I heard an item on BBC Radio 4 the other day about an impending sale of the author George Macdonald Fraser’s working library in London. I listened with some interest for several reasons, first; I have been a fan of his books and Flashman’s brave/cowardly military and sexual exploits for a number of years, second; Veronica is a great fan of George Macdonald Fraser’s lawyer/author daughter, Caro Fraser, and finally, while researching Hanover House’s history (#hanoverhouse) I found an account of a Crimean war field hospital on a Crimea War History website. This anonymous account titled ‘The Phantom Staff Officer’ was written in an authentic, albeit humorous, historical style with footnotes and references but a number of names cropped up amongst real historical characters present during the campaign, which immediately raised certain suspicions. One prominent authentic name was that of Captain John Shakespear of the Royal Horse Artillery, who was an incumbent of 4 York Terrace (Hanover House) a year or two after his participation in the battle of Balaclava and the charge of Light Brigade, and whose history I have researched. The suspicious names however included references to an Assistant-Surgeon Holmes and Captain John Watson (who between them conducted the ‘investigation’ into the unknown troublesome staff officer of the title), and a certain Captain Flashman (The subject of Macdonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman at the Charge‘). I am not entirely certain if the account is part of one of George Macdonald Fraser’s novels or a supporting document, or something entirely separate – or even a spoof not penned by Fraser at all!
The Shakespear element of the document consisted of an ‘account’ by Captain Shakespear of one of the actions of the phantom Staff Officer, as told by Holmes, as follows:
‘Watson dropped by from time to time to keep me acquainted with the progress of his investigations. On the second day he was much excited by news he had learned from Captain Shakespear, the second in command of our cavalry’s troop of horse artillery. As the Russian army retreated from the Alma, their cavalry, who had not been engaged in the battle, moved across the front of the troop, offering a tempting target. Shakespear was eagerly getting his guns into position (his commanding officer, Major Maude, being absent on other duties at the time), when a Staff Officer galloped up shouting, ‘Halt, halt!’ Shakespear asked by whose orders, but the Staff Officer wheeled about and rode away as rapidly as he came, replying only, ‘The orders are to cease firing.’ Who he was Shakespear did not know, but Watson assumed, and I was inclined to agree, that this was the same Staff Officer who was responsible for the other disruptive orders.’
Whatever the document’s provenance, Veronica and I happened quite by chance to come across yesterday the bookseller in Curzon Street in London who is selling the Macdonald Fraser collection – which was entirely coincidental, but which brought the whole affair to prominence in my mind again. The sale is being conducted by Heywood Hill booksellers of Mayfair, located in Curzon Street from 2nd June to 31st July. While looking at the Flashman books in the shop window, I also noted the Blue Plaque to Nancy Mitford who worked from the site during the later war years. We met Nancy Mitford’s youngest sister Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, while she was signing her autobiography at the Cheltenham Literary Festival and once before at a Dragon School open day, and have in addition lunched at Archie Orr-Ewing’s The Swan at Swinbrook (actually owned by ‘Debo’ Devonshire and recently used as a backdrop to a scene within Downton Abbey), the other side of Burford, Swinbrook was where the Mitford family lived. Incidentally, The Swan was the place that David Cameron in January this year took Francois Hollande for a pub lunch during a summit meeting between the British prime minister and French president.
So, once again a surprising string of events, places and people that connect us with daily life and the past around us.