You May Be Shakespeare But…

“You may be Shakespeare, but get yourself a job first.”

My mother’s advice has guided and bounded my life since I first told her I wanted to write for a living at the age of twelve. The advice was born out of her own experience, the curious mix of aristocratic and working class sensibility with which she was imbued.

During my childhood we were proudly, honourably working class folk. My mother had a clerical job in a bank, and before that had worked in a factory, a green grocer’s stall and a dry cleaner’s shop. In contrast my mother was born in a palace in India, which at the time still retained some vestiges of the wealth and influence of her family’s glory days.

She watched as the diversion of wealth: the fascination with language and poetry and lifetimes spent indulging it, was retained long after the wealth had gone. She saw indolence and inaction fritter away the estates and her uncle fighting a desperate, lone rearguard action to slow the inevitable decline, while the rest of the family looked on unwilling to believe that what had taken centuries to build could be so rapidly lost.

More of decline and fall, and indeed that ancient heyday in other posts. Suffice it to say that my mother’s sentiment was borne out of watching orchards being sold off while her elders discussed Persian poetry, and her own experience of knowing what it took to secure financial stability.

I started full time employment at the age of 21, and worked until I was 40. In between my brother and I managed to convince our mother that she should retire, despite her protestations. Marriage, house, children followed in that order, and then I hit the age milestone and my elder daughter said “We only see you when you are tired.”

I’m not sure I can explain how strongly that statement affected me. As a child I would wait by the window of our terraced house and watch out for my mother coming home from work. We forced her to retire so she could enjoy the livelihood she had worked so hard to secure. Yet here, with the benefit of that security all my daughter would take away about me from her formative years was seeing a tired man at the end of the working day.

It made me realise I wanted to be more than the breadwinner, I wanted to spend time being a father, I still wanted to be a writer, I wanted to build a treehouse for my kids to play in.

I stopped work in June of that year with modest savings and no plan for how the world would work in the time to follow, other than trusting in my experience.

I took over the school run in the mornings to give my wife a break from the routine, and spend those precious chatty morning minutes with the kids. I’d frequently do the pick up as well, walking home with each daughter holding a hand and listening to the stories of their days.

I built a treehouse. It’s actually a platform on stilts because the pear tree in the garden might not be strong enough. It took weeks, I had no plans, no tutorials other than the DIYing and carpentry I had picked up over the years, and a whole load of ambition.

I wrote two books. I have given away more copies than I have sold, but I wrote them, they exist. My name is on more than just a few emails on an office server somewhere.

And things worked out, I’m back in a job, and if money is a little tighter than it was before, at least there is something to show for the time I took off.

If that is a little smug, a little not about the regret of not doing, but the pleasure of finally doing it, well I’ll say I earned it. And as the royalty cheques haven’t been rolling in, I’m glad I did it Mum’s way.


The Case for Flashman

Flashman is a guilty pleasure, and something suddenly of the moment, as the working library of George Macdonald Fraser goes on sale.



Flashman is a cad, a bounder, a rogue and a philanderer. He is also a work of fiction from the brilliant creative mind of GM Fraser, and based on the thinnest of cues: a bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

There is nothing to love about Flashman, he has no redeeming qualities, other than a brutal honesty in the narrative of his “memoirs”, which cover a swathe of Victorian history, and key events from Wild West to the Far East. Nonetheless he has a following of readers and admirers that have made the series of thirteen books a success.

We are used to our heroes having a moral compass, even if they are deeply conflicted, complicated people, with a trail of demons. They operate to a standard, or demonstrate a degree of courage or high principle which we can admire.

Not so Flashy. He is a coward. One who will only get into a fight if the opponent is already dead. He is a scoundrel, who turns the misfortune of others to his own advantage, without thought for right or consequence. He is a womaniser, for whom any female is fair game, and any stratagem to fornicate justified by the sole standard that it succeeds irrespective of whether the recipient of his attentions is willing.

So why the fascination, and the following? Let’s knock off the basics first. The history is meticulously researched, I’ve learned more about the colonial era from Flashman than any other source, and I freely admit as a student I found any history later than about 1000AD terribly dull. And yet here it is brought vividly to life, with the only slight inaccuracy being Flashman’s presence in pivotal moments.

The writing is also excellent. It is raucous and ribald, but at the same time it whisks you along without any turgid scene setting or unnecessary verbosity.

But that is all padding, the draw of course is Flashman himself. I think the reason we like him is that he is that whispering cartoon devil sitting on one shoulder, without a righteous counterpart. For everyone who ever fell short of an absolute standard of behaviour, there is a Flashman moment when he not just falls short but kicks a hole in the bottom of the pit and keeps going. If you were ever so slightly sickened by Superman, and truth justice and the American way, well there is Flashy in the background groping Lois Lane, grinning for the camera and getting the front page credits. When Batman, be it Dark Knight or Adam West, stumbles punchdrunk away from a comatose villain it is Flashman that steps up, puts a boot on his chest and claims the kill.

For everyone not quite as good as they should be, and tired of feeling bad about it, there is Flashman. He is a reflection of ourselves in a distorting mirror, one in which we are unfettered by morals and conventions. We see Flashman, we recognise the incentives to break the rules, and we know we are better than him because we do not succumb. And secretly, sometimes, we wish we did.


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