Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser, book of a lifetime

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The Independent Culture

I grew up an exile, in a minor way, a child of the international bour-geoisie. My family followed my father's career across suburban Europe and America: we carried British passports, sat down every week to Sunday lunch, but Britain was a foreign country.

Most of what I knew about its culture and history came from fiction. I discovered England had won the World Cup from a film about the Great Train Robbers; I learned words like "Hun" and "Jerry" from the Battle comics (smuggled into Belgium).

When Americans bullied me at school, I consoled myself with Jack in Lord of the Flies saying: "We're English; and the English are best at everything" (rather missing the irony). And I vividly remember seeing the patriotic teacher in Hope and Glory showing her class the pink bits of empire on the map. Had Britain – land of Little Chef services, Townsend Thoresen ferries and great aunts – really once ruled so much of the world?

As an outsider, standing on tiptoe pressing my nose against the grubby window of British identity, I never knew I should be embarrassed about the empire. Perhaps that's why I devoured Flashman so wholeheartedly. It opened my eyes to a chapter of history I never knew existed: a time when my inherited country bestrode the world. This is a novel that exuberantly has its cake and eats it: a book where learned footnotes on the correct names of Afghan tribes share space with "fat breasts like melons"; a book that skewers the hypocrisy and cruelty of Victorian imperialism while giving the reader a rollicking tale worthy of Kipling or Forrester. It's a Boy's Own adventure grown up. It taught me history – and it's probably the first book I read with footnotes.

I suspect Flashman's moment has passed. In modern, multicultural, post-Savile Britain, can we cope with a character who buys a 16-year-old girl for sex, beats women and uses the n-word so liberally? In an age of "trigger alerts", Flashman would come with more warnings than cigarettes.

But I hope the books don't get thrown out with the politically incorrect bathwater. Flashman – amorally clear-eyed and unheroically non-judgemental – is an essential guide to this history. He's a bully, a liar, a coward, a racist – and human enough to have fan clubs all over the world.

Tom Harper's new novel, 'Black River', is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£19.99)

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