known in his life: Mexico, Australia, America, Russia and England. It’s easy to place these as references to his experiences during Emperor Maximilian’s reign in Mexico, the American Civil War (where Flashy was imprisoned by both sides), the Australian Gold Rush, his capture after the Charge of the Light Brigade and any number of jailings at home for drunkenness etc. when young and irresponsible. Only the Crimean War experiences will be detailed.