January 2nd, 2008


I've Sworn Off Beer, But I Think I'll Raise One Tonight All The Same...

George MacDonald Fraser has passed away.

I'm not a big fan of the Flashman novels, but he wrote the screenplays two of my favorite films of all time, "The Three Musketeers" and "The Four Musketeers."

He also wrote The Pyrates, which is, hands-down, the greatest love letter to swashbuckling every penned.  In fact, the moment calls for repeat quote of the first few sentences of the novel:

It began in the old and golden days of England, in a time when all the hedgerows were green and the roads dusty, when hawthorn and wild roses bloomed, when big-bellied landlords brewed rich October ale at a penny a pint for rakish high-booted cavaliers with jingling spurs and long rapiers, when squires ate roast beef and belched and damned the Dutch over their claret while their faithful hounds slumbered on the rushes by the hearth, when summers were long and warm and drowsy, with honeysuckle and hollyhocks by cottage walls, when winter nights were clear and sharp with frost-rimmed moons shining on the silent snow, and Claud Duval and Swift Nick Nevison lurked in the bosky thickets, teeth gleaming beneath their masks as they heard the rumble of coaches bearing paunchy well-lined nabobs and bright-eyed ladies with powdered hair who would gladly tread a measure by the wayside with the gallant tobyman and bestow a kiss to save their husbands' guineas; an England where good King Charles lounged amiably on his throne, and scandalized Mr Pepys (or was it Mr Evelyn?) by climbing walls to ogle Pretty Nell; where gallants roistered and diced away their fathers' fortunes; where beaming yokels in spotless smocks made hay in the sunshine and ate bread and cheese and quaffed foaming tankards fit to do G. K. Chesterton's heart good; where threadbare pedlars with sharp eyes and long noses shared their morning bacon with weary travellers in dew-pearled woods and discoursed endlessly of 'Hudibras' and the glories of nature; where burly earringed smugglers brought their stealthy sloops into midnight coves, and stowed their hard-run cargoes of Hollands and Brussels and fragrant Virginia in clammy caverns; where the poachers of Lincolnshire lifted hares and pheasants by the bushel and buffeted gamekeepers and jumped o'er everywhere...

An England, in short, where justices were stout and gouty, peasants bluff and sturdy and content (but ready to turn out for Monmouth at a moment's notice), merchant fathers close and anxious, daughters sweet and winsome, good wives rosy and capable with bunches of keys and receipts for plum cordials, Puritans smug and sour and sanctimonious, fine ladies beautiful and husky-voiced and slightly wanton, foreigners suave and devious and given to using musky perfume, serving wenches red-haired and roguish-eyed with forty-inch busts, gentleman-adventurers proud and lithe and austere and indistinguishable from Basil Rathbone, and younger sons all eager and clean-limbed and longing for those far horizons beyond which lay fame and fortune and love and high adventure.

That was England, then; long before interfering social historians and such carles had spoiled it by discovering that its sanitation was primitive and its social services non-existent, that London's atmosphere was so poisonous as to be unbreathable by all but the strongest lungs, that King Charles' s courtiers probably didn't change their underwear above once a fortnight, that the cities stank to wake the dead and the countryside was largely either wilderness or rural slum, that religious bigotry, dental decay, political corruption, fleas, cruelty, poverty, disease, injustice, public hangings, malnutrition, and bear-baiting were rife, and there was hardly an economist or town planner or sociologist or anything progressive worth a damn.  (There wasn't even a London School of Economics, which is remarkable when you consider that Locke and Hobbes were loose about the place).

Happily, the stout justices and wenches and gallants and peasants and fine ladies -- and even elegant Charles himself, who was nobody's fool -- never realised how backward and insanitary and generally awful they might look to the cold and all-too-selective eye of modern research, and if they had, it is doubtful they would have felt any pang of guilt or shame, happy conscienceless rabble that they were.  Indeed, his majesty would most likely have raised a politely sceptical eyebrow, the justices scowled resentfully, and the wenches, gallants, and peasants, being vulgar, gone into hoots of derisive mirth.

So, out of deference and gratitude to them all, and because history is very much what you want it to be, anyway, this story begins in that other, happier England of fancy rooted in truth, where dates and places and the chronology of events and people may shift a little here and there in the mirror of imagination, and yet not be thought false on that account.  For it's just a tale, and as Mark Twain pointed out, whether it happened or did not happen, it could have happened.  As as all story-tellers know, whether they work with spoken words in crofts, or quills in Abbotsford, or cameras in Hollywood, it should have happened.


RIP, good sir.  Give my regards to Messers Flynn, Rathbone and Korngold.
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