For those of you unfamiliar with the original Flashman novels, the late George MacDonald Fraser (hereafter referred to as GMacF) took the character of the bullying Harry Flashman from the Victorian novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, turned the schoolboy into an adult and then placed him in a series of highly perilous adventures that spanned over 60 years. Flashman was a coward, a bully, a braggart, a liar and a womaniser and how we fans loved to see him face torture, death and hardship in every novel.
In this revival, titled Flashman And The Sea Wolf, Robert Brightwell has taken an equally fictitious uncle of Harry, Thomas Flashman, placed him in 1800 in the early years of the Napoleonic wars and then tried to do with Thomas what GMacF did with Harry.
The first issue I had with this was that Thomas is just too nice. While Brightwell claims that Thomas is every bit as cowardly, bullying etc as Harry he comes across as a nice guy, though he is still a womaniser. Towards the climax of this book, as the enemy ships approach and he is facing almost certain death, Thomas sits and writes letters home for all the sailors who can’t read and write. Harry Flashman would have damned their eyes and sent them packing while he tried to find somewhere safe to hide.
And there we have the second problem. Every word that Harry Flashman spoke felt authentic; straight from the Victorian era. I hoped, therefore, that there would be a strong whiff of the Regency Dandy about Thomas, but he sounded more like he came from 21st century Surrey. This lack of authenticity immediately detracted from the narrative. Ben Elton and Richard Curtis did a far better job on the Regency language with Blackadder the Third and that was a TV comedy!
I was also slightly suspicious of the historical accuracy of the story. GMacF was punctilious in his research, but I didn’t get that same sense from this book. At the end of the book Brightwell does cite several sources for his historical information, but I got the feeling that most of his information was gleaned second hand. Is this important? Probably not, but when someone tells me something really happened I like to feel that they read the first-hand accounts of the people who were there, not the Wickipedia entry. Again I can only compare this with the GMacF books, which were littered with references, which in the Brightwell book seemed to be more notable by their absence.
The plot is set around a ploy by the British to try to lure the Spanish fleet out of its ports so that it can be attacked and sunk. Flashman is tasked by a British spymaster to carry a secret message to British agents in Spain who will feed false information to the Spanish to suggest that the blockading British fleet has got fed up and gone home. Unfortunately London appears to be riddled with foreign spies (no change there then) and Flashman walks into a trap from which he must be rescued. This plot takes up about the first third of the book, after which Flashman spends a lot of time at sea with a real life Royal Navy adventurer by the name of Thomas Cochrane, who does his best to get Flashman killed; unintentionally of course. As there are currently four sequels to this book it can be no secret that Thomas survives these efforts.
This is all very familiar to those who have read the original books, where a series of real life Victorian adventurers were credited with trying to get Harry Flashman killed in various inventive ways.
While Thomas isn’t exactly heroic he is far braver than his nephew Harry and is probably typical of how most of us would fare in similar circumstances.
The book is reasonably well paced and the writing style isn’t bad, even though it lacks an authentic feel. However, the book could have done with a bit more care when it came to copy editing. I spotted several glaring errors which no professional publisher would have tolerated.
Did I enjoy the book? Well, in the end I felt like someone who had been promised a full Sunday roast but was served with a bowl of cornflakes. It was OK, but not satisfying. Would I buy the next book in the series? Actually I probably would. This one was light and easy to read, quite fun in its own way and well suited for reading poolside or on a long haul flight. However, my expectations will be lower, which may be a good thing.
Did this book do justice to the memory of George MacDonald Fraser? No.
I was rather annoyed on Thursday night when the panellists on BBC TV’s Question Time seemed to equate social mobility with the ability to attend a university. Yes I do mean serial offender Chuka Umunna from Labour and SNP MP Tommy Sheppard.
Of course we need university graduates if, as a nation, we are to excel in a wide range of fields. We need the doctors and nurses of tomorrow, the scientists, the engineers, the technologists, the teachers, et al. Dare I say it, we even need the lawyers and bankers. However not everyone needs a university education and I can assure Mr Umunna and Mr Sheppard that a lack of a university education never stopped me from being socially mobile. While I do have graduate and post graduate qualifications they came later in life and were gained while I studied part time and worked full time.
By the time I was able to afford to study I was already rising through the ranks of the RAF. I went from a run-down inner-city comprehensive school and a council flat in Peckham, at that time one of the most deprived areas of London if not the country, to a seat at the dining table of the Officers Mess: that is social mobility in action and it was achieved without any grants and without any student loans! I gained my degree (it was subsidised by the taxpayer) several years after I had already gained my commission and my Masters several years after that and had to pay for it myself. That route to social mobility, the armed forces, was just one of many that I could have taken.
We do have vocational training available in this country. Not as much as we need perhaps, but it is available. This is one of the alternative routes to social mobility and to belittle it is to do a severe injustice to the young people of this country and to suggest that the only thing of value is a degree and anyone who doesn't have one is a second class citizen.
The key to social mobility is not a university education, it is the desire to be socially mobile. Once that key is inserted into the lock it opens the door to many opportunities, of which attending a university is just one. The key, however, is a willingness to work, a willingness to learn (not necessarily to study) and a healthy dose of ambition. With those things anyone who desires social mobility can achieve it.
Sending lots of people to university just gives you more graduates chasing the same jobs. One of the members of the Question Time audience made that point quite forcefully. As a lawyer she was well aware that there are too many law graduates chasing too few jobs.
This was one of many Labour gaffs when they were in power. By setting a target for fifty percent of young people being able to attend a university Labour did several things wrong.
Firstly it raised the expectations of those who attended university that there would be jobs aplenty for them when they graduated. There weren’t. Secondly it made it seem that the ticket to a successful life was a university qualification, any qualification, rather than focusing on the quality of the qualification. I’m not going to belittle the hard work of those students who have studied to gain their qualifications, but it is quite apparent that some qualifications aren’t much of an aid to gaining employment. Finally it left the fifty percent who aren’t academically inclined saying “What about us? Aren’t we important too?” Those fifty percent have just as much right to social mobility, but are ignored by the graduates in Parliament.
This Question Time subject of social mobility came about as a consequence of George Osborne’s budget announcement that he would scrap the maintenance grant for students. I can’t say I’m in favour of the move, because it does send out the wrong message, but the idea of a student having to take a loan to cover their maintenance instead of receiving a grant isn’t what stifles social mobility. The loan isn’t repaid until the student is already earning £21, 000 a year, and then the repayments are staggered to take earnings levels into account. The more you earn the more you have to repay and the quicker you have to repay it.
As graduates (with the right degree) are going to be amongst the higher earners anyway I don’t see how the scrapping of the maintenance grant can affect social mobility. You study, you earn, you repay in that order. It’s not study, then repay, then earn and it’s not pay, then study, then earn. By definition you are already socially mobile by the time you come to repay the debt, so how can scrapping the maintenance grant inhibit social mobility? Well, if you are a Labour or SNP politician it apparently can.
I think its about time that politicians realised that not everyone sees the world in the way that they do, some people have no desire to attend university and being socially mobile comes from a state of mind, not from the largesse of the nation’s taxpayers. Those that wish to go to university should do so, but those that wish to pursue some other path should be able to do that as well, and not be stigmatised because they haven’t got letters after their name.
Richard Lovelace, in his poem "To Althea From Prison", said "Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage". This implies that we can create our own prisons with our minds. But politicians and others can help us to build these prisons by telling us that we are prevented from doing something when we are not. Telling us that not going to university impairs our social mobility is just such a prison of the mind.
Next week – could a “dirty bomb” be planted in the UK?