Echoes of empire: a lodge in Kabul honors fiction’s antihero of an older Afghan war

By Denis D. Gray, AP
Monday, February 22, 2010

Kabul lodge honors ‘Flashy,’ scoundrel of fiction

KABUL, Afghanistan — When winter winds blow and guests huddle by the antique fireplace, talk turns to a 19th century British officer — a charming scoundrel, serial seducer and highly decorated coward who warned that any Western powers trying to subdue Afghanistan were just asking for a bloody nose. Or so the story goes.

Gandamack Lodge is an eccentric piece of work, a resurrection of Victorian England in a walled compound bristling with security guards in an Afghan capital whose streets can quickly turn deadly.

And the man who inspired such an improbable guesthouse and pub.

Meet Brig. Gen. Sir Harry Paget Flashman (Flashy to his friends), fictional “hero” of a dozen popular historical novels who, among his many exploits, managed by deceit and dastardly deeds to survive the very real 1842 massacre of 16,000 soldiers and civilians by the Afghans — perhaps the most crushing defeat ever handed to imperial Britain.

Two centuries after that humiliating retreat from Kabul, Briton Peter Jouvenal has dreamed up Gandamack Lodge — a Flashman-themed guesthouse, restaurant and pub stocked with relics of faded glory.

Jouvenal contends that “Flashman still matters today,” and many would agree.

“If the Soviets and Dick Cheney had bothered to read ‘Flashman’ before they sent their troops in, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in today,” wrote the Los Angeles Times on the death two years ago of the series’ author, George MacDonald Fraser.

Some probably did — two of the novels were on former U.S. President George W. Bush’s reading list — but may not have taken some of Flashy’s potentially useful insights on board. Like his putdown of fellow countrymen who ventured into the deserts and jungles of empire claiming their superior weaponry gave them the upper hand.

“Shrapnel and rapid fire don’t count for much,” Flashman argued. “Your savage with a blowpipe or bow or jezzail (Afghan musket) behind a rock has a deuce of an advantage: it’s his rock, you see.”

The 1842 battle unfolded in eastern Afghanistan, at a place called Gandamack, and Flashman named his estate after it. Now it’s the name of the lodge which Jouvenal, a 52-year-old former paratrooper and combat cameraman who has covered Afghanistan since 1980, opened in the year after the 2001 U.S. invasion.

Before the lodge moved to its current address, the building was home to the fourth wife of al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden, who reportedly still owes $500 in back rent after making a quick exit.

“I wanted a theme that was relevant to Afghan history. Flashman also reminded me of a very close friend; not Flashman’s cowardice, but his cunning and attractiveness to women,” says Jouvenal.

He is speaking of British TV cameraman Rory Peck, killed in 1993 while covering political violence in Moscow.

Author Fraser’s flash of genius was to take one of the most loathed characters in Victorian English literature, the bullying Flashman of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays,” and imagine what became of him after he was expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness.

The novels, presented as real memoirs, contrived to entangle Flashman in just about every one of Queen Victoria’s battles and wars, including the Indian Mutiny, the Taiping Rebellion, Rorke’s Drift and the Charge of the Light Brigade, through all of which he drank, cheated, womanized and was ever willing to take credit for the bravery of others.

Emerging shaken from the First Anglo-Afghan War, he was welcomed home a hero, although he was actually trying to surrender when found unconscious on the battlefield clutching a British flag.

What elevated Flashman above common colonial cad, apart from his charm, was total honesty about his own failings and foibles, and his sympathy for common soldiers — friend and foe alike — compelled to die in the service of lying politicians and incompetent commanders.

Flashman and his experiences are billed as memoirs, and so rich and accurate is their historical context that in 1969 The New York Times, reporting on publication of the first novel, wrote that 10 out of 34 U.S. reviewers, some of them academics, thought the book was nonfiction.

Gandamack Lodge does its best to perpetuate the conceit.

Entering the lodge, one might almost expect pith-helmeted soldiers to come storming in to grab the 19th century sabers and Lee-Enfield rifles, bayonets fixed, stacked up in racks along the walls — some of more than 50 old firearms Jouvenal has amassed.

Flashy’s leering, mustachioed face is imprinted on every Gandamack menu. There are paintings of the 44th Regiment’s last stand at Gandamack and of surgeon Dr. William Brydon staggering to safety — one of the only survivors.

Beneath the restaurant in the Hare and Hound pub, cozy with low ceilings, wooden beams, Afghan carpets and a potbellied stove tucked into a fireplace, talk often veers to a contentious topic: will history repeat itself in Afghanistan? On any night, diplomats, soldiers, aid workers, contractors and journalists may be weighing in.

Jouvenal, still a part-time journalist and highly critical of how Washington and NATO have waged the war, comes down on the side of history.

“The Soviets had 150,000 troops here, human rights weren’t in their vocabulary and they didn’t care about their own casualties, but they still failed,” he says. “The problem with the Afghans is that they don’t know when they are beaten. Getting killed doesn’t mean they are losing. They’re just poor farmers so they don’t know any better than take on the world’s no. 1 superpower.”

Fraser, a World War II combat veteran, took a similar line, telling an interviewer not long before his death that “no one has ever succeeded in invading Afghanistan. On their own territory they are unbeatable. The country is Death Valley 10 times over. You cannot ever win.”

Making it through the Afghan campaign, Flashman described both the bravery and sense of honor of his opponents along with a “cruel and bloodthirsty streak” and a negotiating skill that made fools of the British.

“You could never forget that in Afghanistan you are walking on a knife-edge the whole time,” the old rogue said. Going from the clubby warmth of the lodge into the forbidding night, patrons often feel the same way.

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