Saturday, 27 September 2014

Modesty Blaise - Peter O'Donnell


I've read a few books in my time and I'm with Kingsley Amis on this one: Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise is "endlessly fascinating", and is indeed "one of the great partnerships in fiction, bearing comparison with that of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson". It can be taken that Kingsley Amis was a fan as is also Quentin Tarantino who had John Travolta's character in Pulp Fiction reading the graphic novel version throughout the film, right up to the point of him being shot dead by Bruce Willis.

O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise was an innovative and perfectly executed creation that broke the mould and smashed the template of how an action hero should be. The most obvious shift, of course, was in casting a woman in the lead role. Such a good writer was O'Donnell that in a very casual manner he was able to define various aspects of her character as to render her utterly believable. Very easily Modesty Blaise could have turned out to be merely a female version of James Bond but instead he created a fully developed, multi-dimensional, multi-faceted character with a slew of quirks, foibles, weaknesses and strengths that made her unique. In describing the way in which she dressed, played, socialised and fought as well as explaining her history, reasoning and motivation, O'Donnell painted a complete picture yet at the same time wove an air of intrigue around her that teased the reader into wanting to know more.

Though adept with all types of guns Modesty Blaise's weapon of choice was the kongo; essentially a small wooden dumb-bell that fitted neatly into her palm which she used either to knock out or to kill any opponent when fighting hand-to-hand. In addition she might also use a bow and arrow, nerve gas or even a technique called The Nailer; guaranteed even if only momentarily to stop any man in his tracks.
Her partner, Willie Garvin, was also a fully-fledged creation in his own right and could easily have been cast in the lead role in his own adventures. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed, cockney ex-degenerate; he was a weapons master par excellence though his personal preference was knives of which he always carried two. Modesty Blaise had taken him under her wing after sensing an untapped potential within him and had subsequently turned him into the most loyal and most deadly comrade-in-arms.
Together they made a perfect partnership, organising and running a world-wide crime syndicate called The Network before disbanding it to live in luxurious retirement in England. This is the point at which O'Donnell chose to start his story, with Blaise and Garvin being called out of retirement by the British Secret Service to help protect a shipment of diamonds bound for the Middle East.
During their time running The Network, friendly relationships had been maintained with Britain and cemented by the passing of information beneficial to the government. Due to her extensive knowledge of and array of contacts within Continental and Middle Eastern underworlds, Blaise is viewed as the ideal person to establish whether suspicions of a plot to steal the diamonds are true and if so, who might be behind the plot and how and when might it happen? Blaise and Garvin are pitched against a vicious crime lord called Gabriel and the resulting escapade is imaginative, inventive, fast-paced and stylishly violent.

It should be noted that O'Donnell first introduced the Modesty Blaise character as a comic strip in 1963 that was syndicated in newspapers throughout the world. The actual novel was published in 1965, basing itself on a screenplay O'Donnell had written for a film version to be directed by Joseph Losey. The film turned out to be a pop-art kitsch travesty that was so bad it was actually good. Italian actress Monica Vitti played Modesty and Terence Stamp played Garvin but stealing the film was Dirk Bogarde who played an extravagantly camp Gabriel leading a gang of blatantly gay henchmen. Needless to say, it was nothing at all like the vision O'Donnell had presented and he was none too happy with the finished result.

Even though Losey's film was in its own way peculiarly influential, it seems to have been the kiss of death upon all other attempts at getting Modesty Blaise successfully depicted in film again. There have been a couple of valiant attempts but none have come to anything which is really quite strange, particularly when compared to the James Bond franchise or even to Batman which managed to escape the Adam West 1960s version to evolve into the brooding, dark character depicted in films nowadays. Instead, it's in the books, the comic strips and even radio plays that Modesty Blaise has found her most successful homes. That's not to say, however, that O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise character has failed to be an influence upon cinema as it's very easy to recognise her in a wide variety of films from The Avengers, La Femme Nikita, Underworld, Lara Croft, and not least Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. Modesty Blaise, though, was always the original and Peter O'Donnell is deserving of much credit and respect for his innovative vision, his hyperbolic imagination, his sound grasp of femininity, and his excellent writing.

Unholy trinity: O'Donnell, Vitti, Losey
John Serpico

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 7)


"I drew a line, I drew a line for you."

"Oh, what a thing to do."

"And it was all yellow...."

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner - Alan Sillitoe


In the introductory blurb to Alan Sillitoe's The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner it states that this particular tale is 'perhaps as profound a study of the rebel mind as has ever been written', and at the time of its first publication in 1959 this was undoubtedly true. Before then the subject matter of the British working class had hardly been touched upon in a novel let alone any description of the mind-set of a typical youngster from that class, as written from their point of view.

The narrator is a seventeen-year-old inmate of Borstal though this isn't the reason why he's in possession of a rebel mind. No, he's in Borstal because he's been caught by the police and he's in possession of a rebel mind through being born into poverty. He's at perpetual war with those he sees as holding the whip-hand over him: 'cops, governors, posh whores, penpushers, army officers, Members of Parliament' etc, and it's a war that he was born into. The only weapons he has are his cunning and his personal interpretation of honesty whilst his enemies are armed with Remand Homes, Borstal, jail and ultimately the rope.

Sentenced to Borstal for the burglary of a bakery, he's been recognised as being good material for long-distance cross-country running so the Borstal governor has entered him into a race and is counting on him to win. The narrator, however, has other plans. He's no-one's race horse to have bets placed upon and there's no way in this world that he's going to do anything that might raise the reputation of the governor and the prestige of the Borstal.
Whether outside in the wider world or inside a correctional facility such as Borstal there's no such thing as a truce and there's certainly no waving of white flags. The war goes on and as the narrator sees it, it's all down to who is the most cunning as to who is going to be victorious: 'I'm telling you straight: they're cunning, and I'm cunning. If only 'them' and 'us' had the same ideas we'd get on like a house on fire, but they don't see eye to eye with us and we don't see eye to eye with them, so that's how it stands and how it will always stand'.

Such a state of affairs - certainly for the narrator, at least - is just the ways things are. There's no sense of him offering up any special insight at all, he's merely describing and talking about something that to him is everyday normality. Being declared 'as profound a study of the rebel mind as has ever been written' then is a statement that speaks volumes in itself and it doesn't take a genius to see that it's only profound to those who have and have never had any connection to the working class. What is actually profound about the story, however, is its degree of honesty. The narrator has no delusions, nothing to hide and nothing anyway to hide behind. On the surface he's all 'yes, sir, no, sir, three bags full, sir' but underneath there's a whole other life going on that the Borstal governor and his ilk have no concept of.
'And I'll lose that race,' says the narrator 'because I'm not a race horse at all. By Christ I will. I'm a human being and I've got thoughts and secrets and bloody life inside me that he doesn't know is there, and he'll never know what's there because he's stupid. I suppose you'll laugh at this, me saying the governor's a stupid bastard when I know hardly how to write and he can read and write and add-up like a professor. But what I say is true right enough. He's stupid and I'm not, because I can see further into the likes of him than he can see into the likes of me. Admitted, we're both cunning, but I'm more cunning and I'll win in the end even if I die in gaol at eighty-two, because I'll have more fun and fire out my life than he'll ever get out of his. He's read a thousand books I suppose, and for all I know he might even have written a few, but I know for a dead cert, as sure as I'm sitting here, that what I'm scribbling down is worth a million to what he could ever scribble down. I don't care what anybody says, but that’s the truth and can't be denied'.
And indeed that's exactly the truth, and The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner is indeed worth a million to what any number of better-educated writers could ever attempt to create.

For all that, however good The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner might be, it should be pointed out that it is but the title story in a collection of nine short stories in total and that it's not actually the best one of that collection. Even more enjoyable are two other short stories in the book: Noah's Ark, and The Decline And Fall Of Frankie Buller. Both being depictions and reminiscences of childhood as spent in a poor, working class area of Nottingham just prior to the start of World War Two.

Noah's Ark is the story of two young boys doing their utmost to enjoy all the fun of a fair that's arrived in town though without actually having any money to spend there. It's a beautifully composed tale containing such evocative lines as: 'With imagination fed by books to bursting point, he gave little thought to the rags he wore (except when it was cold) and face paradoxically overfleshed through lack of food'. Anyone even in this day and age who's ever been in the same situation will surely recognise themselves in it.
And the same goes for The Decline And Fall Of Frankie Buller which is the story of a gang of boys and their leader, the simple-minded Frankie Buller of the title, playing at being soldiers and waging innocent war against rival gangs of boys from the neighbouring estate. It's written as a memoir, with Alan Sillitoe looking back on those days with much fondness and ruminating how big a part such characters as Frankie Buller played in the formation of his own character.
Of the nine stories, it was of course The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner that was turned into a film that was an epitome of the kitchen sink/angry young men style of film making synonymous with British cinema in the late Fifties early Sixties. Why The Decline And Fall Of Frankie Buller has never been made into a film as well is anyone's guess as it would make a wonderful coming of age drama, similar to and potentially just as successful as Stand By Me, the film based on the Stephen King novella.

Alan Sillitoe is rightfully acknowledged as being one of the most important British writers of the postwar era though I'd suggest that his greatest influence has been upon those readers who have grown up under similar conditions to those which he describes in his books. The inspiration he has given to young, working class readers is incalculable and the knock-on effect of that inspiration continues in countless ways to this very day.

Alan Sillitoe - Do they owe us a living?
John Serpico