A brief speculation on Flashman’s career: Part 5 – 1868-1876


The next phase of Sir Harry Flashman’s career takes us from the end of his successful campaign in Abyssinia in 1868 to the long-overdue conclusion of his American escapades in 1876.
It’s a period that takes in several adventures that we know of only in passing, and seven years of Flashman’s middle age during which the pace at which he goes through escapades may well slow a little.
Flashman leaves Abyssinia in May 1868, and we have no reason to doubt that he returned home, with his usual urge to never leave again. In the summer, he travels to the Mediterranean to meet Emperor Franz-Joseph and Empress Elizabeth of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to receive the Empire’s highest honour, the Order of Maria Theresa, in honour of his service to the Emperor’s late younger brother, Maximilian.
Mention should be made of Flashman’s reference to observing a battle from a Hot Air Balloon, which he did once, whilst in Paraguay. In the absence of any other information, Flashman aficianados have tentatively ascribed this to the War of the Triple Alliance, 1864 – 1870, and have suggested that this incident took place in 1868, though no-one has come up with any explanation for him being in South America at this time.
On the other hand, there is no mention anywhere in the Papers of any occurrences out of the ordinary in 1869. And Flashman does mention Elspeth developing a passion for travel somewhere in the years leading up to 1875. Though he only mentions European/Mediterranean destinations (the Black Forest, the Pyrenees, the Italian Lakes, the Holy Land, the Pyramids and Greece), it’s not implausible that this might have started with a trip to South America.
We do know is that Flashman was involved, in some unspecified capacity, in the ‘Franco-Prussian nonsense’ (July 1870 – May 1871), and was in Paris for at least some part of the lengthy siege of the City. During this period, he renewed acquaintance with his old Civil War comrade, General Philip Sheridan, and first met the journalist Stefan Blowitz.
Unfortunately, Flashman has also referred to acting as Deputy Marshall to James ‘Wild Bill’ Hickock, and holding the latter’s guns in the confrontation with the gunman, John Wesley Hardin, in Abilene (April – December 1871). How (and why) he got to Kansas from France is a perfect mystery, especially as he’s certainly not brought Elspeth along.
It would be nice to think that these incidents were followed by a peaceful period, indulging Elspeth’s travels. And these would, of course, be a perfect excuse for Flashman to be in Egypt whilst Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was securing the Suez Canal shares for Britain in 1875: Flashman is involved in some aspects of the negotiations, even if only as witness to what he openly suggests is double-dealing by the politician. Ultimately (but presumably much later), this would lead to the impounding by Bailiffs of all copies of Flashman’s official memoirs, Dawns and Departures of a Soldiers Life. Three volumes were written, and Flashman must have had some kind of leisure time in which to write these, very carefully.
Not all Flashman’s time is spent travelling. Among those of his conquests who retained his interests throughout his life was the actress and future Royal Mistress, Lily Langtry. Since Flashman boasts of ‘being aboard her’ before HRH, that relationship must have begun in 1874, placing our hero back in London for some time.
But by 1875 at least, Elspeth is definitely interested in travelling further afield, and so Flashman does take her to America, to the United States, where he finds his past catching up on him.
The Flashmans head first to Philadelpia, for Phil Sheridan’s wedding, allowing Flashman to reacquaint himself with various of his former Army colleagues, including George Custer, whom Flashman barely knew during the Civil War business, but who adopts him now.
Custer is, as usual, on the outs with Army authority, and especially his former Commander-in-Chief, Sam Grant, now President. Custer has no compunction about using Flashman against Grant, any more than Grant has about involving Flashman in the negotiations with the Sioux over the Black Hills of Dakota, where gold has been discovered.
The negotiations are not being carried out in good faith, except perhaps for the cynical Flashman, who counsels his old Indian contact, Spotted Tail, rather more honestly than anyone else on the white side does. When he’s not worrying about whether Elspeth is romping on the prairie with the old chieftain that is.
But Flashman has concerns of his own. A certain businesswoman, a Mrs Arthur B Candy, is attracting his lustful eye, with ostensibly a business proposition, calling on Flashman’s supposed influence with German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Flashman knows that he has absolutely no influence whatsoever, but is happy to go along if it will get him into bed with Mrs Candy.
He even allows her to lead him into the same territory as the Seventh Cavalry, complete with the unstable Custer, are entering, in pursuit of the Sioux. But this is a serious mistake, for Mrs Candy is now who she claims to be: she is Cleonie, Flashman’s lover and Susie Willinck’s whore twenty-five years ago, who he sold to the Indians. She has endured, hating him now as much as she loved him then, and now she’s discovered him back in America, she wants her revenge. Kidnap, and torture as only an Indian can, by her son.
Two factors disrupt Cleonie’s revenge. The Indian camp to which she has Flashman carried is that on the Little Big Horn river, the day of Custer’s fateful attack. And her son, who doubles between being an Indian Brave and an Army Scout of some repute, is not just her son, but Flashman’s, and he has a mind of his own when it comes to the old man.
So Frank Flashman Grouard rescues his father from the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and nurses him back to health before delivering him to Deadwood to return to Washington. He rides away forever, leaving Flashman with a heartache that lasts all of sixty seconds.
Flashman wastes no time leaving Deadwood on the first stage, but first he bumps into his old friend, Wild Bill Hickock, to whom he tells the truth of his long American odyssey. It makes no odds: unknown to Flashman, as his stage leaves town, Hickock has been shot in the back in the saloon.

A brief speculation on Flashman’s career – Part 2 – 1847 – 1854


(Heh, heh, oops. Should have checked before posting part 3 whether I’d posted part 2. Just goes to show that none of you are paying attention, either.)

The next period of Flashman’s career occupies a relatively short space of time, but a tremendous number of events, as recorded in the Second, Third and Seventh Packets. It runs from Flashman’s return to London in ‘late 1847’ recovering from his wound, to his arrival in San Francisco in September 1850, at the (temporary) end of his American adventures.
Despite his long separation from Elspeth, Flashman finds London uncongenial, thanks to the presence of his in-laws, especially his father-in-law. Hence, when he receives a letter inviting him to supply a personal service to an unknown titled lady in Bavaria, complete with generous expenses, he overcomes his suspicions and travels to Germany.
There, he learns that the mysterious Countess is actually Lola Montez, mistress to the King of Bavaria, and seemingly having forgiven her resentment at Flashman. However, she is acting in concert with Flashman’s other victim of that time, Otto von Bismarck, now Chancellor of Prussia, and commencing the long process of manipulation that would lead to the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership. Flashman is framed on a trumped up charge of rape, forcing him to agree to Bismarck’s scheme
As a forerunner to the infamous Schleswig-Holstein Question, Bismarck is focused on the tiny Duchy of Strakenz, whose young ruler, Duchess Irma, is shortly to marry Danish princeling Carl Gustaf. But Carl Gustaf has apparently contracted a sexual disease and cannot marry until he is disease-free. Since Flashman is his virtual double, he will marry the Duchess in Carl Gustaf’s place.
To Flashman’s dismay, the plot is a set-up, with the intention that he be killed and framed as an English spy. he manages to escape Bismarck’s men, but is forced into rescuing Carl Gustaf from execution. This accomplished, he is allowed to ride for the border but, being Flashman, he rides via the Treasury and removes as much as he can carry.
Flashman’s escape route takes him back through Bavaria, and into the 1848 revolution, which overthrows both the King and Lola Montez. Flashman hitches a ride out of Bavaria with Lola, only for her to rob him of his ill-gotten gains. Flashman returns to London empty-handed, in time for the Chartist Riots.
These frighten his father-in-law John Morrison into wanting to raise a group of MPs to protect his interests. Flashman is amenable to becoming an MP, especially if it will keep him away from battlefields, but on his ‘launching’, he encounters an old enemy that he has cheated, who retaliates by framing Flashman for cheating at cards.
Flashman compounds his disgrace by attacking his former friend, and almost killing him. He is rushed out of the country by Morrison, under the control of Captain John Charity Spring, a defrocked Oxford Don and a near-madman. His ship is also in the Slave Trade, which Flashman doesn’t learn until it is far too late.
Spring’s ship stops first at Dahomey in West Africa, to buy slaves from King Gezo. His attempt tp buy one of Gezo’s Amazon, in exchange for the ship’s cabin boy, has consequences in both the short and long-term. Second Mate Beauchamp Comber is fatally wounded n the escape. before he dies, he confesses to Flashman that he is a Navy Officer engaged in spying, and entrusts his papers to Flashman. When the ship is taken by the American navy, Flashman uses these to impersonate Comber, taking in everyone except an obscure member of Congress, Abraham Lincoln.
‘Comber’ is much in demand but Flashman’s biggest concern is having to testify in New orleans, against Spring and his men, which will lead to his imposture being detected. He takes refuge in a whorehouse, playing up to its Madam, the mature Susie Willinck, who arranges passage for him on an England-bound ship. However, ‘Comber’ has been watched by the Underground Railroad, who want him to escort a slave north to freedom. Lacking alternative, Flashman has to accede.
Unfortunately, his charge is unable to play the part of a slave, leading to the pair’s exposure. Flashman escapes by diving into and swimming the Mississippi, after which he takes a job as a slave overseer at the Mandeville Plantation, under the name Tom Arnold. This cushy berth is disrupted when he is caught screwing the owner’s wife, Annette Mandeville, and is punished by being sent into slavery himself, in the Deep South, where he will never be found.
Flashman travels with another slave, Cassieopia, who assists him in overcoming and killing their guards. Under the name of James Prescott, Flashman takes Cassie north on the Mississippi towards freedom, but is careless enough to get the pair turned round and heading south again.
They are forced to run across the ice to the north shore, chased by slave-stealers, who wound Flashman in the buttocks, and are only saved when Lincoln faces the stealers down.
But ‘Comber’ now has to return to New Orleans and testify. Being Flashman, he steers between all the traps, telling the ‘truth’ but not incriminating Spring or himself. Having put up the backs of the US Navy, Flashman offers Comber’s papers to spring in return for passage to England.
Unfortunately, despite his protestations of a higher moral code, Spring tries to play Flashman false, starting a brawl in which Spring runs through a planter who has recognised one of Flashman’s aliases. With spring on his tail, Flashman tries to hole up with Susie Willinck again, but is shocked to find her closing her establishment, intent on transporting it across the continent to California, and the Gold Rush. Susie is willing to take ‘Comber’ with her, as her husband, and to dope Spring and ship him out of the way, to South Africa.
Flashman ends up in nominal charge of the Willinck wagon train, heading westward under the guidance of Richard Willens. They encounter Indians on a couple of occasions, the second group have cholera. Woollens is affected and Flashman has to lead the train. They are forced to take refuge in Bent’s Fort, a famous trading post that has been abandoned, and only the intervention of a band of trappers saves them from massacre.
The caravan travels as far as Sante Fe, where Susie decides to stop for a couple of years. This does not suit Flashman’s plans so he sells one of the whores, Cleonie, with whom he has been sleeping, to the Indians, and sets off on his own. Unfortunately, he falls in with an infanmous band of Scalphunters and is forced to join in one of their raids. This captures several Indian women, who are to be enjoyed before being killed and scalped. Because Flashman prefers not to crudely rape his woman, who happens to be the daughter of Mangas Colorado, the mountainous leader of the Apaches, he is spared, and ends up going through his third bigamous marriage in the last twelve months, marrying Takes-Away-Clouds Woman.
After wintering with the Apaches into 1850, Flashman takes advantage of the first Spring raiding party to break away. He is pursued relentlessly, but is rescued by the intervention of the legendary scout, Kit Carson. Carson secures Flashman’s safety and, in slow stages, he is able to make his way to San Francisco by September, in order to depart America.

We now reach the most substantial gap in Flashman’s early career. At the end of ‘The Forty-Niners’, he confirms that his American adventures had come to an end, at least for the next quarter century. Most readers have taken that to mean that Flashman does, finally, return to England. I doubt it was that simple.
When next we hear of Flashman, it is early 1854, and he has already assessed the prevailing sentiment of the times and secured a sinecurial position at the Board of Ordnance that he intends will keep him from active service in the War with Russia that he foresees.
This means we have some three years to account for, although on this occasion we have the advantage of one confirmed but unchronicled adventure in this period. We know that Flashman was in Australia during their Gold Rush: officially this could mean any time between 1851-54, but most chronologies I’ve seen agree on dating this to 1852. He plays nap with pinches of gold dust from the diggings, and spends his near-customary time in prison in Botany Bay.
We also have undated incidents in the South Pacific: Christian Missionary in the Fly River country, west of Papua New Guinea, and Lottery Supervisor in Manila, in the Philippines. And we have Flashman’s mention of undergoing a shipwreck and failing to have sex with a fellow refugee in a lifeboat.
Given the distance from England to Australia, and that travel there and back represented a massive commitment in time (the Flashmans take more or less a year from England to Singapore in 1843-44) it seemed logical to me to collate Flashman’s other adventures in the South Pacific into this period, rather than have to find another trip around the world to accommodate them. This means a somewhat erratic course about the South Pacific, which is not an objection in itself, but there is a later placing for one of these incidents that seems to me to make better sense, so I exclude it and suggest the following:
In San Francisco, Flashman seeks passage to England. This would be by ship, either round Cape Horn, or by passage to Panama, crossing the isthmus on foot and catching a shop for England on the Atlantic side. The third alternative, crossing the Pacific and returning round the globe, seems an unlikely choice, given the length of time involved. Of course, he could always have done his usual trick of having gotten involved with a married woman whilst waiting, and having to leave in haste, on which case he may have had to catch a ship heading towards the Far East.
Whatever his course, Flashman takes up with a woman on board but, just when he’s about to commit the capital act in his or her cabin, the ship is either attacked or springs a leak but either way, it is shipwrecked and Flashy heads for the lifeboats. His amour gets there under her own steam, but in a crowded lifeboat, consummation proves impossible.
It may be that the lifeboat comes to land on the South American continent, giving Flashman his experience with hearing drums in the jungle on that continent. However, that I think is pushing it a bit, so: Flashman drifts at sea until the lifeboat is discovered and everybody is rescued (knowing Flashman, by this point everyone may well consist of him alone). But, for one reason or another, the rescuing vessel is heading outwards across the Pacific, and will not take him back to the Americas.
Flashman winds up in Australia, initially at Botany Bay, where he ends up in the lock-up, before going on to the Gold Rush, where he has the adventures Fraser envisioned. After leaving Australia, Flashman arrives in the Philippines, where he is robbed of any gold that he has got away with and earns his passage home by taking on his Lottery Supervisor role. From this successful venture, he finally manages to return to England, after having been absent for four years. His reunion with Elspeth produced their first child, Havvy…
We will never know.
Incidentally, implausible though it may seem, and extremely so, the most likely period for Flashman’s offhandedly mentioned encounter with the famous Italian liberator and statesman, Guiseppe Garibaldi, is in this blank period. Garibaldi’s peripatetic career seems to always place him in other parts of the world to Flashman, except in 1852-3, when he is trading in China and the South Pacific…

Near Done


When I announced that I was making my next literary project a transcription of an autobiographical novel written thirty years ago, I had in mind committing myself to sticking to something that might prove to be dull, boring, tiresome, even irritating. I had a big ring-binder full of A4, narrow-feint lined sheets, written in blue biro, that hadn’t been looked at, or even touched, for most of that thirty years.

I didn’t imagine how things would go. I figured I could push myself through one sheet – two sides of paper – per day: about 36 minutes at the laptop, averaging 750-850 words a day depending on how much was dialogue. I figured it would probably take me until June/July to complete.

What I didn’t anticipate, as I have written about previously, was getting caught up in the story, getting obsessed with it. As the weeks have gone by, I have become more and more obsessed with churning out pages, getting at the next chapter so I can pick up the next stage of the story, and find out what happens next.

Given the issues I am already grappling with, this has not been my wisest decision, as these I have already set out, here and here. I have been drawn back into this fictional world, to the extent that I have even begun to extend the story into the time that follows its conclusion, go over potential ‘what-happened-nexts’ for my central character, my first person narrator, my alternate self.

This morning, I added over another 2,000 words, bringing things up to the end of the penultimate chapter. This enabled me to release the final chapter from the binder, and to re-read how I ended it all. I now know what happened. Typing it up, I suspect, is going to feel rather like an anti-climax.

I feel a little empty at present. I am not entirely in 2017, nor have I been for some weeks, nor will I be for some time yet. I hope I can give myself a break, a little time off, once I have completed the final typescript. Then there will be the creation of a clean, publishable copy, all alternate sections decided between, inconsistencies resolved, gaps filled in (can you remember what songs would have been played in a City centre disco in November 1980?).

Once a copy is prepared, I’ll publish it privately through Lulu.com as I always intended, a bookshelf version to go with the manuscript, which will go back in its binder, never to be touched again.

And then the real work starts, as I go back to the beginning and start to collaborate with the Original Writer…

A Brief Speculation on Flashman’s Career, part 4: 1860-1868


We have now reached the hinge-point in Sir Harry Flashman’s career. Up till now, we have had a fairly consistent account with occasional breaks. From here, we have little but hints and references, with the occasional account. I propose to continue by using actual recorded events as the punctuation point between phases.
We left Flashman falling unconscious in the whore-house in Hong Kong being run by the Reverend and Mrs Carpenter. Flashman has attempted to blackmail Phoebe Carpenter into bed and she has retaliated by having him drugged, preparatory to his being shipped out somewhere.
When I first read the Eighth Packet, I naively assumed that Flashman would be spirited away to America, there to commence his long involvement in the Civil War. However, it’s now been reasonably established that Flashman did not become involved until 1862, at the earliest, so some other destination was involved.
I had originally intended to place Flashman’s Solomon Islands/Fly River country experiences alongside his visits to Australia and the Philippines, between 1850 – 1853, purely on geographical grounds, until I made the connection. According to his Who’s Who entry, Flashman was acting as trader and Christian Missionary during his time in that area, west of Papua New Guinea.
The connection with a shanghaing by a Christian Minister is too obvious to ignore. Flashman is shipped out to the Solomon Islands or Fly River, where he sees the jungle, before escaping and finally making his way back to England, and Elspeth, presumably in 1861. He holds a blackjack bank at one point, on board the South Sea Trader!
We have his offhanded mention to confirm that, early in 1862, he was at the Curragh, assisting HRH The Prince of Wales inspecting troops. Flashman has not mentioned acquaintance with the Prince at any earlier stage, and I would assume the appointment to have been organised by Victoria herself. This incident is infamous: Prince Albert himself came out to inspect his son’s progress, but contracted an illness that killed him shortly thereafter. Victoria blamed her son for the rest of her life and withdrew from public view for a long time. Does anyone else suspect that Flashman may have had a poltroonish role to play in all this?
Now we come to the great Lost Adventure, the one all Flashman fans wanted to read but which, unaccountably, Fraser became unwilling to write. When it comes to considering this, Flashman has given away more hints about his involvement in the American Civil War than any other unchronicled aspect of his career, enough for us to build a decent outline.
According to Flashman’s Who’s Who entry, he joined the Union Army as a Major in 1862, in circumstances unknown, but you can bet that it wasn’t willingly. Flashman does mention being blackmailed (presumably over his escapades as Beauchamp Comber) by President Lincoln into ‘saving his Union and risking my military reputation’. Given that the Union Army and its Generals prosecuted a poor campaign for at least the first two years of the war, Lincoln may simply have forced Flashman to sign up to the Army to improve its fortunes.
Or, which I find marginally more likely, the blackmail may have been to force Flashman to enter Confederate territory as a spy, travelling to the Southern White House in Virginia, i.e. the home residence of the South’s only ‘President’, Jefferson Davies.
We know from numerous references that Flashman was found on the roof of the building, but that he successfully persuaded Davies and his staff that he was there to repair the lightning conductor, escaping the consequences of being discovered as a spy, and subsequently receiving a handwritten letter of thanks from Davis!
Flashman went on, in 1863, to serve as a Colonel in the Confederate Army, under, so far as we know, his own name. How this was reconciled with his impersonation of a handyman we can only imagine, but in this role he served directly under Robert E Lee, at Gettysburg, hinting that his military advice was the main reason why this was not a massive military victory for the South, and the taking of Washington.
He was also present at the earlier Battle of Chancellorsville, where famously ‘Stonewall’ Jackson died as a result of friendly fire (undoubtedly thanks to Flashman).
At some point, Flashman was imprisoned in the infamous Confederate Prison, Libby Prison. As this had been reserved exclusively for Union officers since 1862, we have two options for when this occurred. Either Flashman was captured at some point in 1862 as an open Union officer, or, which I personally find more likely, he was exposed as a Union officer at some late point in 1863 and imprisoned then.
This would place him in custody at the time of the notable Libby prison Escape of February 1864, when a hundred Union officers escaped and returned to Union lines. Certainly, Flashman has several times referenced accompanying General Sherman in his devastating March Through Georgia, to the sea, that accelerated the end of the War, which took place between November and December that year. His appearance at Yellow Tavern took place earlier that year.
From there to the end of the War, Flashman has left no notes of his whereabouts or doings. We know him to have been present at Appamattox Courthouse, and to have witnessed Lee’s formal Surrender to Grant, and to have been back in Washington a few days later – presumably as part of the delegation sent to report victory to President Lincoln – where he had a private audience with the President. It appears, however, that Flashman arrived there with Lee’s hotly-pursued delegation, which indicates that he was back on the Southern side of affairs again!
Flashman was also present at Ford’s Theatre, though it seems to be beyond Fraser’s powers to have placed him in the Presidential box for Booth’s actual shot, and we may assume he was close at hand until Lincoln was declared dead, but we have no further evidence of his presence in America at this time.
Flashman implies at one point that he returned to England for brief reunions (plural: at least two) with Elspeth during the five years from 1862 to 1867. It is more than likely that once the Civil War was officially over, and Lincoln, the only other man to know the full details of Flashman’s service was dead, he returned to England.
Whether he returned during the Civil War is entirely speculative. The only time there seems to have been room for such a visit would be the 1864 – 1865 period, but the problem with this is that, having escaped from American, what could have got him back to the New World when the War was still in progress?
After the Civil War, Flashman returns to England and is reunited with Elspeth, albeit for a fairly short time. His next known adventure is in Mexico, as aide de camp to the Emperor Maximilian, towards the end of his short reign.
Fraser has supplied a surprising amount of detail about this escapade, though most of it is concentrated upon the fall-out, and Maximilian’s execution. What we do know is that he joins Maximilian in February 1867, on the run from the Foreign Legion, who want him as a deserter, and that prior to joining Maximilian, he took part in a bandit raid organised by Jesus Montero, who is under the impression that Flashman knows the whereabouts of Montezuma’s Treasure.
We know the end: can we suggest a plausible beginning?
I have already tentatively assigned Flashman a period in the Foreign Legion twenty years previously, with his bullet wound incurred during desertion. Once more, this is being made up out of whole cloth, but what if…?
Flashman has once again left the country, perhaps for recreational purposes, possibly France. There, his vicious tastes lead to an encounter with an old adversary, someone who was his superior during his previous service with the Legion, and who, perhaps, was punished for allowing Flashman’s desertion.
This adversary is supervising a fresh shipment of Legion troops to join those currently in Mexico, supporting Maximilian. Flashman is seized and transported back to the Americas.
How does Flashman escape the Legion a second time? We know he was with Jesus Montero’s bandits for a time, so I’m positing that the Legion platoon Flashman was with was ambushed and slaughtered by the bandits, but that Flashman survived by promising Montero to lead him to Montezuma’s treasure.
During his time with the bandits, Flashman takes part in an attack on Maximilian and his train, possibly when they are en route to Juarez, where Maximilian removed his court in February 1867. As Flashman was sentenced to execution, and was even led out to face the firing squad during his time in Mexico, it would seem he was captured. However, he somehow convinces Maximilian that he was aiding his men, which presumably leads to his letter of reprieve (and the oft-mentioned San Serafino Order of Truth and Purity). In gratitude, Maximilian appoints Flashman aide de camp, and when the Legion come to demand his return, the Emperor refuses. This may prove to be a factor in the Legion withdrawing from Mexico, leaving the Emperor vulnerable.
Flashman remains in Juarez until the end. He encounters,and is unable to seduce, Princess Agnes Salm-Salm. The Republic overwhelms and captures Maximilian.
Flashman then joins in the near-successful attempt by Aggy Salm-Salm and Montero (an unlikely pair: I’m not even going to try to guess how they come together, though I’d be surprised if Montero wasn’t still playing for the Treasure). However, Maximilian refuses to escape, as being below his royal dignity, and Flashman watches the execution from concealment on a nearby roof.
He is then chosen to escort Maximilian’s body home, to Trieste, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which leads to his next recorded exploit. Anxious to escape the consequences of seducing the Captain’s teenage daughter, Flashman agrees to escort British funds to Egypt, where General Sir Bob Napier is mounting an expedition into Abyssinia, to recover British hostages help by its mad Emperor, Theodore.
Unfortunately, his fame having traveled before him as usual, Flashman is persuaded into another intelligence role, keeping distant of the main advance on a cross-country trek to the Galla tribe, where he is to persuade them to cut off Theodore’s escape routes. It is his first military service for his country since Pekin.
Flashman is successful, at the cost of alienating his native guide, Uliba-Wark (trying to kick people over waterfalls can do that). When she spirits him away to exact revenge, he falls into the hands of Theodore, and witnesses the end of the campaign, and Theodore’s suicide, from inside the fortress Magdala. Still, he survives, with his undeserved credit further advanced, still hoping for peace and quiet.

A brief speculation on Flashman’s career: Part 3 – 1854 to 1860


The third section of Flashman’s career, as recorded in the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and Tenth Packets, once again gives us a complete record of Harry’s movements, this time from his ensconcement at the Board of Ordnance in late 1853/early 1854, to his hasty ejection from a Baltimore-bound train in America in October 1859 and, after a brief but puzzling gap, his adventures in China in 1860.
At the beginning, Flashman has secured his post at the Board of Ordnance to ensure he is not called up for active service in the war he can see coming with Russia, eventually taking place in the Crimea. However, his taste for vicious amusement, at the expense of a young and naive German princeling, backfires when the lad turns out to be a cousin of Prince Albert. Flashman is promoted to Colonel and installed as William’s mentor, but this means going to War.
In the Crimea, Willi’s impulsiveness and naivete quickly gets him killed, with Flashman not straining at the leash to save him. In disgrace, he is laid low with dysentery, brought on by drinking stale Russian champagne, returning to duty, fatefully, on the day of the Battle of Balaclava.
Flashman features in the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, the Thin Red Line and the Charge of the Light brigade, which latter action he helps to bring about, trying to get Lord Cardigan to somewhere here he will be shot at. Flashman survives the Charge but is captured by the Russians and, in the absence of an equivalent prisoner to exchange, is taken inland to the estate of Count Pencherjevsky. There he is re-united with his old Rugby schoolmate Harry ‘Scud’ East, now an Intelligence Officer.
Flashman is happy to remain indefinitely, especially as he is conducting an affair with Pencherjevsky’s daughter, hoping to impregnate her at the Count’s urging. This unusual idyll is interrupted when the Englishmen discover plans for a Russian Army to take advantage of the distraction of Crimea, to invade India through Central Asia.
East insists on an escape but Flashman is recaptured, and dragged with the Russian Army under the heel of Count Nikolas Ignatieff. However, in Central Asia he is rescued by the men of Yakub Beg, a rebel leader and, full of hashish induced courage, he succeeds in destroying the Russian supply ships, halting the advance.
Flashman reaches India but is laid low by a serious bout of cholera, delaying his return to England until the latter half of 1855. he is not home for long before he is sent back to India, as Palmerston’s agent, to investigate signs of an impending mutiny.
Flashman’s first role in India is as a Political Agent, sent to the Maharani Lakshmibai, in Jhansi, to attempt to seduce her into accepting the influence of the Raj. Flashman may or may not have been successful in the former aspect, but he is exposed to enemies, and drops out of sight, joining the Army as Iqbal Khan. In. his undercover role, Flashman sees the events that led to the start of the Mutiny building.
When it all begins, Flashman is shocked by the brutality displayed, and also wounded in the head, leaving him incapacitated. He return to his wits for some time, during which his old comrade, Ilderrim Khan guides him towards Cawnpore, where the British are besieged. Among the other officers present is Scud East.
Flashman plays a part in negotiating an agreed British retreat, but the Rebels play false and the British contingent are slaughtered. Both Ilderrim Khan and East are killed, the latter in Flashman’s arms, though he is one of a handful who escape down the Ganges.
Returning to the fray after several months convalescence, Flashman finds himself again besieged, in Lucknow, and guides out the man who can bring the British Army in to relieve the siege.
But his worst moment comes when he is sent into Jhansi again, to try to get Lakshmibai out unharmed. Instead, he is imprisoned for months, and she uses the fake escape plan to effect a real escape, but not for long. Flashman, in native garb, is witness to her death, and is taken himself as an agitator. He wakes to find himself strapped across a cannon’s mouth, and gagged, but manages to get himself freed.
For his efforts in the Mutiny, Flashman is both knighted, and awarded the Victoria Cross, though his triumph is spoiled by discovering that Tom Brown’s Schooldays has been published, identifying him as a school bully.
Flashman leaves for England, going ashore at Cape Town, where he is invited to dinner at the Governor-General’s palace. There, he rudely encounters his old enemy, John Charity Spring, seeking revenge for his humiliation a decade previously. Spring tempts Flashman with an opportunity to seduce his teenage daughter (which Flashman achieves, not that Spring knows) but it is a trap. Flashman is drugged and sent to sea with one of Spring’s cronies.
Spring’s revenge is to deliver Flashman to Baltimore, abandoning him ashore, without funds or friends, with the Police alerted to the return of the still-wanted ‘Beauchamp Comber’.
But Flashman is being watched by three disparate organisations, with different intentions but the same outcome in mind. These are the Underground railroad, anxious to see a blow struck against slavery, the Kuklos, a secretive organisation dedicated to preserving the South’s way of life and facilitating secession, and Pinkerton’s Detectives, on behalf of US Intelligence, who wish nothing to happen.
However, all three want Flashman to join with the notorious Abolitionist John Brown, on his much-touted, supposedly secret invasion of Virginia. Brown needs a militarily competent Lieutenant, either to make his raid succeed, or else demonstrate just how impossible it is. And, if necessary, shoot him in the back.
Flashman is forced to go through the whole matter, under the watchful eye of a fanatical black supporter of the Kuklos, who is a mole in the Underground Railway. The raid on Harper’s Ferry goes ahead, with Flashman an unwilling witness as usual, and things fall out as they do.
Flashman, having killed the Kuklos agent, is spirited away by Intelligence, on a train to Baltimore where he will board a ship to England. But there is another Kuklos agent watching him, who decides to warn him. He decants from the train, along, friendless and hunted, one stop short of Baltimore…
In complete contrast to the previous breach in Flashman’s career, this final break is very short, a mere five months. Given that it starts on the East Coast of America and ends in Hong Kong, in completely the opposite direction from the one in which Flashman was travelling, I think we can safely say that our hero spends most of the period in transit, with little or no time for adventure.
But why and how are questions to which we have no answers. It’s completely inexplicable how Flashman ends up going in the wrong direction, and not enough to say that, having found himself lost and friendless on American soil, and hunted by the Kuklos, he had very little choice in where he went, and may even have deliberately chosen to go in a direction his pursuers wouldn’t expect.
Even so, and even with five months to play with, this means Flashman has got to get across the American continent and across the Pacific, with time to spare to hang around in Hong Kong. Even if we posit that Flashman somehow got down to Panama and crossed the isthmus, it’s hard to believe that he could make it in time.
Personally, I put it down to Fraser being so determined to throw in John Brown that he wasn’t concerned about joining up the dots with the Eighth Packet, but we can’t actually use that as an excuse to ignore the problem.
This is another point at which Flashman may have heard his South American jungle drums, if his flight took him below the Equator, but it’s hard to imagine how he’d have time.
Nevertheless, to Hong Kong he comes, planning to sail on further west and return to Elspeth via India, picking up the route he was following two years previously. Instead, whilst trying to fill in the time by seducing a clergyman’s wife, Flashman finds himself conned into running guns to the Taipeng Rebels, and, after bluffing his way out, finds himself revealed to the authorities, and despatched to join General Napier’s march on Pekin.
First, Flashman is put back on Intelligence, in which capacity he is despatched to see the Taipeng from the inside, hoping to divert them from attacking Shanghai. In this he fails, but gets away sufficiently to warn the authorities of the army on his tail, and army that is turned back, but not before Flashman is diverted to his real task on Napier’s staff.
He joins the March on Pekin, getting captured and subject to both torture and the ministrations of the Emperor’s preferred concubine, and future Empress of China. Escaping her custody, Flashman rejoins the Army as it takes Pekin, and plays his part in the still-controversial decision to destroy the Summer Palace.
Heading home at last, he runs into Phoebe Carpenter again, and intends to complete his seduction by blackmail. Unfortunately, she has him drugged, and he finds himself shanghaied to parts unknown…

Resurrecting Ghosts


In December, I announced that my latest literary project was to transcribe my first novel, written thirty years ago (literally: between January and April 1987), which only existed as a manuscript first draft in a very fat ring-binder.

The novel, which never had a name, was in the classic tradition of being semi-autobiographical. It was a fictionalisation of a two-year period in my life when I had lived away from home for the first time, during which I had fallen in love with someone who didn’t love me, but to who I was a close friend during a year when her boyfriend/fiance was out of the country.

It was an ideal, self-contained subject for someone who’d never even got close to completing an extended piece of work, and whilst the preparation was long-winded and awkward, the actual writing turned out to be relatively easy. I was producing two chapters a week, and proving to myself that I was capable of consistent, disciplined writing, driving forward a relatively complex story, and reaching the end.

That was invaluable in itself: every writer needs to hit the incredible words ‘The End’ at some point! But more than that, and this was at least a subconscious intention behind the entire thing it exorcised a ghost that I had been carrying with me since the original events upon which the novel was based.

Which was the main reason that the novel didn’t go any further forward. There was no second draft: the impulse was gone, fact translated into people and places and events that hadn’t actually happened, but which represented various elements in my life during those years. It would be over a half decade later before I again wrote something of that length, this time directly autobiographical, by which time I had learned how to redraft, and revise.

Occasionally, down the years, I’ve thought of typing up that book, but never followed through. It’s the best part of those thirty years since I last read it, during which the ring-binder has been stashed, visible but out of the way, on top of wardrobes or bookcases.

But in the past few years, I’ve struggled to write fiction, and thus I decided to finally undertake this project, to give the book a more permanent form of existence, instead of only a wodge of handwritten, narrow feint lined sheets of paper in a ring-binder. And I announced it to make sure that I actually went ahead and did it.

As I’ve already said, it’s been a fascinating experience. I began by setting myself the target of transcribing one sheet – that is, two sides – per day, on which basis I estimated it would take me until June or July to complete. Then I started doing two pages a day, one before my shift, one after, and the odd extra sheet at weekends, and now I’m almost obsessive about it. I am midway through Chapter 15, of 23, the opening chapter of the third and final phase of the book, and I am writing several sheets a day. At this rate, it’ll be finished before the end of March.

The thing is, I’ve got hooked on the story! I want to know what happens next! If that sounds weird to you, then so be it, but I am reading something I wrote thirty years ago and which I have barely even scanned since, and apart from a few ‘highlights’, I have no memory of how I treated my history.

I’ve limited myself to a chapter at a time: hence the urge to hurry through a transcription, because only once that is completed can I take the next chapter out of the binder and read another portion of the book!

As I’ve already observed, I have had a mixed reaction to the actual writing. This is a thirty year old piece, just under half my lifetime gone, and in many places it is exactly as I feared: clumsy, overwritten, repetitive, so many chances overlooked for a richer, better reality, a thicker story. I keep wanting to change things.

But at the same time, there are more good things in this book than I feared. Thirty years ago, this is still me, and there are lines of demonstrable quality, and subtleties of expression, which hint at deeper things than are exposed on the page (or, at least so they seem to me, who knows about the subtleties of the real thing). I am still recognisable in this prentice work, very much so.

What I am doing is transcribing, literally. Some errors are being corrected, silently, as I go along, but otherwise I am just copying myself. But at the same time, I am seeing many chances to rephrase, to add, to hint and suggest at lines of development that will feature in the now-inevitable second draft, and these I am interpolating, in a different colour font, so that I can pick up on these later. Slowly, a partial skeleton of a different version of the book is being built.

When the transcription is complete, I plan to create duplicate documents, a kind of definitive ‘first draft’ text, which I shall publish privately through Lulu.com, for my benefit only. I will then start to rewrite, with the intention of completing a book that I will publish through Lulu for general access. If anyone is in the least bit fascinated by these necessarily cryptic accounts, I hope before 2017 is out to give you a chance to read the book.

However, there is one aspect to what I’m doing that I had not foreseen and which, had I realised, might very well have made me reconsider this project. I spoke earlier of the first draft exorcising ghosts, very effectively. What I hadn’t realised is that immersing myself in this book might have the effect of resurrecting those ghosts, still with the power they exerted all that time ago.

I have been drawn nearer to those days than I have been for a very long time. In a way, the world of the story has taken over from the world of actual memory, which is now close to forty years ago and therefore dim. But these fictions have drawn me in, and even if it is reminding me of the version of that relationship that I created between Steve and Lesley in my book, rather than the one between myself and that lady who I won’t embarrass, even this far removed, those feelings were powerful and it is dangerous to be so reminded of them.

I have gotten so absorbed in these hybrid creatures that I have begun to speculate about what happened to them after the story ends: does this relationship thrive, does that survive, does this character go on to be successful: where are they all now, in my fiction and in their own lives?

And then there’s me. I may be Steve in this book, and he’s an improved version of myself, because I couldn’t be that indifferent to art as opposed to reality, but there’s a hell of a lot of me in him, and it’s a me that I would really rather not have been, and which I am still, to a degree that frightens me. Some of his dialogue, his musings, could come out of my mouth now, in my years of depression, and it’s horrifying to realise that there are aspects that I have still not grown out of, even this far removed.

But it’s too late now to go back. Things learned cannot be unlearned, except by unusually precise traumatic amnesia. I have raised my own ghosts, and I can only hope that they can once again be captured by print, even if it takes two books to do so.

It was Alan Moore who put it perfectly: when you open a can of worms, one thing is certain: you need a much bigger can to put them back into.

Injury Time


Throughout that last, dreadful year, when famous and noticeable people seemed to be dying wantonly, ripping apart our cultural background, I lived daily expecting the next name to be Clive James, who has been terminally ill since 2010.

But the Kid from Kogarah keeps doing it. And he keeps writing. Last year, he published another TV book, Play All, about box-sets. Now, sure, it lacked the depth and intensity of a decade ago, but it’s still there. And it doesn’t look as if the sixth and final book of autobiography – the one about the Atkin revival, Midnight Voices, the part of his story where I have a minuscule part to play – is going to arrive.

But Clive James’ first and last love is poetry, and here he still writes, about his condition, about his life. Thoughtfully, intensely, movingly. His collection, Sentenced to Life, is a wonderful book, and everyone, James included, expected it to be his last.

And expectations are once again confounded, this time joyfully, for there is to be another volume, Injury Time, dealing with this further lease of life he is enjoying.

I will be waiting, like all the rest of us. There has never been enough Clive James, and when he does at last leave this place, there will still not be enough, were he to live to a thousand, which, on current form, is not an option that can be wholly discounted.