Stranger Than Fiction
|Exploring popular fiction and drama, and how fact can be stranger than fiction.|
Flashman And The Case Of False Documents
The author George MacDonald Fraser OBE, who died January 2nd, has received the full round of newspaper obits. Most people will have encountered his work through his screenplays like Octopussy and the Michael York-Oliver Reed Three-Musketeers films trilogy. However the obits and news headlines are nearly all “Flashman Author Dies” variants, all focusing on Fraser’s 12 'Flashman' novels (1969-2005), which are examples of what is known as the False Document. This is a literary device where a work of fiction purports to be a real document such as a memoir or official report. The usual ‘false document’ setup is the narrator claims he has inherited a case, box, or parcel of papers, and he is merely an editor or amanuensis of another man’s memoir, as with Dr Watson writing up Sherlock Holmes’s cases. In this case it purports to be a set of posthumous memoirs supposedly left by a career military man who served in every major war throughout the Victorian Era - Lieutenant, later Captain, later Major, later Colonel, later Brigadier-General Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB (1822-1915). In old age he decides to tell all, along the way exposing Victorian imperialism as misguided pious humbug.
As Flashman was a character out of another, well-known novel, Thomas Hughes's 1857 Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and often met other well-known Victorian fictional characters (such as Holmes and Watson) as well as real ones, there was no serious attempt to deceive readers. Nevertheless the novels did at first deceive US academic critics, testament to the success of the format in the hands of this author. For Fraser was an experienced (Glasgow Herald) journalist who also wrote historical nonfiction books and an admired memoir on his own WW2 experiences. According to The Times: “Such was the care with which Fraser constructed his fictional conceit, researching the historical background and appending copious footnotes, that many American academics and reviewers were fooled into thinking that Flashman’s papers really had been discovered wrapped in oilskin at a house sale in 1965…” Another paper added, “So successfully did Fraser bring off the conceit that some critics, especially in America, believed the memoirs to be authentic. A debate ensued in the New York Times, and Flashman's concocted curriculum vitae found its way into works of biographical reference.”
The work’s premise was itself inherently incredible, that Flashman was present at every Victorian campaign of note 1840-1901. He goes from being the sole survivor of the First Afghan War to accidentally setting off the 1854 Charge of the Light Brigade (don’t ask) to getting mixed up in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. And it wasn’t just British wars – he also wins the US Congressional Medal of Honor after getting involved in the US Civil War of 1860-5, on both sides, albeit partly as a spy. He also travels west with a ‘Forty-Niners’ wagon train, and 25 years later is sole survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
The same ‘false document’ setup device was indeed used earlier in American literature. For example, Will Henry’s 1950 novel No Survivors and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (filmed 1971 with Dustin Hoffman) are both narrated as memoirs of the ‘sole survivor’ of Custer’s Last Stand. In Flashman, the last two American episodes are in one book (Flashman And The Redskins), which ends with him in Deadwood in the moments before his acquaintance Wild Bill Hickok is shot dead. The novels often left readers dangling like this. Each was ostensibly based on a single sealed ‘packet’ of the memoirs, these being supposedly written, and thus published, out of chronological sequence. Some narrative gaps (the followup to Hickok’s death, Flashy's role at Khartoum, etc.), known via a simulated Who's Who entry reproduced in the series’ editorial preface, were never filled in by Fraser. Despite the author’s switch to other areas (screenplays and non-Flashman historical adventures) in the two decades before his demise, some hope a few of the many remaining gaps will still be plugged by a posthumously-published novel or collection of fragments. As with Sherlock Holmes, there seems a desire to join in the pretence the main character was a real person, and keep him alive thus.
Fraser researched the background for each of the 12+ episodes thoroughly enough to make it seem that each of Flashman’s exploits could have happened. As well as picking up incidental details from Punch, Fraser went back to campaign and other first-hand memoirs to make the background as factual and authentic as possible, giving a more realistic picture of what these wars must have been like, complete with explanatory footnotes. Fraser added endnotes to his novels identifying these sources in genuine Victorian biography etc.,which added to the verisimilitude. Fraser unearthed some incredible, previously obscure, colonial episodes, and even well-known events were seen afresh.
But he also began interweaving fact and fiction to finesse his use of the false document setup. For example, if the plot of Royal Flash (filmed 1975 with Malcolm Macdowell as Flashy) seems familiar, it’s because it’s a reworking of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner Of Zenda. Yet in a footnote to reconcile this, Flashman says he later told the whole story of his own actual adventure impersonating a crown prince one night at his club to a young lawyer called Hawkins, who later turned it into a novel. The author of The Prisoner Of Zenda was indeed a lawyer, real name Anthony Hope Hawkins.
A principal model seems to have the explorer, linguist, mystic and (in Victorian terms) pornographer Sir Richard Francis Burton, whose papers were burned on his death by his loyal wife, evidently to avert further scandals of the type that dogged him all his career. That ‘Flashy’ as narrator is also a scandalous figure, a self-confessed coward, poseur and lifelong lecher, who survives expulsion from school (in Tom Brown’s Schooldays he is the sadistic school bully) and goes on to become a national hero by sheer luck, made the novels even more appealing and credible with a modern public who no longer believed in Victorian imperialism. (The fact Flashman has nothing but scorn for other races and their cultures also fits the character, though it has made some wonder whether the ongoing appeal of his work isn’t partly from its being so outrageously ‘anti-PC.’) Fraser uncovered some amazing little-known episodes from the Victorian Age, and the obits included some testimonials that reading the novels got someone now well-known interested in history because they brought it all so vividly to life. And now there are 3 TV dramas and a feature film in the works from the production companies that make the Sharpe TV series in Europe.
The one aspect no press coverage I’ve seen has mentioned is any literary connection between The Flashman Papers and another pretend-memoir novel-sequence, which also ended in 2005, with a similar series title (The __ Papers). In both, the unpromising hero rises to the heights of the military as an unlikely war hero, being present at great events of his time and meeting famous figures. The two novel-sequences fact have a number of such similarities, and their publication dates overlap, so that it is hard to say whether in any respect A influenced B, or B influenced A. And again there is an odd interplay between fact and fiction where one is mistaken for the other, something that in this case has led to a yet-unresolved historical controversy.
The Case Of The Bandy Papers
‘The Bandy Papers’ written by Donald Lamont Jack (1924-2003), the Canadian [NOTE] scriptwriter, was the series title for 9 sequential novels published between 1962 and 2005 and covering 1916-1945. Unlike the Flashman novels, they have never been filmed or televised and are not so well-known, but are admired by those who know about them (PG Wodehouse was an admirer of both the Flashman and Bandy novels.) Both Fraser’s and Jack’s works use the military-memoir false-document setup to satirise the pretensions of the official version of history.
The 9 novels in The Bandy Papers series, each with the word “Me” in the title, purported to be a case or set of 9 volumes of frank memoirs left by Canadian aviator and war hero Bartholomew W. Bandy, going back to when he is a horse-faced teenage son of a piously hypocritical small-town minister about to leave for the Front. Bandy rises through the ranks to general as an air-ace war hero, despite his penchant for innocently getting involved in military fiascos and generally annoying his superiors. Just as Flashman meets Victorian figures, Bandy meets famous figures from the early 20th C. - including some as fictional as he. The novels recount his continuing misadventures meeting (and usually irritating) the great and the good of the era, from Lenin to Churchill, up through WW2.
Just as the first of The Flashman Papers fooled American academics and no doubt many others, the first instalment of The Bandy Papers, Three Cheers For Me (Doubleday 1962), fooled some at least into believing it was a real memoir (well, me anyway - though I plead youthful ignorance – I was 15 at the time). Though The Bandy Papers began before The Flashman Papers, the original novel was only continued after the Flashman series was established. Jack said on the book blurb it was the response from readers to the original that inspired follow-ups. The series proper was launched in 1973 with a revised edition of Three Cheers For Me. However, the trade press reported at the time [ie 1973] that only a thousand copies of the original version were printed in 1962, despite its winning the Stephen Leacock Award for humour - as would the two subsequent novels in the series. The story was also revised somewhat [NOTE]. It's quite possible the Flashman novel series launched in 1969 gave Jack the idea or the confidence to go ahead with a series on the same pattern, here covering from WWI to WW2 inclusive rather than the entire Victorian era. The subtitle 'The Journals of Bartholomew Bandy' was also varied to parallel that of The Flashman Papers, as The Bandy Papers, Vols I-IX.")
Just as Flashman was largely inspired by a scandalous historical figure of his time (Burton), Bart Bandy is clearly based on several Canadian WWI-hero air “aces” [NOTE] - Billy Barker, Roy Brown, and Billy Bishop. The initial B predominates in these names, though there were two others on whose careers the author may have drawn: Raymond Collishaw and Wilfred ‘Wop’ [NOTE] May for his fictional “BB.” For instance, Collishaw was Canada’s 2nd-highest scoring pilot of WWI, rose to Air Vice Marshall and like Bandy went to Soviet Russia in 1919. May had a post-WWI career similar to Bandy’s at times, becoming a barnstormer, setting up pioneer aviation enterprises etc [NOTE]. Roy Brown uniquely insisted pilots not go into combat without adequate practice, as Bandy does when he takes command of a squadron. Billy Barker VC was Canada’s most decorated soldier of WWI and introduced parachutes to the air force (something Bandy also tries to do). After the war, Barker set up an aviation firm in partnership with fellow ace Billy Bishop before rising to high rank in the RCAF, serving abroad. Billy Bishop (1894–1956), the best-known of the group, seems the main real-life inspiration for Bandy, a link which had its own fact-versus-fiction controversy.
Brash and determined, Billy Bishop was the British Empire’s highest-scoring air “ace.” Bishop’s most famous exploit was a solo dawn raid on June 2nd, 1917, when he shot up a German airfield as a flight of planes tried to take off, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Around 1980, a scriptwriter for the National Film Board Of Canada began looking for German records of this raid – and found none. (Some of course had been destroyed or lost in the German collapse.) The result was The Kid Who Couldn’t Miss, a 1982 feature-length documentary about Billy Bishop and his most famous exploit, over which it cast doubt. The film incorporated scenes based on a one-man stage-show, a set of sketches and songs, Billy Bishop Goes To War written by John Gray, where a single actor plays Bishop, his mechanic, etc. in turn. The use of staged scenes from a play within a “documentary” was to plunge the NFB into a political crisis. This play had also suggested the exploit was a pre-arranged PR stunt to raise morale.
The scenario the film suggested was that Bishop originally got the idea from talking to another famous WWI flier, the English ace Albert Ball, who told him of his solo-raid plan. When Ball was killed (age 20) soon afterwards, Bishop took it on. Attacking The Enemy Airfield At Dawn is now of course a scene familiar from later screen dramas as well as paintings. The film suggested that when Bishop arrived at the German airfield he found it abandoned, so he landed there, removed his Lewis gun and sprayed his tailplane with a burst to simulate defensive ground-fire, then returned to a hero’s welcome, with senior officers, it was claimed, lined up on the runway awaiting the hero’s return. Although he couldn’t identify the location of the action and there were no witnesses, these standard requirements for the award of a VC were, just this once, waived by the King.
All these pilots were associated in the public mind with a “knights of the air” image, a new class of war hero that came out of WWI. Aerial dogfights lent themselves more to romanticisation than trench warfare (a notion later satirised in a cult Canadian antiwar novel, Derek Robinson’s Goshawk Squadron). Some historians suggest this was officially encouraged propaganda to counter the Germans’ “Red Baron” knightly image – German pilots were indeed often from a knightly or baronial class. (This was the basis of the 1966 film The Blue Max, where a tradesman’s son, an ex-infantry corporal, competes against the ‘Von Richthofen’ officer class to achieve the 20 kills needed to win the coveted Pour-le-Merite ‘blue max’ medal - which he does by cheating.)
England’s own ace Albert Ball had been shot down in a dogfight with Manfred “Red Baron” Von Richthofen’s younger brother and 2nd-in-command Lothar, who got the official credit for killing Ball, despite crashing himself. The Red Baron had shot down another English ace, Lanoe Hawker VC. The 1971 feature film Von Richthofen And Brown has Canadian ace Roy Brown planning to attack the Red Baron’s aerodrome as a reprisal for Hawker's death, only to have the Red Baron adopt the same airfield-raid plan pre-emptively.
How much of that is Hollywood invention I couldn’t say, but the shooting down of the Red Baron himself in a low-level action over the front lines in April 1918 was indeed officially credited to Captain Roy Brown. At the time, the Baron was pursuing future Canadian ace "Wop" May (then just a novice in Brown’s Flight), and Brown went after Von Richthofen (Brown and May were high school friends). Though the RAF credited Brown with the kill, it’s been argued ever since that the medical and eyewitness evidence suggests the Baron was brought down by ground fire from an Australian machine-gun unit nearby. (The story is about to be dramatised again, in a 2008 German feature film, The Red Baron.)
These events are routinely covered in ‘unsolved mysteries’ TV documentaries, but in the 1980s The Kid Who Couldn’t Miss got the documentary’s maker, Paul Cowan, brought before a Canadian Senate committee of inquiry set up after complaints from veterans’ associations. (Bishop had not only fought in WW1 but had a high postwar profile as a high-ranking RCAF officer. He had written books with inspirational titles like Winged Peace and become a kind of recruitment-poster figure, even appearing as himself, on parade, in a Technicolor film about bush pilots joining the war effort, Captains Of The Clouds, starring James Cagney.) Threatened with contempt of Parliament if he didn’t cooperate, Cowan spent days defending himself for questioning the war record of a Canadian hero whose boots, he was told, he wasn’t fit to lick (a view that continues among some military buffs online).
The Senate committee claimed the public might be misled into believing scenes taken from the one-man stage show (shot of course in modern colour and sound), where the show’s one actor while playing Bishop’s mechanic expresses doubts about the raid etc., were genuine WWI actuality footage, and that the film should be withdrawn until it could be re-edited with a disclaimer. The film went on to win awards, though it is still attacked on points, and it is now classed as a docu-drama rather than a documentary. Cowan’s thesis was then attacked in the book Hanging A Legend: The NFB’s Shameful Attempt To Discredit Billy Bishop, VC by War-Amps charity head Cliff Chadderton. The NFB arranged with war vets to make another feature-length documentary, Aces: A Story Of The First Air War, on Bishop, Barker et al. Though its auspices suggested something of a make-good face-saving sop, i.e. a historical whitewash, this 1993 documentary scripted by the NFB’s George Pearson suggested the combining of trench warfare with aerial reconnaissance and strafing only created more of a costly stalemate. It also used as historical consultants two figures who would contribute their own doubts about Billy Bishop in print form: Philip Markham and Brereton Greenhous.
At the time, with Senators taking the view anyone who questioned a war hero’s record was a coward, Cowan was unable to find anyone who would publicly defend his position, even in the press, on the issue of free speech. (A similar method of an inquisitorial parliamentary inquiry, based on the US Congress's "House Un-American Activities Committee" model, had been used to destroy the Canadian career of John Grierson, the father of the documentary and founder of the National Film Board after WW2.) However in 1995 Philip Markham, an ex-RAF officer, published an article in Over The Front magazine saying he had begun looking for evidence for 15 years in the hope of substantiating Bishop’s claim, but found none, except to the contrary. Markham’s research also found its way into later editions of Dan McCaffery’s 1988 biography Billy Bishop: Canadian Hero. A 2002 study by Brereton Greenhous, a Canadian ex-Department Of Defence historian, The Making Of Billy Bishop, argued the solo dawn raid never occurred and Bishop lied for propaganda purposes about this, and other matters as well. A 2002 article in The Canadian Military Journal by one of Bishop’s defenders (Lt Col. David Bashow, author of Knights Of The Air) says Bishop was regarded with disdain by some of his contemporaries, as something of a self-seeking glory hunter. He conceded there is no doubt Bishop lied on a number of occasions and embellished his record in postwar magazines, but says this was no doubt encouraged as official propaganda.
Whether Bishop’s dawn raid ever happened is a controversy that remains too emotive to be resolved, since each side insists the other side dopt the burden of proof on its side and prove its case, and the Bishop defenders systematically attack the character of any person representing the other side. It’s become a stalemate, the historians’ equivalent of trench warfare.
Returning to the fictional BB (ie Bart Bandy), was author Donald Jack aware of the controversy and did he use it in any way in his fiction? Jack was in the RAF in WW2 and just afterwards, emigrating to Canada in 1951, 5 years before Bishop died, so their social- professional worlds may have connected.
Well, Flashman first becomes a hero when the force relieving a besieged desert fort finds him lying dazed, wrapped in the Union flag, which they take to be the ultimate statement of patriotic sacrifice - when in fact he was trying to hand it over to the rebels in cowardly capitulation. After that he has to act the lifelong hero, maintaining pretence for the sake of the perks while trying to shirk further danger – unsuccessfully, since a national hero is expected to be in the forefront of danger. Bandy is no coward but is also an accidental hero. Initially serving in the infantry, where he is regarded with suspicion by the Colonel (he is a teetotaller), he is sent on a night-time ‘snatch’ raid to the German trenches to capture a prisoner for questioning. Instead, he gets disoriented in no-man’s land (his men have filled his water bottle with rum), and knocks out and captures an officer who turns out to be his own Colonel. Knocking out his dazed captive again, he returns to be acclaimed a hero for having rescued the colonel after he was snatched by (Bandy is told) a large German raiding party. The Colonel later tells Bandy he has his suspicions about what really transpired, as he recovered consciousness momentarily to make out not a German snatch-squad but one solitary, hiccupping figure. But Bandy sticks to what is now the official version, and goes on – as he confesses, often by sheer luck - to greater fame as an air ace, brigadier-general, and national hero.
I wonder ….
Note: where in the text it says "[NOTE]", a popup note should appear if you hover your mouse over it (though this may be truncated in Firefox, grrr).
The Flashman Papers
The Bandy Papers
The Bishop Controversy
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