Sunday, April 15, 2012

What Would Flashman Say to This?

A visit on Wednesday to Idle Time Books in Adams-Morgan turned up a copy of Quartered Safe Out Here, a book I remembered glancing at on the shelves of Olsson's almost 20 years ago. I bought it, and set the book club's May novel aside until I finished it.

Quartered Safe Out Here, George MacDonald Fraser's memoir of his service in the late stages of WW II in Burma, is as good as I supposed it must be back in the 1990s. Fraser served as a private soldier and eventually a lance corporal in the Border Regiment, part of the 17th Division, in the fighting around Meiktila and Pyawbwe, and in smaller actions thereafter. The men of his section ("squad" in American) were mostly from around Carlisle, as he was. He was unusual among them, as coming from a prosperous family, and as being by name and identification Scottish, but seems to have gotten along well enough. By the time Fraser reached the line, the Japanese army had been badly damaged at Imphal, and was nearing collapse; largely it was a war of movement. The memoir lacks the nightmare quality of the later stages of E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed, though no doubt the older hands in his section had seen fighting as awful around Imphal as the American troops saw on Okinawa.

I was amused, however, by a couple of passages I would not have imagined coming from the author of the Flashman books, regarding a leave in Calcutta:
 Maybe sex is more important nowadays than it used to be. Or maybe we were a more restrained, inhibited, pious, and timid generation. But I was interested to note that Nine Section, who for months had been deprived of female society, and had remarked on the fact from time to time showed no tendency to behave like Casanova gone berserk. They eyed what talent there was in the bars of Chowringhee, danced with abandon at the service clubs, and chatted up the Wrens, Waafs, ATS, and nurses, and that was about it, apparently.
Forster was an interesting case. On our first night in Calcutta he spruced himself up with Lifebuoy, flourished the prophylactic kit he had drawn from the M.O.'s office, admired himself in the mirror, sketched out a programme of debauchery which would have frightened Caligula, and strode forth like Ferdinand the Bull. Three hours later back, full of gloating accounts of his sexual heroics, and unaware than in the interval Grandarse and I had been sitting three rows behind him in the Lighthouse cinema, watching Laurel and Hardy.
Well, as Mencken wrote long ago, men are gaudy liars when it comes to their amours.

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