There’s a lot of it about.
The Beeb gave us the farting pensioner, banned from his social club. That rings a bell. By name, just that. Who?
Ah, that’s a long story.
There was once a comprehensive school. Among its would-be alumni was one particularly unpleasant youth. He had disrupted English classes relentlessly, and the system seemed unable to redress matters. Today’s diversion was repetitive farting. Eventually the teacher (let’s call him “Smith”), called the head of department (let’s call him Multi-syllable-name). Mr Multi-syllable-name remonstrated with youth, who responded (as was to be expected) with obscenities. This gave Multi-syllable-name the opportunity to pass the parcel, and call in the Headteacher, whom we shall call “Mr Jones”. Jones had been this way before, and proceeded to berate said youth, until (equally predictably) youth took a swing at Jones. Desired result: grounds for excluding youth. Almost everyone happy. Teaching resumed.
Mother of youth runs to local paper, complaining of excessive punishment, victimisation, and preaching the philosophy of natural gas and “where’er you be, let your wind go free”. She edited from the account any mention of the swing at Sir. Local reporter, as is the wont of that trade, then sold the story to one of the Red-tops. Small inside-page sensation.
What made one particular character in this story very chuffed was his absence from the cast list. “Smith” and “Jones” being basic names, they had their places in the published saga. Not so Mr Multi-syllable-name, whose moniker neither mother nor journos could accurately render.
Adding to the warmth and bliss, it was then decided that the publicity meant the youth had to be transferred to another school. Trebles all round.
One guesses there’s enough evidence in that lot to work out Malcolm’s true identity.
But that wasn’t Malcolm’s first thought here.
There can be few reading pleasures so devoid of guilt and effort as a few hours spent in the company of George MacDonald Fraser. His character of Sir Harry Flashman has gone worldwide, and (when he first appeared in 1969):
so plausible did this first Flashman volume seem that one third of the reviews that it initially received in the United States accepted it as being a genuine Victorian autobiography.
GMF has only himself to blame for that, being equally a historian of some merit, an autobiographer, a scriptwriter as well as a novelist.
Now Malcolm is well into his latest: The Reavers.
GMF has brought together here a number of his interests. He is a borderer himself (from Carlisle). He wrote a fine account of the Border reivers, under the title of The Steel Bonnets, first published back in 1971 and still in print. Note that date, 1971, read the opening paragraph of the Introduction, and marvel at the prescience:
At one moment when President Richard Nixon was taking part in his inauguration ceremony, he appeared flanked by Lyndon Johnson and Billy Graham. To any one familiar with Border history it was one of those historical coincidences which send a little shudder through the mind: in that moment, thousands of miles and centuries in time away from the Debateable Land, the threads come together again; the descendants of three notable Anglo-Scottish Border tribes — families who lived and fought within a few miles of each other on the West Marches in Queen Elizabeth’s time — were standing side by side, and it took very little imagination to replace the custom-made suits with leather jacks or back-and-breasts. Only a political commentator would be tactless enough to pursue the resemblance to Border reivers beyond the physical, but there the similarity is strong.
GMF is as dissimulating here as he is with Flashman, for he drives the point home with Nixon:
The blunt, heavy features, the dark complexion, the burly body, and the whole air of dour hardness are as typical of the Anglo-Scottish frontier as the Roman Wall. Take thirty years off his age and you could put him in the front row of the Hawick scrum and hope to keep out of his way. It is difficult to think of any face that would fit better under a steel bonnet.
Later, in 1993, he did a short “history” of Lady Margaret Dacre, neatly described by one critic on the web:
You could say that The Steel Bonnets is the sort of history a novelist would write, conversely you could say that The Candlemass Road is the sort of novel a historian would write.
Beyond Lady Dacre, returned to her ancestral estates from the Court, to find her inheritance in hock and hard times, the rest is a pretty fiction. GMF now says of that book:
… an Elizabethan swashbuckler set on the Anglo-Scottish border. That in turn had its origin in a play writen much earlier; it was never produced, so I used its plot for Candlemass, which was kindly received by readers and critics, being full of bloodshed, brutality, treachery, and betrayal. By one of those ironies of the writing business, I was then able to turn it back into a play, for BBC Radio.
Now he revisits what is largely the same plot:
… writing The Reavers as a fantasy in the style of another book of mine, The Pyrates. Both are eccentric, as advertised by the fanciful archaic spelling of their titles; both are completely over the top, written for the fun of it.
And read by Malcolm in the same joyful spirit.