The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - Flashman on the March

George MacDonald Fraser

Reviewer - Richard Snailham

'Great roarin' balls o' fire!' This is Flashman at his best - in Abyssinia, in 1868, a reluctant participant in Napier's Magdala campaign. I have only read one Flashman previously (there are eleven) and that was the first: the young Harry, fresh from Rugby and a Hussar subaltern, exhibiting his daredevilry, his capacity for seduction, cowardice and treachery in India and Afghanistan. This one continues the movement with the usual gusto.

In telling the story of the battle of Magdala and the lead up to it George MacDonald Fraser keeps close to the truth. He has made use of all the sources and complements his narrative with long, informative notes and two appendices. Sir Harry Flashman's purely fictional involvement in the campaign is skilfully woven into the historical tapestry. The tale is told in Flashman's own words with many flashbacks to his previous exploits in all quarters of the world, and all in a brilliant evocation of the lingo of a mid-Victorian rascal.

In his supposed negotiations with the Galla queens Masteeat and Warkite, to create a hostile southern ring preventing the Emperor Theodore's possible escape from his bolthole, the author pitches Flashman into a series of heart-stopping scrapes, including a near emasculation at the hands of his seductive female guide and his being swept over the Blue Nile falls. One has to admire the wonderful, predictable way he leads the poltroon Flashman unwillingly into yet more derring-do.

For this to happen George MacDonald Fraser allows himself some licence to depart from the plain prosaic facts of the case. The Galla seductress could not of course be swathed in the conventional all-enveloping shamma but wears instead a fetching leather tunic from bosom to thigh. The great mortar Sevastopol is dragged with all the other artillery pieces to the top of Fala and not Selassie where it actually was (and still is).

And there are some factual errors: Napier actually did show Ras Kassa of Tigre (or Kussai as Flashman calls him, the later Emperor Yohannes) the naval rocket guns in action; altars, naves, fonts and pews do not figure in round Orthodox churches; he has Lake Tana as blue and swimmable-in instead of café au lait and bilharzia-ridden; Tisisat means the 'smoke of fire' and not the 'silver smoke'; and Napier's statue is in Queensgate and not Waterloo Place.

But these are minor matters. The great thing is the book's authenticity. George MacDonald Fraser knows his British Army well and his Indian Army even better. There are nuggets of interesting information in almost every paragraph. This book will be enjoyed as well by those with a good knowledge of the Magdala campaign as by newcomers to Ethiopia. There is even a Hookey Walker on page 3, but I don't think it is our Hookey Walker.

Flashman on the March by George MacDonald Fraser is published by Harper Collins, London, 2005.
317 pages, illustrated endpapers with maps. Hardback.
Price: £17.99 or $39.95


I bought my copy of Flashman on the March as an 'airport special paperback' (ISBN: 0007201532; £10.99) but it must be noted that the decorated end-papers and maps are absent in this edition. Flashman is an absolute lecher, a totally politically incorrect creature in today's climate, and he reminds me very much of another incorrigible, but lovable, rogue - Alan B'stard as portrayed by Rik Mayall. The book is thoroughly enjoyable and I sit reading it on the bus going to work with a smirk on my face almost as ridiculous as that worn by Flashy himself on the front cover! And yes, the text and many supplementary notes are definitely educational as well.

Anne Parsons

First Published in News File Summer 2005

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