Bugger me, this is a good book. Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma – to give its full title – is a World War 2 military memoir by George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman novels, which is how I came to know of its existence in the first place. It’s the kind of memoir – Fraser is simply an unremarkable private soldier – that it would be almost impossible to know about, almost 30 years after it was published, without the author having become better known in later life.
The first thing that struck me about Quartered Safe Out Here was the unmistakable writing style of Fraser. Even though he’s writing about real life events and isn’t seeking to take a comedy angle with the story, there are still lines, and little flourishes here and there, which unmistakably betray this is also the voice of Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC, KCB, KCIE. Plus, of course, there are moments that happen to Fraser – and I daresay all who serve in uniform – that are just downright strange at times and become funny in the re-telling. An officer he meets towards the end of the story is quite mad.
Fraser also tries to get the Cumbrian dialect into many passages in the book. Although a Scotsman himself, many of his comrades were Cumbrian men (they serve in the Border Regiment, part of the 17th Infantry Division), and their unique way of speaking, if not thinking as well, comes across loud and clear with their lines often phonetically spelled out, which adds humour in some odd places.
Being written almost 30 years ago, about a war which had some truly terrible things happen in it, the feeling I got while reading is that it was very much like when I was growing up, hearing ‘old blokes’ talk about the Second World War. They’d often have thoughts and ideas out of step with what had become permissible in polite company but, to them, this was their life. These are the things they endured. They weren’t about to start sanitising what happened, or how they felt, because someone – perhaps not even born at the time – said it’s not a very nice thing to say in the present day. Indeed, I found the book quite refreshing in the sense that these were the memories, expressed quite fairly, of someone who was actually there. You can read history books and the like, but until you read a firsthand account of what it was like to creep up to a Japanese bunker, not knowing if someone inside was about to shoot at you, or what downtime in the camp was like, day to day, I don’t think the full picture’s really there.
From time to time, Fraser even steps out of the World War 2 sections to compare his experiences to the modern day (the Gulf War is a touchstone, as it had happened just prior to this being published), and often finds the modern day lacking. Some sections of the book talk about the psychological effects of war and how keeping things simple back in the day seemed to work wonders, versus the modern era and additional pressures placed on troops. He even cites TV coverage of the Gulf War, interviewing soldiers and asking them if they were scared. Of course they’d be scared, Fraser believes, but being asked the question and made to answer on national TV (a question the newsreels wouldn’t have been asking in World War 2), likely doesn’t help. In some ways, I get the feeling – again – of the old blokes who’d talk to me in the 1980s about this kind of thing and you’d think, this guy comes from a different time, yet simultaneously I can’t help but look at Fraser’s thoughts on a lot of issues during the course of the book and not feel that he’s on good, solid ground with a lot of his comments.
The memoir is fractured in places. There are simply things Fraser doesn’t remember and is relying on his unit history to inform him of when they moved from one place to another. But the things Fraser remembers, he really remembers. Some moments are told in such detail that they are quite cinematic. There’s even the germ of a mini-series in here, with enough fleshed-out characters and major scenes that, with a little fairy dust sprinkled in between, it could be an excellent Second World War series, set against a theatre of that war which is really down the list, when it comes to what people think of from that conflict. It’s not fighting in France, it’s not the Battle of Britain, it’s not the Pacific, it’s not the final days in Berlin and it’s not Stalingrad. What it is, however, is a theatre where tons of Commonwealth troops served, often fighting hand-to-hand in bitter struggles with an increasingly desperate Japanese army, who – famously – would fight until its last breath. At one point, Fraser is even charged by a guy wielding a sword – whether he’s out of ammunition, or just seeking to go down, Samurai-style is unclear – showing how crazy this fighting became at times. This is from a guy who was there.
By the final chapter, I was actually wet-eyed, my nose filling with snot. Already a great novelist by the time he wrote this memoir, Fraser certainly knows how to construct his chapters and shoehorn a series of events into something that feels like a story. An earlier chapter with a character called Duke had me halfway there, but the end of the story – with Fraser off to officer school, not knowing the war will end imminently – and the moment he sees some of his old section mates, is some great writing. Similarly, an epilogue where Fraser writes of the VJ Day celebrations, 50 years after the end of the war, also left me feeling suitably emotional. For anyone who wants a taste of how World War 2 life in Burma could be very mundane, terrifying, funny, strange and 101 things in between, written by someone with an excellent turn of phrase who actually lived through this, I cannot recommend this memoir enough. The guys who did this stuff are mostly all gone now – Fraser himself departed in 2008, aged 82 – and books like this are one of the best ways to hear their long and considered thoughts on what it was really like. Even better than soundbites in documentaries, I believe.