CULTURE

Boarding-school books with Harry and Flashman

I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in one breath, with the guilty pleasure of yielding to a sweet temptation. What I liked most was the feeling that this was a book written by someone who was feeling very lonely when she wrote it, and the way in which the little hero’s quest expressed this. J.K. Rowlings’s story has, of course, become inseparable from the whole myth around Harry Potter and we all know that she was living off welfare and raising a child on her own at the time she was writing it. So she triumphed in the way that Harry triumphs when he finally enters the world to which he belongs. And it is wonderful to see that lonely little boy finding his place in a very special society – which is represented here by the boarding school, Hogwarts. Being a product of a boarding school myself and suddenly yearning for what I scorned, I felt the need for more boarding-school books. The closest I could get was the exact opposite of Harry Potter’s journey of self-discovery and success. In Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh’s bizarre first novel (1928), the sleepwalking hero, Paul Pennyfeather, starts off reading for the Church at Oxford and then, through many misadventures (such as becoming an unwitting member of a white slave racket and having his death staged in prison so he can escape), he ends where he started, studying at Oxford and pretending to be a distant cousin of his late namesake. Not having the mother of all boarding-school books, Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays, I picked up Flashman (1969), the first of the series on Harry Flashman, a Victorian age soldier, impostor, bully and hero, by George MacDonald Fraser. I didn’t get much on boarding-school life because the fictional memoir picks up on the caddish bully on the day he is expelled. But it does go on to show how, despite himself and thanks only to an unscrupulous ability to sell out everyone and everything, Flashman becomes a heroic survivor of the British army wiped out by Afghan tribesmen in the retreat from Kabul in 1842. The self-centered protagonist is a fiction but the author has researched the period well. This has ensured that in the post-September 11 world, even Flashman can take on a new relevance. Take his verdict on the retreat from Kabul, and the destruction of a whole army because, in the deep snow of winter, its commander, Lord Elphinstone, led it into a pass controlled by hostile forces: Even now, after a lifetime of consideration, I am at a loss for words to describe the superhuman stupidity, the truly monumental incompetence, and the bland blindness to reason of Elphy Bey and his advisers. If you had taken the greatest military geniuses of the ages, placed them in command of our army, and asked them to ruin it utterly as speedily as possible, they could not – I mean it seriously – have done it as surely and as swiftly as he did. And he believed he was doing his duty. – In the Continent, Repsol for 80,000 tons of cargo loading Dec. 18 UK, discharging UKC, has fixed M/T Progress at W/S 95 while BP for same cargo quantity loading Dec. 18 for UKC round voyage has fixed M/T Pedoulas at same levels.