Sunday, July 10, 2011

George MacDonald Fraser - Quartered Safe Out Here

George MacDonald Fraser is most famous for his highly entertaining Flashman novels. At the centre of those stories, which follow the adventures of Flashman through various battles and conflicts of the Victorian era, is a deep sympathy and understanding of the life of a soldier.

Fraser's knowledge of soldiering is based on his own active surface in the forgotten war in Burma during World War II. Here, Fraser as a young man took a minor part in some of the major battles with the Japanese as they retreated from India towards Japan. Most of this book deals with Fraser's time leading a small group of British soldiers from Cumbria. The Cumberland dialect is so unlike modern written English that the author provides a note on translation and a glossary to help the reader.

Much of the book, as with other accounts of war, is of boredom and waiting. Fraser actually takes very little part in some of the most important battles, his small troop being on the periphery. What action he does see, takes place in a seeming flash, such as the time he is nearly killed by a wounded Japanese soldier who almost fails to see in a ruined bunker. There is a brilliantly funny section towards the end of the book, when Fraser, about to leave for officer training school is sent to train a strange and slightly crazed officer to use a particularly unusual anti-tank weapon. The officer wants to use it against the boats that the Japanese are trying to use to escape and Fraser gets involved in a firefight led by the half mad British soldier. There are shades of Apocalypse Now here, but more laughs.

Fraser is very good at putting across the life of the solider. The petty complaints, the worries and the personal feuds. However what annoyed me mostly about the book is that it wasn't really about the war, but about Fraser's reflections on life, soldiering in general and modern society. Fraser perhaps tries a little too much to be like the lofty arrogant character that is at the centre of his best read novels. But writing at the time of the First Gulf War, he has nothing but disdain for modern soldiering methods and equipment. He seems bemused at those who needed Post-Traumatic counselling following the Falklands and Gulf War and certainly seems to see it as part of the namby-pamby state.

Sadly Fraser's political interventions ruin what is an interesting book. His accounts of the discussion on how his troops would vote in the 1945 election is fascinating (most of them for Labour) as is his discussion on the use of nuclear weapons. Despite his view that Japan wasn't on the brink of surrender, and the pleasure he gets from his description of challenging a lecturer in the 1980s who thought it was a mistake to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he points out that most of his comrades would have opposed the use of the weapon had they known what the consequences were.

The war in Burma was one that most people seemed happy to ignore. Long after VE Day, men were dying in jungles and rivers far from home. Fraser's book is a useful introduction to the war, and Burma itself probably deserves being a larger part of British history. But Fraser's heavy handed politics and contemporary polemic, as well as his seeming desire to be come across as a grumpy old colonel ruin what should be a fascinating read.

Related Reviews

Fraser - Flashman on the March
Fraser - Flashman and the Tiger


Anonymous said...

A very fair review. I'm sorry I took so long to get to it. I enjoyed the book, but also had doubts about the more contemporary politics. Worth reading and a very good view of a soldier's life but flawed overall.

John Hannah said...

Heartily agree. A flawed book, disfigured by angry polemics. I found myself skipping those bits. The rest of it -- vivid scenes of action and place, and hilarious character interactions above all -- make up for all the Colonel Blimp fulmination.
Fraser seemed to lack the humanity and humility that put 'George Sherston's' memoirs in the masterpiece class. "Quartered Safe..." is a rollicking good read, just that.