raven: black and white street sign: "Hobbs Lane" (quatermass - hobbs end)
[personal profile] raven
In absence of anything else cheerful to talk about, then. On Shim's recommendation I have spent the last few days reading through George MacDonald Fraser's McAuslan books, The General Danced At Dawn, McAuslan in the Rough and The Sheikh and the Dustbin. They're short stories, together an account of life in a Highland regiment in the immediate post-war period, set in Scotland and North Africa. For some reason they're largely billed as the adventures of Private McAuslan, the dirtiest soldier in the world, but the protagonist and first-person narrator is a very young Scottish officer, Dand MacNeill (who on at least one occasion refers to himself as "that idiot MacNeill, Lieutenant, D."), who is responsible for McAuslan but also thirty-five other Gordon Highlanders, and the whole thing is both magnificently evocative and funny as all-get-out. There's no overarching plot, beyond MacNeill becoming an officer - which, spoilers, he does in the first few pages - they're all vignettes and reflections from a distance of decades.

Some could very easily be episodes of M*A*S*H - especially one where MacNeill is told at eleven pm, just seconds before he was finally about to roast the regimental chaplain at snooker, that his thirty-six Highlanders, all out in the souks and brothels spending their pay packets, have recently unwittingly come into contact with smallpox, and what is he going to do about it; also the delightful story where MacNeill, after upbraiding McAuslan for being the dirtiest and least-well-turned-out soldier alive, finds himself in front of royalty in front of Edinburgh Castle fully aware his kilt buckle is about to give way.

(It's 1946. I wonder very much what would have happened should MacNeill and McAuslan somehow find themselves in Korea four years later.)

The thing is, Fraser's an ass of the worst kind, indubitably, and MacNeill is almost certainly entirely Fraser. (Even the name is arch - the stories are bylined "by Dand MacNeill"; the regimental motto is "Bydand".) And there is a lot of casual racism in the stories, and some not-so-casual - if you wish to miss eighty percent of it, don't read "Johnnie Cope in the Morning". And even that upsets me rather, because the bits of "Johnnie Cope..." that don't make me sick are stupidly, screamingly funny. (The regimental pipe band have decided it's their sworn duty as Highlanders to wake up the officers every Friday at six am by playing "Johnnie Cope" two feet from their window. Hijinks, as they say, ensue.)

It makes me unhappy in the worst way, but somehow ... somehow. What can you say. The best of the stories, in my opinion, is the haunting "Night Run to Palestine", in which MacNeill, through a sequence of incompetencies, winds up commanding a troop train from Cairo to Jerusalem and everything, throughout that long, frightening night, goes wrong. (At one point he ends up helping a young woman with two babies. "And so we worked away, myself the brutal soldier singing a Gaelic lullaby, and the gentle mother opposite rebuking her daughter in terms that would have made a Marine corporal join the Free Kirk.") There really is something haunting about it - something inarticulate under the surface, lacking resolution in the way that means it must be true.

It all comes down to the fact that in the end, MacNeill, who is Fraser, who is who Fraser was, aged twenty-one and a long way from home, has a kindness and humanity that isn't what you immediately think of, when you read an army memoir. I was oddly touched by "His Majesty Says Goodbye", the story in which MacNeill and McAuslan are demobbed on the same day, and MacNeill is watching from across the street outside Waverley as McAuslan gets into his first trouble with a policeman in civilian life. "It's nothing to do with me," he says aloud to himself, startling passers-by, and crosses the street to sort it out. And at the very end, Fraser recounts a Flashman book-signing where someone turned up with battered copies, not of his latest Flashman book, but of the first two McAuslan books. It's the Colonel, Dand MacNeill's commanding officer, the man that at one point, he thinks, he's sure he described as a "crafty vulture", which is fine, it's all fine, everything is absolutely fine, he is entirely not panicking, he signs the next woman's book "George MacDonald Vulture".

I have no idea if this is a recommendation or not; do with it what you will, but it's kind, which is something.

on 2013-07-06 02:02 pm (UTC)
toft: graphic design for the moon europa (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] toft
This was lovely to read - I'll have to check these books out. I wonder if my dad's read them, it sounds like something he'd like. Which of the books/collections would you say was the best?
Edited on 2013-07-06 02:03 pm (UTC)

on 2013-07-06 10:16 pm (UTC)
toft: graphic design for the moon europa (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] toft
Thanks! Maybe I'll get them out of the library if I can.

on 2013-07-06 04:46 pm (UTC)
msilverstar: (david street smile)
Posted by [personal profile] msilverstar
We read these back in the day, being fond of Flashman and both our dads having been in the military for a while. A certain kind of humor and pathos, and insight into a time and culture in hindsight. And that culture was notably racist and sexist, with Fraser being worse than many. Problematic.

on 2013-07-07 01:16 am (UTC)
quarter_to_five: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] quarter_to_five
Hi...I'm not sure how I got here, just clicking around dreamwidth, but just wanted to say that I enjoyed this review, may now totally have to track down and read these, and can I follow your journal in general?

on 2013-07-06 03:51 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] eglantine-br.livejournal.com
Kind is a very big something.

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