20 Feb 2006
Editor’s note: Sir Harry Flashman, VC, was asked to comment on the publication of Flashman and the Mountain of Light, the ninth volume of his spurious memoirs. Flashman is the completely fictional creation of George MacDonald Fraser, who based the legendary British hero of the Victorian Age on the bully in “Tom Brown’s School Days.”
In my 60-odd years fleeing from slaughter and disaster and back again on behalf of Queen Victoria and the British Empire, I still find it amazing and gratifying to come out of it with the laurels I have, not to mention a (mostly) whole skin.
If you haven’t learned from reading the first volume of my memoirs (published as “Flashman”), then it should surprise you that I first won my laurels during the British Army’s retreat from Afghanistan in 1842. Aye, we were a proud army then, the finest, fittest force ever led to its destruction by inept, dithering, doddering old men who shouldn’t have been permitted to arrange a child’s tea party.
Mind, I didn’t have much to do with that retreat. Early on in my life, I recognized that I had a yellow streak a mile wide down my back, and it was only through lying, skulking, toadying and running flat out that I managed to come out of it with a whole skin. I also came out a hero, if you can believe that.
The names and places you’ve may have read in your history books. To me, they are frightening nightmares and scenes of splendor that would cause the breath to rush from your chest and your eyes to bug. I can close my eyes still and see India in the 1840s, when we built the empire that would last the century. I rode with (and fled from) the Apaches in ‘49 and got scalped at Little Big Horn in ‘76. The Chinese tried to subject me to hideous tortures in the 1860 Taiping Rebellion. I’ve fought pirates in Borneo, ran slaves from Africa, and serviced on both sides in your Civil War.
Through it all, I wenched, debauched, toadied and bullied my way according to my lights. And was never found out by the hero-loving British public, thank God. Of course, once a hero, always a hero. They can’t stand to see a soldier quietly fade away, and I had found myself dropped back into the soup ever since.
This particular episode — retitled by Fraser as “Flashman and the Mountain of Light” — concerns the strangest, bloodiest war of my career as a political. The First Sikh war of 1845 is nearly forgotten now, even in Britain. It was a series of border skirmishes where the thin red line of British infantrymen — those dregs of humanity scraped from the worst areas of Whitechapel, Glasgow and Dublin and drilled to a fare-thee-well — went up against the largest, best-drilled force on the Indian subcontinent. Managed to beat them, too.
It’s a pity the war has faded from memory, because that victory kept us in India for a century and provided Queen Vicky (who was quite a snapper in those days, saith the man with plenty of experience in these matters) with the world’s largest diamond at that time: the “Koh-I-Noor.” It’s still in England, too, in the Tower along with all the other glittering baubles we’ve looted from the heathen races.
I must warn you: I dictated these memoirs when I was long through with adventuring, and cared not a whit about my reputation. I had no desire to tell anything but the truth, and sometimes, the truth isn’t pretty. This isn’t the well-scrubbed stories you read in the nursery. I spare no one, even myself. Even Fraser will tell you that.
During the Empire’s heyday, I saw more and done more than any ten men and lived to tell the tale. I retired stinking rich and respected, and if you can’t the company of a lying, cheating bastard, then listen up and I’ll tell you a story worth remembering.
And as for Fraser, he did yeoman’s work vetting my memoirs. He checked my facts (and corrected the few that I didn’t know at the time, the cheeky bastard) and provided the footnotes and a few supplementary chapters at the end. He’s done nine volumes so far, and no matter how ribald the story, he never threw away a line. Just like a Scotsman.