by Chuck Thompson, January 9, 2008 2:25 PM
[Editor's Note: Chuck Thompson, recent guest blogger and author of Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, wrote the following piece about the late author George MacDonald Fraser on his blog. We're pleased to reprint it with his permission.]
I picked up a voice mail this weekend from a distraught friend, Shanghai Bob, telling me that George MacDonald Fraser had passed away. In a way, I'm glad I wasn't there to receive the call ? it would have been a tough one to get through and, anyway, not long before I'd received the same news (cancer) in an email from Nicholas Latimer at Knopf.
I wish I had it in me to write the kind of eulogy that Fraser deserves, but I know many others with a stronger connection to the great man will deliver those in the coming weeks. I will look for them online. What I can do, in the meantime, is post an interview I conducted with Fraser in December 1999. The story originally appeared in a 2000 issue of American Way magazine. Following the convention of the magazine, it has a somewhat overlong introduction and regrettably short Q&A section. However, if you aren't already a Fraser or Flashman fan, perhaps the intro will serve as a decent primer.
As for the Shanghai Bob connection, I can only say that while struggling through a difficult and often socially barren year in Japan alongside Bob and our mutual friend Robert Glasser (both Shanghai Bob and Glasser make several appearances in my book, Smile When You're Lying), Flashman and Fraser's other books quite literally helped us make it through the dark days. Through his books, I think all of us experienced that most strange and satisfying byproduct of the reader's life ? getting to know and become "friends" (of a sort) with someone they've never met. Fraser's books had that kind of personal impact on people and his way of facing every situation, no matter how grave, with a sense of humor certainly had an impact on my way of thinking about writing and, indeed, living.
Fraser is beloved around the world, but he has a particularly large fan base among expats. I don't say this simply because it was as an expat that I discovered Fraser, but because his outsider's outlook, irreverence, and subversive wit aligns so perfectly with the sensibilities of many Westerners who often find themselves in tricky situations abroad. Meeting Fraser and conducting this interview in the lobby of a London hotel will always be one of the great thrills and privileges of my professional life.
Hed: GMF (TK)
Subhed: After a four-year hiatus, Victorian rake Harry Flashman is back in a new novel by the master of military tales from Balaclava to Burma.
By modern standards, George MacDonald Fraser might be considered a lunatic. It's a description he'd probably approve of. For three decades the British author has used military loonies, unpopular causes, and some of history's most infamous characters as the unlikely basis of his wildly popular Flashman novels. Now, at 75, Fraser is smiling along with legions of Flashman addicts as the series' latest installment ? Flashman and the Tiger, the eleventh volume, is the first in four years ? is set to be published in the United States.
A collection of three stories, Tiger differs in format from the usual full-length novels, but is filled with the comedic villainy, cowardice, and amoral antics that have earned Sir Harry Flashman a worldwide following. The fictional Victorian-era British officer puts his usual irreverent, eyewitness spin on historical events and figures, fleeing from Zulu warriors, trading insults with Oscar Wilde ("an overfed trout in a toupÃ©"), traveling on 1883's maiden run of the Orient Express, dragooned into service in Africa, and quivering alongside the brave (and crazy) British defenders of Rorke's Drift in an action that would become a Victorian legend.
Comedy may be Fraser's trump suit, but his hole card is keen attention to historical minutiae and scholarly eloquence. Quartered Safe Out Here, Fraser's autobiography of his WW II service in Burma, ranks among the best military writing ever ? an excerpt appears in the landmark collection of war writing, The Book of War, in which editor John Keegan, probably the world's most-respected living military historian, calls Fraser's memoir "one of the classic literary achievements of the Second World War, indeed of any war." His three volumes of McAuslan stories are among the most heartbreaking and hilarious depictions of the decaying world of the British Empire. Screen credits include The Three Musketeers and the James Bond film Octopussy.
Born in Carlisle, Scotland, Fraser fought in Burma in 1945, left the military in 1947, and worked as a newspaperman in Canada and the U.K. until one day telling his wife he was "going to write us out" of a stable but predictable future. His first book ? Flashman ? was published in 1969. Taken for the historical send-up it was in Britain, America didn't get the joke at first. Many reviewers, confused by the legit historical documentation, mistook the fictional Flashman for an authentic figure and reviewed the book as straight history. The mess was soon sorted out by a smiling Fraser, and a growing legion has been smiling ever since.
In person, Fraser is a surprise. Neither irascible nor argumentative
by Chuck Thompson, December 14, 2007 12:38 PM
At the risk of coming across as a pandering toady, on my last day of guest blogging I'd like to thank Powell's for more than just the opportunity to yap about my book on their site. I spent a good chunk of the 1990s in Portland playing music in various bands, being turned down for legit work, and hand-to-mouthing it in the typical way of the struggling band guy. These were fun times, but also stressful times, financially and otherwise, and aside from a few good friends and band mates, Powell's on Burnside
was one of the things that kept me alive during the darker days. The reading room in back has changed ? the magazines used to be in there, for one thing ? but for me, like so many others, it was often a haven of sanity and warmth (literally).
Since Powell's generously allowed me for so many years to read their magazines for free, and has even more generously provided me with space this week to promote my new book, I'd like to repay the favor by mentioning a few recent books that I've enjoyed. The following suggestions in no way constitute a "Chuck's All-Time Greatest Books" list, because creating such a list would require weeks of work and a box or two of Pepcid AC to help take away the heartburn caused by leaving off so many worthies. So, just some mostly new or new'ish books I've enjoyed in the past year.
Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America's Class War by Joe Bageant
Actually, I just started Bageant's high readable letter to lefties explaining why so many of America's "underclass rednecks" vote Republican (seemingly against their own self-interest), so I can't really consider this a complete endorsement. But in addition to being an entertaining writer, Bageant's got the kind of insight into our political landscape that you don't find on the cable shouting matches between alleged "experts." You read Bageant and stop being disgusted (sort of) with the "idiots" on the conservative right, and start to feel empathy for the millions in this country who can't afford to buy new hardback books, even if their under-funded school systems had left them wanting to do so. I read so much anymore that I quit on books all the time, but this is one that I'm going to finish.
Rock On: An Office Power Ballad by Dan Kennedy
This doesn't come out till February 2008, but I received an advance copy from the publisher and read it in one long sitting. Kennedy's a very funny, smooth writer, and his memoir of a year working in the marketing department of a major record label is filled with quirky observations and terrific one-liners. Lots of pop music references and reflections ? for work he helps cross-promote a new ladies razor with a Jewel song about not selling out, and tries to reconcile this with his love of bands like Led Zep and The Clash, bands that got him interested in music in the first place. A good one to put on your pre-order list if you're into pop music.
A music book I pre-ordered this year was Andy Summers' One Train Later. During their years of chart dominance, I was a huge Police geek, so was pretty excited when I saw this title was coming out. Couldn't wait to get it. Summers' book was OK, but I was disappointed that he spent so little time talking about the Police, which is the only reason anyone would buy a book by Andy Summers. I'm surprised his editor/publisher didn't make him do more on the Police and less on the rest of his (admittedly, pretty interesting) life.
You Can Lead a Politician to Water But You Can't Make Him Think: Ten Commandments For Texas Politics by Kinky Friedman
I've always loved Kinky's catalog of mystery novels, but this thin (127 pages) non-fiction account of his failed bid for the governorship of Texas might be his most readable thing yet. It's filled with the usual gritty Kinky humor, but also with poignant sections that let you know his political campaign wasn't just a publicity stunt ? the Kinkster is genuinely disgusted by politics in this country and in his state of Texas and he wants to make things better.
Kinky was nice enough to blurb my book, so including him on this list probably looks like a tit-for-tat deal, but it's not. When I was editing for American Way magazine (inflight of American Airlines, based in Dallas), I was trying to come up with a way of reeling some good writers into the magazine and since I already loved his books and knew he lived in Texas, I cold-called Kinky on the off chance he'd be willing to write for us. We spoke for a while and I managed to talk him into writing for us and we became friends of a sort. But my admiration for him has always been founded on a respect for his writing and expansive humanity.
While I'm on the subject of guys who blurbed my book, I'll mention that anything by Joe Queenan is worth buying if you're a fan of smart, biting social criticism. His True Believers is my favorite sports book ever, with Ball Four by Jim Bouton, and Now I Can Die in Peace by Bill Simmons, running a very close second and third.
Budding Prospects by T.C. Boyle
Amazingly, I'd never read anything by T.C. Boyle until a few months ago. As it's the only one I've read, I'm not sure if this is his best novel ? it's about some buddies starting a marijuana farm in Northern California ? but I liked it a lot, and will certainly read more of him, probably next being The Tortilla Curtain, which I've heard only great stuff about. Boyle is one of those natural writers who makes you want to quit writing because after two or three
by Chuck Thompson, December 13, 2007 11:54 AM
Hit the road enough and you eventually acquire a workmanlike knowledge that goes well beyond knowing what you want at the Panda Express in Terminal C before you even look at the menu. It doesn't take a travel writer to get a basic handle on the industry, which is why it always amazes me that you almost never find anything novel or particularly useful in those "savvy traveler" columns every magazine and newspaper in America trots out two or three times a year to announce for the millionth time that you should drink plenty of water while on a plane and "check the Internet" to find deals on hotels. Wow. I'll bet no mileage-club gold-level account rep crisscrossing the country ever thought to do that before.
After giving up on finding anything new in those workhorse rundowns of tired tips, I began keeping my own list of ways of making life easier away from home. Though constantly in flux, my list (abbreviated below) is meant to equip any 21st-century traveler with the knowledge to travel like a pro.
The best way to start packing for a trip is by reaching into the drawer next to the bathroom sink and grabbing a handful of trial-size toiletries ? mini shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, aspirin, shaving cream, Band-Aids, sun screen. If you don't have a drawer like this, start one. Like old ladies who hoard cat food, I'm a habitual collector of handy-sized personal items, tossing random tubes into the basket every time I pass that shelf at the drugstore, lifting them out of hotel bathrooms, plucking them off of maid carts left unattended in hallways. Keep enough of these plastic bottles around and you can be out the door for Kabul ten minutes after National Geographic calls the house.
Hang up on morons
Because your telephone instincts are always right, disengage from halfwits as soon as you get one on the line. Not regarded as a keenly self-motivated group to begin with, telephone reservation agents perform a repetitive and stressful job for little money ? hotel and motel reservation clerks average less than $20,000 a year. They increasingly work from home, where the distractions of kids, dogs, dinner, and Oprah divert attention from the disembodied entity in Nevada looking for a deal on a Reno-to-Boise hop. Reservation agents quit all the time ? twenty-five percent annual turnover at call centers is considered good, a hundred percent is the norm in some places.
If the voice on the other end of the line suggests a creature with the problem-solving capacity of a juvenile Bonobo and the interpersonal skills of a Calcutta cabbie, cut your losses and hang up. Keep calling back until you're connected with a voice that conjures the competent, smiling woman in the headset they show on TV cheerfully booking first-class flights to Venice. There are more than 300,000 travel reservations operators working in the United States. Don't waste time on the 150,000 lousy ones.
Spicy is almost never spicy
In the U.S. when they tell you it's spicy, it's not spicy. In the rest of the world when they tell you it's spicy, there's a twenty-percent chance it's spicy. In Thailand when they tell you it's spicy, it's going to taste like someone shoving a blowtorch down your throat for the next twenty-five minutes.
Never eat airplane food
There's a reason the "bistro bags," box lunches, and assorted snacks ? as well as the meals served on longer flights and in first-class ? are referred to as "earthquake food" by the flight attendants who serve them. Anything with an unrefrigerated shelf life of up to a year ought not technically be considered "food." The smartest way to prep for a flight is to eat a big meal beforehand and pick up some fruit or deli items on the way to the airport. The same rules apply to international trips. And, yes, it's a long flight, but if you can't go ten hours without eating, you shouldn't be visiting Sri Lanka in the first place.
Pay through the nose ? and like it
If you're going all the way to the Grand Tetons or Virgin Islands or Rome, pay the upcharge for the nicer room with the panoramic view. You're on vacation ? let the travel writers worry about living like an animal on a scratch-and-claw budget. As Robertson Davies wrote, "When one is traveling, one must expect to spend a certain amount of money foolishly." Accept this inevitability with equanimity and you'll enjoy the trip more.
My complete list of travel tips, and other updated wisdom for the modern traveler can be found in Smile When You're Lying. Dispatches, reviews, a cool slide show with funny captions, and more book stuff can be found at
by Chuck Thompson, December 12, 2007 11:51 AM
I get that when you start off your book with a story about Aussie stoners and low-rent prostitutes, then announce that you're going to tear the mainstream travel press a new one, reviews and reader reaction to the thing are largely going to focus on the gory details. This is understandable; I'm not complaining about it. Unless your name is Clinton
or maybe Richard North Patterson
, nobody asks you to write a book, so when you roll out your story to the public, you're pretty much obliged to take whatever response comes back.
Even so, you dump yourself out across 324 pages and it's interesting to see what sticks with people and what doesn't. Beyond the attention grabbers, I think of Smile When You're Lying as a memoir (a funny one, I hope) masquerading as a travel book. Like most memoirs, it's filled not only with my stories, but the amusing and sometimes poignant stories of people I've met (a few celebs like Mark Cuban and Dwight Yoakam) and friends I've made along the way.
A lot of travel writing seems as if it's written in a vacuum ? as though once the writer gets to the Caribbean or the Maldives or wherever, nothing outside the details of the trip can be discussed. I find this kind of travel writing about as interesting as someone else's slide show. So when I sat down to write Smile, I knew from the beginning that I wanted it to be a "travel" book with enough leeway to include other topics. That's why the book is filled with references and opinions and stories covering music, politics, sports, history, movies, business, books, and just about anything else of general interest.
My favorite part of the book satisfies most of these requirements and even though it doesn't seem to be a lot of other peoples' favorite part, I'd like to reprint here. By way of brief setup, I'll note that I didn't write a single word of my favorite part of the book. It's an email from my friend Glasser (reprinted in full, with the author's permission), a redoubtable expat I lived next door to in Japan for one of the most inglorious years of my life.
Glasser's charm, wit, and experience made the "Kojima captivity" tolerable for me and another misplaced expat, a larger-than-life figure named Shanghai Bob, who also appears here and there in the book. Perhaps the story below will help you understand why, whenever Shanghai Bob and I get together, we still reminisce about the many life-affirming happy hours we enjoyed with the legendary Glasser in his "conservatory," a closet-sized room in his closet-sized apartment reserved exclusively for activities that left it reeking of gin and cigarettes.
During our less explosive drinking sessions, Shanghai Bob and I pulled out of Robert most of the essentials of The Glasser Story, including bits about his time in Vietnam. On several occasions, Glasser had hinted that his knowledge of classic poetry had saved his life there and we were anxious for the details. Some years later I asked Glasser to recount it and encouraged him to commit the rest of his experiences to paper. I told him he'd make a mint selling it, and I'd make a tidy profit as his agent. Here in its entirety is his response to my letter:
÷ ÷ ÷
As for the Vietnam story, it goes roughly like this. My third day in country at Quang Tri Combat Base, about ten miles south of the DMZ, I was called into a large tent with twenty or so other replacements and told that since a company in the battalion I was to be sent to as a clerk had been more or less wiped out in an ambush, I would be posted there as infantry. And yes, since I had no infantry training and little indication that I might be a natural for that sort of thing, it was pretty much a death or dismemberment sentence.
I came out of the tent and noticed a second lieutenant staring at my helmet, on which I'd written "Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori, Wilfred Owen, 1918." Owen was a WWI British poet; the title is from Horace ("It is good and sweet to die for your country"); and the poem (read it, if you haven't) is probably the most savage anti-war statement ever penned.
Lieutenant: That Latin, son? (He was about twenty-five and I was twenty-three but all enlisted men are called "son" by officers exercising combat noblesse oblige.)
Me: Yessir. Horace, sir.
Lieutenant: What's it mean?
Me: It's good and sweet to die for your country, sir.
Lieutenant (deeply moved): We need more men like you.
Me: Yessir. Thank you, sir.
Lieutenant: Can you type?
Me: Yessir. Ohhhhhh yessir! My MOS is clerk typist, sir.
Lieutenant: We're looking for someone at Headquarter's company. Come with me.
Me: Yessir, thank you, sir.
And so I escaped certain death to spend the rest of my tour typing for a revolving cast of lunatic officers. True story, but it does sound a little too neat, doesn't it? Too patly ironic, too hooray for the college kid who fooled the lifer lieutenant.
Still, while I vouch for it, I confess I no longer really know what happened and what didn't happen to me in Vietnam. The mind, unbidden, rewrites things, creates new images, makes new connections, draws new morals. War stories are mostly frauds, and mostly unintentionally so. Half my nights in Vietnam I was stoned and what I saw and what I dreamed and what I hallucinated are so intermingled that forty years later I'm damned if I can untangle it all. And some things I remember which seemed completely normal at the time ? rolling out of my cot twice a night to hide in an underground crypt during mortar attacks ? have startled me years later. Did they happen? Yes, I think so. But I see them as in a dream and as happening to someone else entirely.
And anger, Carlos. Anger distorts reality as much as drugs. And I was Angry most of the time I was in the army and for two years after I got out. You know Fussell's Wartime? A very good book, but not, like his The Great War and Modern Memory, a great book. I think he never got over his anger ? at the Army, at the U.S., at himself for his real and imagined failures, and for the things he was made to do.
So, there'll be no Vietnam memoir for me. But if you're curious, buy me a drink sometime and I'll paste a few pieces together for you.
P.S. The second lieutenant (and this I do recall) was more or less nuts. He used to tie up foot-long centipedes with rubber bands, chop them in bits, pour lighter fluid on them, and set them on fire. On his
by Chuck Thompson, December 11, 2007 3:19 PM
Obviously, there's more to Africa than the lowlights of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but it's hard to shake some of the salacious and outrageous images from the most dysfunctional society I've ever encountered. In the Congo, they tell you that you don't have to worry about the ordinary people; it's the guys in uniform (police, military, petty officials) you need to watch out for. I found this to be entirely true.
Everywhere I went in the Congo, I was received warmly by the locals, and with open palms and toothy smiles by those in authority ? authority there pretty much being synonymous with "the guys with the most weapons." Though on second thought, I guess that's what it means in our country, too. Maybe we're just better at concealing the ugly nature of universal inevitabilities.
Regardless, the cops in Kinshasa and other large Congolese cities have an interesting way of drawing their salaries, which are almost never paid by the government. Picking out a vehicle stopped at a light or sign, or just one crawling at the usual 2 or 3 mph through the slum-city's infuriating traffic, they'll simply open the car door and plop themselves next to the unsuspecting driver or in the back seat. If the car is already filled with passengers, they'll grab one of the passengers by the shoulder, "help" him to the curb, and climb inside. Once in the car, they begin loudly berating the driver about some supposed infraction ("I saw you take an illegal right turn a mile back!" "Your license plate is hung at a crooked angle!") and start the bribe bidding at around $100.
To the Congolese, this is everyday stuff. They fulfill their part of the bargain by rolling their eyes, acting aggrieved, and refusing to pay a penalty that usually equals three or four months income. After five or ten minutes of back and forth barking, the two parties cool down and start chit-chatting about completely unrelated matters ? "You're from Katanga province? So's my mother in law!" A tenuous friendship established, talk of bogus infractions is dropped and the cop or soldier or whomever soon begins shaking hands and back-slapping and letting the driver know he's a bit hard up this week, bills to pay, kids to support, wives and girlfriends to keep happy, and, hey, could you do a brother a solid and help me out a bit? Two or three dollars eventually changes hands, and the car is sent on its way. The whole process takes between fifteen and thirty minutes, and if I've covered it here in suspiciously extensive detail it's because I saw it go down in more or less this fashion a dozen or so times during my two weeks in the Congo.
As you move up the ranks to government officials, the process becomes more civil, but pricier. If you'd like to read about one such encounter with a government official ? a congenial, heavyset bald guy with wire-rim glasses who sweated profusely despite cooling himself with a plastic Japanese fan during the entire hour I spent detained in his office ? this story continues under a dispatch titled "My Favorite Souvenir From Africa" on my website, chuckthompsonbooks.com. It's a pretty good story and ends with me secretly carrying away a terrific keepsake, a small piece of evidence to the Congo's endemic corruption.
Tomorrow: What everyone seems to miss about Smile When You're
by Chuck Thompson, December 10, 2007 12:09 PM
I'm here, ostensibly, to pimp the glories of my new book, Smile When You're Lying
, convince you of its eminent stocking stuffability "for the book lover on your list this holiday season," and, in the process, drum up enthusiasm (i.e., attendance) for my upcoming appearance at Powell's on January 14. Rest assured, all of these tasks will be taken up before my guest-blogger run ends on December 14. If you can't wait to hear about the book, go to chuckthompsonbooks.com
for a synopsis, reviews, and cool photos with funny captions.
In the meantime, I've just returned from a month in Africa ? my first trip there ? and remain too obsessed with daily bribes to AK47-toting soldiers in the Congo and waking up from afternoon naps in Zambia to find baboons staring through the mesh window of my tent to discuss anything without covering Africa first.
As a rule, I'm bored with discussions of race relations in America and related history. This isn't because I don't consider these to be important and ultimately defining subjects in any review of U.S. society. It's just that from my point of view the problems always get framed in the most irrelevant terms imaginable ? how a talk-show host defamed a certain ethnic group, why an offhand remark made by a politician betrays racial insensitivity. Such obvious red herrings. You want to fix racial inequity in this country, focus 100 percent on education. Overhaul the school system to legitimately give all groups equal access to equally funded schools and stop wasting time griping about racist jokes and the ten percent of prejudiced Neanderthals who will always be with us and you'll get to the mountaintop a lot faster.
I'm not a bullhead about this. I'm willing to admit, as with most issues, to a lot of gray territory, and to the limitations of my typically reductive logic. I'm also willing to concede points to those more familiar with the tribulations of living in a racially divided world, particularly to any non-white person in this country. Still, after a couple decades of discussion, debate, and spittle-filled shouting matches, this pretty much sums up my core position: It's all about education; if you want to change racial discrimination, discussion of any other point is a waste of time.
That said, it's pretty much impossible to tool around Africa and not reflect on all aspects of the history of African-Americans. It sounds naïve, I know, but it's startling to travel across the continent and see so many American faces. It really brings history into clear and unsettling focus to come face to face with the people whose ancestors we know primarily as terrible statistics from history books and disturbing cinematic recreations of the slave trade. I spent November in South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and was consistently moved by the familiarity of the people and the instant "American" kinship we shared. In a weird way, this often made me feel at home in a very foreign place.
In Botswana, I came across a guy in a market who bore an absolutely uncanny resemblance to the late rapper Tupac Shakur. (Jay-Z and Kanye are amazing, but for me, hip hop as art form begins with the Sugar Hill Gang and ends with Tupac, so I'm sort of partial to this story). I was so taken with the similarity that I actually followed the guy around for a few minutes, trying to get in position to snap a surreptitious photo or two to show to friends back home. Seriously, you could start an entire "Tupac lives" cottage industry with a couple pictures of this dude. Alas, the guy never emerged from the crowd near the fresh goat section, and I felt too awkward to approach him with my bizarre request for a photo.
All of this felt a little impolitic; it's strange to wonder if a future rapper's people had been snatched from the very acre of earth you're vacationing on. Nevertheless, I mentioned the Tupac doppelganger to Ace, the philosophical, 26-year-old African I was temporarily traveling with. It turned out Ace was also a huge fan of the man he referred to in reverential tones as "the late, great legend."
"There was also a guy at my school, near here, who looked so much like the late, great legend that we only called him 'Tupac,'" Ace told me. "His real name was discarded. He became known as Tupac, even to his parents. So maybe those infamous genes can be traced to this place."
It's staggering to stand in a barren landscape still dotted with circular mud huts and grass roofs and ponder the fantastic historic and generational calamity that led from an unfortunate bushman or woman taken away from southern Africa, to the likeness of a martyr sanctified on T-shirts around the planet. Not to mention the immortal lyric, "Even as a crack fiend, mama, you always was a black queen, mama."
Tomorrow: About those daily bribes. And more subtle salesmanship of Smile When You're