George MacDonald Fraser at the Sefton Hotel, Isle of Man, 1995
This is the second part of my 1995 interview with George MacDonald Fraser on the Isle of Man. His knowledge of history shown in his books, gained without a formal degree, was impressive. I went to my first writers seminar, on the Isle of Man, a few years later. One wanna-be writer criticized Mr. Fraser for being too accurate in his historical fiction! I met with Mr. Fraser one more time, in 1999. He was doing a book signing of Flashman and the Tiger at a local bookstore. After chatting for a while, where I told him of my own writing efforts, he kindly offered to allow me to use his name when I contacted his agent. This was before many revisions of my book and it was not print-ready. Of course she declined to represent me, but did send a nice personal note. I wonder what she thought of him recommending a hack-writer like I was then to contact her. George MacDonald Fraser passed away in 2008. He was a polite and gracious man.
RLC: Moving along to your books on the Gordon Highlanders that you based on your own
experiences. GMF: They’re sort of half truth. Some of them are truer than others. RLC: Right. Are most of the people in them real characters and you changed the names to protect the guilty, as it were?
GMF: That’s right. Most of them recognized themselves. They couldn’t help that, you know. Well, they don’t mind, so that’s okay.
RLC: That’s good.
GMF: I think they’re rather pleased. The final amalgamation took place last year. The Gordons ceased to be and went in with the previously amalgamated Camerons and Seaforths. They have become one regiment, simply called the Highlanders. I was greatly delighted that the new design for The General Danced at Dawn they’ve adopted as their Christmas card. Mind that was some time back.
RLC: I’ve noticed, to return to Flashman, most of the wiser are the non-commissioned, whereas the officers many times seem to be either pompous or foolish, or both.
21 year-old Lt. George MacDonald Fraser of the Gordon Highlanders
GMF: Of course, a great many of them were. I think it’s fair to say that you get a fair number of mutton heads among the professional military. Certainly the NCO’s, the non-coms, those who rose at all were pretty good. Yes, but on the other hand there were some soldiers who were absolute geniuses, there’s no doubt about it, around at that time. They come in all shapes and sizes. Generally, in wartime, the best men get to the top, thank God. That happens in every country, I suppose.
RLC: Would you consider your military experience a positive, good one?
GMF: I loved it. Yes. I liked soldiering, but I wouldn’t want to be a peacetime soldier. There doesn’t seem to be much point. And, of course, the huge change that came over Britain after the war. From having had this enormous empire, suddenly it had gone, pretty well. There wouldn’t have been the opportunities for getting on as a soldier that there had been.
RLC: Is there any little anecdote that you could share that’s not in your books?
GMF: Nothing really particularly. I’ve milked pretty dry by now. I think they’re all in there. I’ve covered my times with the Gordons in those three books of short stories and my time in Burma in a sort of an autobiography that I wrote a couple of years ago, called Quartered Safe Out Here. Outside of that, not a great deal. You know, military life tends to be, on the whole, fairly humdrum. RLC: You’re more noted among some people for your history writing. The Steel Bonnets is very important to the Scots.
Steel Bonnets- the story of the Border reivers
GMF: That was a labor of love . I’d been born in the Border country and no one had ever done it. There had been lots of little romantic histories and so on, but no one had ever done a real history, a factual history of it, so I decided to do that. The only thing is that it could have been ten times as long. I had to be selective because there was so much that there just wasn’t room for. It was an enormous book as it was.
RLC: Do you find that you are drawn to certain historical eras in your studies?
GMF: Yes, the Victorian era and the sixteenth century, particularly. Those are the ones I write about because by now, they’re the ones I know most about.
RLC: You have also done some fine work on American history, The Buffalo Soldiers.
GMF: Well, thank you. As in the Flashmans, American history in the last century is terrific. It’s a fantastic story.
RLC: Basically, though, you confined yourself to British and American. That’s your primary focus.
GMF: Oh yes. For one thing, the language. I would love to have written, or be able to write the history of the buccaneers. But I don’t speak French, I don’t speak Spanish, and I don’t speak Dutch. If you’re going to do it, you ought to be able to research in all those languages. Also, it would call for two or three years travel around the Caribbean and, tempting though it might be, I think I might probably get fed up with it.
RLC: I note that you basically do historical novels or history. It shows your primary interest. You don’t do a lot of fiction like Archer or someone like that where you can sit down and reel it off. Yours are more difficult by far.
GMF: Yes, you have to do the research and, as I say, that is the bit that I enjoy most. No, I have no desire to write about my own time at all. Everybody else is doing it, so why should I. My daughter writes. She has published three novels and are all contemporary, because she was a barrister. Although, she’s now got four children, so she is retired. They’re about the law, but that’s her particular area. No, I’ve no great interest in the twentieth century.
RLC: Well, we’re very appreciative of your works. That’s what drew me is the historical aspect. That’s my great love. Are you working on any particular writing now?
GMF: Not at the moment, no. I should. I’ve been lazy. Of late I wrote a little book about Border history, a little piece of fiction called The Candlemas Road. The BBC asked me to dramatize it. I then dramatized it. It went out a couple of weeks ago. That is the last work that I’ve done.
RLC: So that should be appearing fairly soon, then? GMF: No, it’s been broadcasted.
RLC: Oh, when?
GMF: About three weeks ago. Middle of July.
RLC: I think that’s one the saddest things is that we don’t know about things like this because BBC doesn’t publicize much.
GMF: No, it doesn’t.
RLC: American TV tells you what’s coming. They put it in TV Guide for weeks. Here you have to dig for it on the BBC.
GMF: Lots of things pass by. There was a program I wish I’d seen called “Highlanders,” which Sean Connery narrated, just a week ago. It was about an hour long documentary about Culloden and the ’45 Rebellion. I missed it. Again, they didn’t publicize it.
RLC: I didn’t even hear about it. I guess if you are what we call a “couch potato” in the States you have a better chance.
GMF: You just have to study the programs in advance, which I never do.
RLC: One enjoyable story of yours is about your grandmother who ran the Highland inn and the still operation.
GMF: That’s almost entirely true, that story. That’s the trouble. I just don’t have any connection with the Highlands now at all, because all the older members of my family, of course, are dead and I sort of lost touch. In fact, I haven’t been back in the Highlands for ten years or more, although it is just across the way.
RLC: Have you ever gone to any of the games there? Of course, the games are different there than in the States. In the States, they’re more like a Highland fair, with games only as a part of the event.
GMF: No, the only Highland gathering I’ve been to since I was a child was the one in North Carolina, and that went on for two or three days. Obviously, they’re a big thing and they take place in all parts of the USA and Canada.
R.L. Cherry in Fraser tartan kilt before marching in the 2105 4th of July parade
RLC: Yes, I was involved in Southern California. They have large ones in Santa Rosa in Northern California and Costa Mesa in the South. So then I take it you don’t have a kilt?
GMF: Oh, yes. Yes. RLC: You do? Great!
GMF: I got it, actually, before I went to Grandfather Mountain and have worn it several times since for weddings and that sort of thing. The peculiar thing that came out of The General Danced at Dawn is that about five or six years ago Simon Fraser University in British Columbia wrote to me and said we have read all about this, your story about people dancing 32, 64, 128ths in reels. We intend to dance a 256-some reel. And they did. They sent me a video of it. And they actually did it. As a result of that, the year before last, the Toronto Country Dance Society decided they would dance a 512-some reel. They got dancers from all over the United States and Canada, New Zealand, oh God knows where. Again, I saw a video of it and it’s in the Guiness Book of Records now. But, in fact, I think it wasn’t as genuine as the 256-some they did in British Columbia, because that was one bloody, great reel. The Toronto looked more to me like a lot of groups of reels. But, still, it was accepted by the experts, so I guess it was all right. It was an impressive sight, I’ll tell you. 512 maniacs weaving in and out, you know. They announced they were going to have a shot at the 1024-some. They’re not getting me, I know that.
RLC: You’ve met the Frasers at Grandfather Mountain. Have you had much contact with other Frasers in Scotland?
GMF: No, not really.
RLC: Did you ever meet Lord Lovat or Lady Saltoun.
GMF: No, I never did. That was a piece of one-ups-manship by Charlton Heston. He had met Lord Lovat. No, I never met him, old MacShimi. He had a gathering of Frasers in the 1950’s, and I think one of my uncles went to it. They figured they would get a few hundred and they got 70,000. They must have eaten him out of house and home.
I haven’t had much contact with other Frasers. There was Lord Fraser, who bought the paper on which I worked, the Glasgow Herald. He was a financier and businessman, died about thirty years ago. He was a distant cousin of mine. I mean, okay, if you are a Lovat Fraser, you’re probably all related some way, anyway. But he was a traceable sort of second cousin. He was the man who bought Harrod’s. There was a huge take-over battle in the ’50’s and he succeeded in buying Harrod’s. He was a tough little bandit. I knew him and his son. But no, one notes the Frasers turning up in various positions, but I’ve not had any particular comings and goings with them.
RLC: There have been a few other Fraser authors. David Fraser, a cousin of Lady Saltoun, has written And We Shall Shock Them, The Killing Times, and others. GMF: The reason my name on my books is George MacDonald Fraser is because it is my middle name, anyway, but also there was a Scottish poet called George S. Fraser. My publisher said that just so there is no confusion, let’s have your middle name. And so there it went. Oh, yes. And then, of course, there’s Antonia Fraser…
RLC: That’s by marriage. GMF: Yes, that’s by marriage.
RLC: Now she’s married to Harold Pinter.
GMF: That’s right. I’ve never met her. Then, I haven’t met many authors. I tend to steer clear of other authors.
RLC: You don’t go to “author clubs?”
GMF: No. I’m trying to think how many authors I know. Kingsley Ames, I think he’s about the only one. Yes, just about. There are one or two on the Island. Then again, we don’t get together. There is an Isle of Man Authors’ Society, but, then again, I don’t attend it. I suppose I feel that an author’s job is writing, not meeting other authors.
RLC: Just because you write doesn’t mean you have the same interests as someone else who writes.
GMF: Quite. I mean you’d just end up talking about royalties, agents, and publishers anyway.
Lord Lovat’s memoirs with great recounting of his time with the Commandos
RLC: Did you ever read Lord Lovat’s book? He wrote March Past.
GMF: No, I didn’t know he’d written one.
RLC: I thought that since you were both military men, it might be of interest.
GMF: The only military Fraser I knew was, again, a cousin, Bill Fraser, who was in the Gordons with me. God knows what happened to him. You lose touch very easily. There are Fraser relatives scattered around the States and Canada. My parents were in touch with them, but him, I’m not. I’ve got a cousin actually living in…What’s the name of the place…not Santa Monica. He was at Venice Beach. He ran a restaurant at Venice Beach. But he’s talking of, and I don’t know whether he’s done it, moving to Houston. Whether he will or not, Lord knows. A lot of Frasers are in the Los Angeles phone book.
RLC: Oh, yes. It’s not quite like British Columbia, but… GMF: British Columbia, oh! And Saskatchewan. My wife and I worked in a newspaper in Regina back in, oh, what 1950, and there were Frasers everywhere. You couldn’t move for the brutes.
RLC: You worked for the Glasgow Herald. What other papers did you work for?
GMF: I worked for a local one in Carlisle, the Carlisle Journal, then went to Canada where I worked for the Regina Leader Post, back to Carlisle, worked the Cumberland News, and then to Glasgow and worked for the Glasgow Herald. That’s my journalistic story. Did over twenty years. It’s a lovely job, newspaper work. I wouldn’t like it now. The new technology. Forget it. It means nothing to me. I don’t really like newspapers nowadays, anyway. For one thing, they’re too damn big. The strain of filling the space is obviously showing in a lot of them.
RLC: Do you find them more sensational now?
GMF: Yes. Oh, standards have slipped. I mean, I sound like a dinosaur, but they have. Not only journalistic ethics, what is permissible and what isn’t. I mean, there’s no holds barred nowadays. But also literacy. I mean, they don’t know the difference between who and whom, may and might, and like and as. I’m appalled at some of the garbage that I see. In fact, I skim the headlines now and rely on television. I don’t want to know what is happening anyway, very much. Forget Bosnia, as far as I’m concerned. That’s just a hell of a mess.
RLC: I don’t think I would want to be one of the soldiers there. Not being able to shoot back and watching people killed in front of your eyes.
GMF: Quite. I don’t think we should have been near it in the first place, or anyone else for that matter, and I think it would have got over a lot quicker without UN interference. Okay, humanitarian efforts, by all means, but to send in observers, the way they have, they’re useless and just hostages. But, that’s the way.
RLC: It’s almost as though now we don’t have clear-cut enemies. We’ve lost the Russian hegemony.
GMF: No. I don’t blame the United States for not wanting to get involved in Yugoslavia. I don’t think any of us should’ve. But that’s not the popular, moralistic view. If any of the back-bench heroes who are always demanding that we should get further involved…okay, let THEM go, if they want to.
RLC: Just out of curiosity, how did you end up on the Isle of Man. You’ve lived in Canada, the U.S., and Scotland.
GMF: Well, there’s nowhere in particular that we belong to, and we knew the Island. When I wrote Flashman, I thought, “I don’t know, but this could be the start of something. And I have no desire to pay ninety percent tax to the British government. So we came over here, thank God. If they altered the tax rate in Britain now, I wouldn’t go back. It’s nice here. We like it and it’s old fashioned and fairly quiet. Not as old fashioned and quiet as it was when we first arrived, but still I prefer it to that mess over yonder.
RLC: How long have you lived here?
GMF: Twenty…twenty-six years.
RLC: You’ve-seen a lot of changes. GMF: And yet, not all that many. It’s still pretty much the same. The number of cars has increased frantically.
RLC: Have you ever been to the TT’s?
GMF: Yes, when we first came. But we haven’t been back since. Okay, you stand and you watch the show going by, you know. It struck me then that it’s the nearest thing to the Roman arena extant. There were six killed in the actual races the year that we watched. It doesn’t seem to be quite so bad now. It’s sooner them than me, you know.
RLC: It’s not even safe to be a bystander at times.
Making a tight turn on the TT race
GMF: Quite. I mean the guy who’s our electrician, the guy we call on if anything goes wrong, he rode seventh in the Senior about twenty years ago. That’s mad! I mean, he really is mad. You can tell by the way he goes about his electrical work. But he’s a good electrician. It seems to me he takes appalling chances. When I consider that course, which, incidentally, Steve McQueen knew intimately. He’d never been here himself. He knew all about the Isle of Man, the TT and the different names and places on the course. I said to him, “the next time you’re in Europe, you’ll have to come over and go ’round it.” He said, “You can drive me. In a leisurely way.” He said, no, he wasn’t into actually racing any more. Our favorite trick with visitors was to take them to the grandstands, then around the course, and then say, “Right, you do that in twenty minutes.” It is a horrifying thought, when you consider it. You know Gray Hill in Douglas? That’s the big hill, down from the grandstands before you come to Quarterbridge. The police used to put their guns, their speed guns, on that. They found one of the riders coming down at 197 mph. When you consider that through the streets of the town…I mean, they’re nuts!
RLC: I always find it interesting that they’re putting pads on the stone walls. If you hit that at 165 mph it’ll give you a soft death.
GMF: That’s about it. That’s about it. Still, they seem to like doing it. And God knows, I don’t know what would happen to the Island’s economy in the summer without it. I’m always glad to see them come, but I’m personally always glad to see them go. RLC: I agree.
GMF: Of course they’ll be back here in a few weeks time for the Grand-Prix: Note: Grand Prix is the amateur’s TT. RLC: I always find it interesting to see the signs along the road “Fahrens.”
GMF: “Fahren links.” Yes, that’s it. For the Germans. Used to be a lot of Italians came. Not so many now, I don’t think. That was when Agostini won it six years on the run, on the trot. Then he retired, said he wasn’t coming back. Because, he said, it was getting too dangerous. Oh, no one could call him “chicken,” you know. He won the damn thing for six years running. And the Italians haven’t been as prominent as they used to be.
(Note: The signs advising “Stay left” in German are put up during TT and Grand Prix to remind German motorcyclists visiting the Isle to stay to the left.)
RLC: Remember I said, about the President, if I don’t think about it… GMF: Yes…
RLC: It was Rutherford B. Hayes.
GMF: Yes, okay.
RLC: His wife was known as “Lemonade Lucy” because she would never serve any alcohol in the White House.
GMF: Hayes. He’s one of these that you never hear of, you know.
RLC: He didn’t accomplish much because of the deal that had been made and everyone knew it. It (the Presidency) should have gone to the Democrats. But the Democrats would have had the White House with a Congress that was Republican.
GMF: Mind you, I’m not sure that these undistinguished persons aren’t the best Presidents. I mean nothing happens, so, ah, there is a case for saying the best Prime Minister there has been in Britain for a long time was Alec Douglas Hume. Because, as he said himself, in the eighteen months in which he was Prime Minister, nothing happened!
RLC: Are there any current British politicians that you have found interesting, that you like or dislike intensely?
GMF: None that I found interesting. I mean, we are not part of the British political scene, thank God. No, I’m quite content with the fact that the Island has its own little government and, on the whole, it’s pretty non-political, you know, non-party. There’s something comforting about when you’ve got to vote, you’re not voting for someone picked out by a machine and who you don’t know and suspect. We’ve got a chemist in Laxey who’s now our MHK (Member of the House of Keys). Well, there is something comforting about that, because at least you can get at him…if you want to. The last MHK we had before was our doctor, Dr. Mann. I must say, I think it’s…I just hope the Island can stay the way it is. It’s our little bastion of sanity. How long it will last, God alone knows. RLC: Would you be termed a conservative? GMF: Yes. I don’t mean conservative with a capital “C.” I don’t like the present government in England one bit. I think that the Labour government would be even worse. It generally is. But this lot have been in too long. That is the trouble with British politics. There is no one you would willingly vote for.
RLC: It’s true in America, too. GMF: We were in Hollywood at the time of the Bush-Dukakis election, and I remember the gloom that settled over Universal Studios when the result came through. Oh, God! I was a neutral bystander. I didn’t really mind. I was slightly in Bush’s favor because his Vice President was Manx, or at least of Manx descent. Although, I don’t know that he was the greatest, either. I remember poor John Landis the day after the election. It was as though the sky had fallen in. I think…the impression I got the day or two before was that they thought Dukakis was going to win. RLC: They hoped. Hollywood is traditionally liberal. Charlton Heston and a couple like him are conservatives. GMF: An impressive person. He’s a big picture man.
RLC: My wife rewatches Ben Hur every so often.
GMF: On The Prince and the Pauper, he took me aback. He said, “What other English kings can I play?” I tried to think, and I said, “Well, why not go to Edward I?”
RLC: That’s what I was going to say, “Longshanks.”
GMF: Yes. “Because,” I said, “you’re exactly right, physically.”
RLC: Of course, I don’t think he would want to play the “Hammer of Scotland.”
GMF: That’s right. I said, “Get Sean Connery to play Robert the Bruce and you’re well away. He pondered this a long time. I think he would rather play Robert the Bruce.
RLC: Did you ever meet Sean Connery?
GMF: No, never have.
RLC: I thought when you did…Octopussy. But that was Roger Moore. GMF: That was Roger. Yes. No, we’ve sort of almost coincided several times, but never, in fact. Moore’s a nice, laid back man. Didn’t take himself for Bond terribly seriously, unlike Cubby Broccoli, who took it very seriously. When I proposed putting Bond in a gorilla suit in one scene, he reacted with horror. However, Bond did end up in a gorilla suit. In Octopussy, very briefly. RLC: How many Bond pictures did you write? GMF: Just the one. The only person who wrote more than one is…oh, he’s died now…oh God, I’ve forgotten his name. He contributed to every Bond picture, from the beginning. Old Hollywood script writer…gentleman from West Point. He’d retired, pretty well, by the time I came along. Although he and Michael Wilson put in a couple of scenes in my screenplay. I don’t know why. I watched them and wondered what the hell they were all about. Professional charity, probably. They tend to get a different writer for each. Or they did. Now, I think, Michael Wilson does them. RLC: Now that they’re out of the books.
GMF: Yes. Quite. Well, we were pretty well out of the books with Octopussy. It was a short story, a novelette.
RLC: About a marine biologist, really, who loved octopi, not about a woman with a tattoo. GMF: That’s right.
RLC: They were fun. They always were fun.
GMF: They were good fun and they were very professionally made. That was their saving grace. RLC: It was always interesting to see what new gadget could be brought out for Bond to use. And normally the gadgets didn’t work. They would work at first, but there would be something that made it fail. Like the car in Goldfinger that he ended up crashing. It was like they wanted him to have to use something besides the gadgets.
GMF: That’s right. They’re still making one, I think, at the moment. Although I think Cubby Broccoli is not a part of it. I think it’s his daughter and Michael Wilson who are the producers. And it’s a new Bond. It’ll do alright. I think the magic name will still get them.
RLC: Not the mega-hits they were before, but…
GMF: No. Connery and Moore were at their peak. Oh, at MGM, I discovered, when you were working on Octopussy, you could do no wrong. They practically carried you into the building. How are we on this for length?
RLC: Great. Thanks for meeting me. I’ve really enjoyed this. GMF: Well, I’ve enjoyed it, too. Thank you very much.