Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream

 

Hem 1This Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up is about Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream. He is a giant of American literature, and of masculine writing. He wrote men’s books about manly subjects: war, bullfighting, deep sea fishing. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Islands in the Stream was published after his death, in 1970. It was put together from three fragments of novels found in his bank vault in Havana after his death. They were intended by Hemingway to form a larger work, but his widow and literary executor put the pieces together. You’d never think it was cobbled together at all. It’s a stupendous novel, and I loved it.

Hem 2It’s also chillingly tense. Hemingway’s narrative style is famous: he called it the iceberg technique, or something like that, because all the work was done below the surface of the words. So we have plain, pared-down prose, no words wasted, nothing exuberant or decorative, which gives the rare instances of enthusiasm, passion, pleasure, etc, real power, because they stand alone without fuss. The effect is similar to encountering a large rock in the middle of a desert plain. It gives the impression of being bigger than anything else around, because it’s the only one of its kind, but if it were surrounded by equally large-sized rocks, we wouldn’t pay it any particular attention. The effect of such restraint in the writing is that we really feel the undercurrents of emotion. More importantly, we can feel the stuff that’s not being said, and the approach of terrible things a long way off. The tension mounts, and it just keeps on mounting. But because Hemingway’s writing is so controlled, you can feel sure that the catastrophe won’t be sprung on you out of the blue. There will be warnings, and you will have to wait for the warning to happen for the awful, or dangerous, or risky thing to happen. When it does happen, it’s a relief, because now we can get on with it, and not sit there imagining ‘he’s going to kill them’, or ‘they’re going to be washed overboard’, and so on.

Hem 3Tension is a peculiar thing in a novel. If you think about it rationally, the reader can put a book down at any time during a tense-making episode, and it will wait for you. Nothing will change the outcome on the page. You can change how you respond to the outcome by being in a different frame of mind, or wait to have the right kind of time to devote to reading it. You can go to sleep and read the resolution of the tension with a clear mind and full attention on a different day. So what is it that makes us succumb to the tyranny of the plot and keep reading past midnight, or miss a bus stop, in thrall to the story? In Hemingway, I think it’s the hypnosis of the small plain words and the steady encroachment of story and character in tiny, incremental steps. He likes the character, and we like the character, so we don’t want anything bad to happen to that person. Emotional investment in a character binds us to their fate. The more an author encourages us to feel good about a person, the less we are likely to not be too bothered if that person does something horrible, or has something horrible happen to them. So it’s in an author’s interests to make the readers feel invested in some way – good or bad – in the characters so the book will be read. This will work for the situation too, if the situation is bigger or more interesting that the people.

Hem 4So, back to the novel. Only one of the characters in Islands in the Stream populates all three of its parts: Thomas Hudson, a famous artist, a former habitué of 1920s Paris, where he lived with his first wife and son Tom. Now he lives on Bimini, an island of the Bahamas, 50 miles off Florida. He paints, and he drinks. This is apparently not too much, but the amount he and some of the other men sink daily, often starting at breakfast, made me blench. I’m not a spirits drinker, but they certainly were. Hemingway wrote this novel in 1950-51, and it certainly has a feel of Ian Fleming about it, with the details of men’s lives, and how they saw women. Hemingway and Fleming wrote with detailed precision about what their characters ate and wore, and the drinks descriptions are basically recipes without quantities. Thomas Hudson – and here’s an interesting thing, which I’m sure Hemingway critics have explained to their own satisfaction, but it was new to me – Thomas Hudson, when referred to by the narrative voice, is always called ‘Thomas Hudson’. Not Thomas, not Hudson, always the two names together. When he’s referred to by characters, its Hudson or Tom or Tommy, but the narrative voice sets itself apart with the formality of the full name. There is another Tom, his son, called Young Tom or Tommy at different times, but often just Tom. But the painter is given his full name, as if he were a brand of rum.

Hem 5Thomas Hudson lives on Bimini in his house. He has a cook / major-domo / housekeeper and trusted friend and native Biminian called Eddy, and a houseboy called Joseph. The novel opens when Thomas Hudson has finished work for the day, and spends the evening drinking with friends on the quay, where things get a little out of hand, and there’s a fight. His friend Roger Davis, a novelist and screenwriter, comes back to Hudson’s house to gets his wounds doctored and to sleep, and to stay, since he needs to find quiet to start writing again. And, of course, the boys are coming: Hudson’s three sons, Tom, and David and Andrew, by his second wife. The five of them have a wonderful summer on the beach and in and out of the water. This novel is apparently praised for its nature descriptions: it certainly has tremendous descriptions of fishing, sharks, and eating. Some visitors to the island arrive, one of them being a girl who’s come to find Roger, which he is very glad about. That’s the last we see of him, because he takes her off to Hudson’s ranch in Idaho, to start writing again.

Hem 6This is set a few years later in wartime, in Cuba, which isn’t very far south of the Bahamas, in Hudson’s house in the countryside outside Havana. There he has a vast number of cats and dogs, and three or four staff to keep the place running in his absence. He is absent a fair bit, because he’s converted his boat into a survey vessel for the US Navy, and he’s scouring the Caribbean coastline looking for U-boats. When this episode opens he’s just come back from an exhausting trip, and his favourite cat, Boise, is ecstatic at Hudson being home again. Hudson spends most of this section of the novel drinking, or fretting about whether the cats are eating enough. Boise eats fried eggs, and accepts a little champagne. Hudson tells stories in a bar to Honest Lil, an old prostitute friend, and allows himself to recall some very exciting episodes from his past with a princess on a boat going through the Corinth Canal. This is Lil’s ploy to make him forget a recent sadness, and to get him warmed up by recalling the princess’s sexual appetites. But out of the blue, a woman no-one expected to see walks into the bar, and Hudson and she have an ecstatic reunion, which fills Hudson’s slightly fuzzy mind with unfettered joy. It probably isn’t joyful for Honest Lil, because we don’t see her again. The drinking in Havana is prodigious, I lost count of the frozen double daiquiris that Hudson consumed. But just as we’re thinking, at last, he can be happy again, just for a bit, Hudson gets an emergency summons from the Navy and he has to go back to sea.

Hem 7The third part of the novel is spent largely at sea, hunting for some German seamen who escaped their wrecked U-boat, and made the mistake of massacring some islanders when they stole their turtle boat. Hudson’s ship has a crew of irregular sailors, mainly smugglers and fishermen and a discharged Marine, as well as a Navy man who has been given to Hudson to make sure his ship stays in radio contact with naval authorities on Havana. This is one of the thin threads attaching the third part of the novel to the war: another thread concerns Tommy the younger, and other people in Hudson’s life who are also serving in the war. I did wonder when reading this section, why did Thomas Hudson not go straight into the army or navy? Why did he become an irregular pirate for hire? Could any of this stuff have really happened? It’s plausible enough as a novel for me to not want to bother checking out the history: the romance of the plot is quite satisfying enough.

I can’t see this free-living and hard-drinking artist and big-game fisherman submitting to uniform and military rules, and possibly he was too old as well. Instead, we get a truly exotic idea of Cuba and the Floridian islands, the Bahamas, all of the Caribbean, as a modern refuge for terrible pirates who prey on the locals and kill ruthlessly. Islands in the Stream is very Dr No, very sun-kissed and hard-drinking, and very, very hard-man American hero. It reminded me strongly of the Commando comic books I read as a child, where the war was simply a setting for personal heroics and dramatic tension involving guns and the occasional guttural swear word. As a story of eight men cooped up in a boat together in the heat, getting frustrated by not being able to catch their prey, and feeling just a little bit edgy about one or two of the others, this last part of the novel  should glue you to the very last page, no matter what else you should be attending to.

 

 

 

The magnificent Modesty Blaise

Modesty 1(Forgetfully and foolishly I seem to have written up this pod twice: here in Sept 2015, and here in January 2015. There are slight differences, but they’re mostly the same. Sorry about that.)

Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book’s podcast scripts catch-up is O, and today’s author is the little-known cartoon strip writer, Peter O’Donnell. He is most famous for his creation of the glorious Modesty Blaise: action heroine, secret agent, assassin, and all-round perfect thriller feminist.

Modesty Blaise first appeared in a cartoon strip in 1963, and was a permanent presence in British newspapers until 2001, largely unaltered in style. She was drawn by a series of different artists, but O’Donnell wrote all the stories. In 1965 his first Modesty Blaise book appeared. Modesty Blaise came about because when O’Donnell was a soldier during the Second World War, he had noticed a girl in a displaced persons camp. The memory of how this refugee looked, how she held herself, and her confidence, and what her story might have been, stayed with him, emerging 20 years later as a character for an action story. A rather decorative film was made shortly after the first book appeared, starring Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp, but its script veered wildly away from the original concept.

In the books, Modesty is a retired criminal mastermind (retired at the age of around her early thirties), who has made the money she wanted through non-vice crimes, but now she is bored. Her sidekick (not her lover) Willie Garvin, is also bored, which is why he loses his touch, and gets caught by a gang in Latin America. MI5 want Modesty to help them with a sticky problem of their own, so they offer her Willie as a favour, and she rescues him from captivity. She accepts the tip-off from British intelligence as a debt of honour that she wants to pay, in sorting out a little problem for them. And so the relationship develops: Modesty and Willie become the go-to team for the really dangerous jobs that British Intelligence can’t handle alone. And they win, every time. Casual deaths with no repercussions are standard. The police rarely interfere, and when they do they do what Modesty wants. There are a lot of set-piece impossible escapes from impossible situations, and many, many single combats, lovingly described.

Modesty 3
Titan Books reissue

You’ll be thinking that Modesty is pretty much like a female James Bond, except that she’s independent. This independence is crucial for her character: she will not be tied, and she operates following her own judgement rather than following orders. She’s also an armed and unarmed combat expert, a jeweller, a diver and goodness knows what else. She has a compass in her head that never fails, she has yoga meditation skills that enable her to ignore pain and exhaustion etc, etc. She is effectively a superhero without supernatural powers: she just has an impossible number of phenomenal powers and skills that normal people would be glad to have only one of. It’s a very attractive combination. Did I also mention that she’s drop-dead gorgeous? It should go without saying. Modesty would be a good match for Emma Peel of The Avengers. Remember Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, and as Mrs Smith from Mr and Mrs Smith? Modesty preceded her by about 40 years, and she’s better at the job because she does it all without computers or cell phones.

Modesty 4
Souvenir Press reissue

All this would be wasted material were it not for Peter O’Donnell’s writing. He is not quite as good as Ian Fleming for insouciant style, or as good as Geoffrey Household in cranking up the tension, but he comes very close. O’Donnell borrows heavily from Fleming and James Bond in his attention to detail: we hear a lot about the style and colour of clothes, even the kinds of fabrics, and of course we hear a lot about the make of drink, the way of cooking the meat, the colour of the car. On weaponry Fleming is outclassed by O’Donnell, I think, because both Modesty and Willie Garvin are expert in every kind of combat invented by humans, and probably some that O’Donnell invented himself. We hear a lot about throwing knives and a special kind of throwing and bashing weapon that lurks in the back of Modesty’s hairdo. O’Donnell is really good on ingenious places for hiding weapons: time and again Modesty strips off her clothes so she can extract the components of a bomb, or a radio transmitter, or a bow and arrows, from her underwear or her skirt. They’re kept in the seams and under false linings. It’s a good thing airport scanners hadn’t been invented then. This kind of verbal titillation works because the image of a semi-naked Modesty (her name also draws attention to her state of undress) is powerfully countered by her technical skill and impressive foresight in choosing her outfit for the day by how many ways it can kill.

Modesty is not just a brilliant fighter, marksman, fencer, what have you: she’s also a strategic genius. She computes situations in her brain and produces a solution for every sticky situation. Only a little of this is explained, and this is where O’Donnell outclasses Household. Modesty and Willie have a very long back history, and so whenever she or he is about to attack an enemy, they can throw words at each other to suggest using a particular trick they know well, or one that worked once and might just work again. The reader is saying ‘Yes? Yes? What?’, gobbling up the narrative to find out what, precisely, they will do to get Willie out of being chained to a radiator by one hand while holding a bomb at full arm’s length in the other, knowing that when Modesty bursts into the room to rescue him she will be mown down by a machine gun. Naturally he gets out of the chain by breaking it one-handed, as you do, and then she drops through the window from the floor above, having shot the machine gunner faster than he can draw, and disables the bomb for Willie, because the blood from his wounds is making his hands a bit sticky. It’s all rather exciting.

Modesty 5Here’s another one: they’re being held in the desert with a group of other people, and Modesty has to get them all out to safety before they’re killed for fun. She induces the evil mastermind’s enforcer, an Austrian fencing champion, to take her on in a duel, and kills him by playing against the rules but also allows herself to take a slight wound. She’s fighting naked, by the way. The leering bad person comes over to fondle her bloody body in her apparent exhaustion, during which time she picks his pocket of the secret notebook. Willie forges an entry in this to make it seem that the pilot of the hired plane is to be executed, so the pilot will come over to their side, and get the rest of the captives away to Tangier, leaving Modesty and Willie to build an emergency sand-yacht to get across the desert to a Foreign Legion fort where Willie has the final showdown with the evil mastermind, after performing emergency surgery on Modesty’s shoulder wound, which is now impendingly gangrenous. That caper is particularly complicated, but it is deeply, deeply satisfying. O’Donnell’s plotting is superb.

There is a certain forcedness in O’Donnell’s dialogue, and in his namedropping of brand names and new products. He spells Crimplene with a capital C, because when he was writing, this word was new, he was using an up-to-the-minute social reference. Now, of course, this dates the books quite strongly, but this is part of their attraction: they’re a repository for social history. We can see which words were new to the language in the 1960s by the difference that common usage has made in them now. Initial capitals are a common sign of this, for brand names and for things that are now generic names. We also see different, earlier spellings: git, for instance, which is a mild term of abuse in British slang that also means stupid, is spelt with a double tt in 1965. O’Donnell spells mac, as in mackintosh raincoat, a mack. These novels are linguistic archaeology because they were written to be indelibly up to the minute.

2013 Swedish cover for the DVD of the film
2013 Swedish cover for the DVD of the film

I don’t remember Ian Fleming using Arabic as a secret language for James Bond as much as O’Donnell does. Modesty and Willie are, of course, fluent in one or more of the Arabic forms, and use it to speak to each other over the radio and in private exchanges, because the criminals they are fighting are not Arabic speakers: this is a Cold War universe. The Arabic nations were not yet political powers that the west took much notice of. Arabic is also used as a language of civilised values: several times Modesty discusses Arabic poetry as a coded cover for her real intent: I don’t think you’d get that kind of respect in thrillers these days.

O’Donnell has a very interesting attitude to Modesty and her sexuality, considering that he was writing her in the unliberated 1960s. The contraceptive pill may have been just about to be made available to British women, but they also wore stockings, hats and gloves every day, and were usually expected to stop working once they married. However, O’Donnell gives Modesty some remarkable freedoms. She is a woman, but she is also the best secret agent around. She’s sexualised, in that she has sex with whichever man she wants, but also when she wants and on her terms. This makes her a truly liberated woman, in that she controls her own sex life, but also makes her a male fantasy figure, since she is freely available and no strings of responsibility or fidelity are attached.

Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin. Yes please.
Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin. Yes please.

She has a very loyal and strictly non-sexual relationship with Willie Garvin: he’s played by the breathtakingly beautiful Terence Stamp in the film, but is always drawn as a craggy and muscular lunk in the cartoon strips. The self-control and steadiness of purpose they must, we infer, be exercising to not leap into bed with each other are simply aspects of their attractiveness. Modesty requires respect for her authority, and is treated throughout as the most powerful and skilful operator in the book. She is never a victim, but is often presented a sexual object, and O’Donnell frequently describes her as wearing her nakedness as if she wore clothes, which helps the imaginations of her readers nicely. One of her techniques for gaining a few seconds while confronting a room of guards or other male antagonists is to walk in, stripped to the waist. This moment of leering amazement of course allows to her to shoot them all, while they gawp. It’s a good use of that character’s power, but it’s also a predictable use of sexuality by a male writer.

O’Donnell had some predictable opinions about women and sexuality in general. In the first book, Modesty is the focus of attention because she is the only active woman in a cast of men. There are two other women in that story, a dancer called Nicole who asked too many questions on Willie’s behalf and got killed, and a sadistic murderer called Mrs Fothergill. Mrs Fothergill is a close cousin of of Ian Fleming’s Irma Bunt and Rosa Klebb, and also of C S Lewis’s Fairy Hardcastle from That Hideous Strength, as it happens, since O’Donnell emphasises the sexual pleasure in her motivation for killing. There is an obvious correlation between sexual orientation and morality, since the ugly, lumpish, killer women working with the evil masterminds all appear to have ‘wrong’, that is, non-heterosexual proclivities, whereas the other women who are killers in the action thriller genre, Modesty herself, and even Emma Peel, are definitely into men, and thus have the ‘right’ proclivities. Fleming’s Pussy Galore swopped sides in both senses. O’Donnell’s active interest in sexualising his women characters betrays a datedness about sexual stereotypes too.

After all this, you may wish to start reading Modesty Blaise for yourself. There are some really excellent websites and blogs out there with all the bibliographical information you need. Thirteen novels were published, the last in 1996. There is a massive collected edition of all the comic strips which costs over £200, but if you’re lucky a local library might have it. And there is always the film, but it really is not as good as the books. Souvenir Press have reissued many of the books in new (and not very good) covers, and as ebooks. The covers of the slightly older resissues by Titan Books have much more punch and glamour.

 

Running through the south of France with John Welcome and Run for Cover (1958)

a really horrible cover, showing a most unpleasant man, surely not our hero?
a really horrible cover, showing a most unpleasant man, surely not our hero?

This podcast was written for a miniseries on Thrillers for Gentlemen, looking at the kind of thriller or spy novel that was masculine without being brutal, and that was written about men of a certain generation who understood the value of the gentleman’s club, and worked within its rules.

This time, I was exploring a writer I hadn’t heard of until a friendly 1950s thriller fiend alerted me to his existence. John Welcome is a forgotten star of the gentlemanly thriller. He wrote several novels, and also seems to have been the editor of collections of thriller short stories; in the sporting mode, and from the card-playing scene. He was a lawyer, and hunted a lot (on horseback, for foxes), and so, in his first novel, Run for Cover (1958), the hero, Richard Graham, is also a horsey man, who rides in races and in hunting, and plays cards almost professionally. It’s a rather self-conscious first novel, with some quite excruciating passages in which Graham practically shows the reader his library list as proof that he’s the right kind of chap. But once the story gets going, and the writer gets into his stride, this is a really entertaining thriller that begins in London, flies to Paris, and then gallops about in the south of France. It’s a definite scamper through the maquis, you can practically smell the rosemary crushed underfoot among the pine needles as Graham runs for cover, again and again and again. But it’s not a survivalist thriller at all, unlike a Household novel, or even a Bond. There are scramblings about on the outsides of buildings, but Graham, an ex-Commando and ex secret service agent, is terrified of rats, insists on having decent meals with drinks, and sleeps in hotels and pensions at night, rather than bunked up in the heather.

Another cover, with a hint of blonde sunkissed female interest
Another cover, with a hint of blonde sunkissed female interest

Here’s the plot: Graham gets into the London train, and finds himself sitting opposite an old friend (that’s a borrowing from John Buchan’s The Island of Sheep, for a start). The old friend is a publisher, and gives Graham a manuscript to read for his opinion. Graham is a bit surprised to see the name of the author, Rupert Rawle, because he saw Rawle shot and killed during the war. Moreover, he has particular reasons for wanting to know about Rawle, because Rawle tried to kill him, and also stole  his girl, which was a terrible betrayal, since Rawle was also his hero, and his best friend.  Graham takes the manuscript back to his London flat, leaves it there while he nips off to the bank and his club, but when he returns, it has gone, stolen through an opened window. And he hasn’t had a chance to read it. But he calls up his old secret service contacts to tell them that Rawle may be alive after all, and is told to leave it alone. Nothing daunted, he tries to alert a French former colleague, goes to Paris, and is told to leave it alone. Not one to take a hint, he gets onto Rawle’s trail, and is launched into a mystery that brings him back to Jacquie, the girl who dumped him, who also tells him to leave it alone. At this stage, it might be easy to give up reading the novel. Welcome writes cagily, constantly holding out hints of secrets that are influencing Graham’s actions, but the details of which we are not told. This is a bit maddening, and I’m still not sure what got me over that sticky first part, when the story and its importance need to be established, but when the writer seems to be doing more to drive the reader away by being secretive. Perhaps if you like secrets you won’t find this annoying at all, but I do prefer my plot on a plate before I start.

nicely complex third cover variant
nicely complex third cover variant

What kept me going were the characters, and how they lived, which is why I rate this novel very highly as a thriller for gentlemen. It is totally steeped in the gentleman’s way of life. Clubs: naturally, every man has one. One also has a London flat. Since Graham rides horses as his occupation, but is yet not a jockey, he obviously has private income. His flat’s living-room is packed with cups and trophies that he’s won at race-meetings. He takes the Sporting Times, The Daily World (which is a cover for The Daily Mail), and The Times. He employs a stockbroker. He’s not married because he’s still carrying a torch for Jacquie who ran off with Rawle, or whom Rawle bagged: it’s not clear which one carries the blame.

I like Graham, because he’s a competent and conscientious sort of chap, and he isn’t put off by people telling him to leave things alone. So naturally, as soon as he got on the plane to Paris, I was rooting for him. He also knows his way around Paris (a good sign), and is happy to drink champagne cocktails in the afternoon while waiting at a café thinking that somebody important might yet show up. And someone does. Trouble is, it’s the wrong someone, someone with a gun, and Graham is grabbed by the enemy. The enemy are thugs and a large foreign mastermind, and a gunman who cannot miss. We can tell that Jacquie is probably a bad ‘un because Graham mentions that her English is not quite perfect. (Bad sign for a gentleman’s girl.) Graham is beaten up severely, dumped at his hotel in a very bad state of repair, and told to go back to England. This he does, and then immediately flies back to the south of France to conduct his own investigation, and pursue Rawle to the death.

Graham is the kind of thriller hero I like, who fools the enemy by acting meek, and then does something unexpected, expertly carried out. He has pots of money with him, smuggled in and out of France in his pockets so he doesn’t have to get bogged down by Customs (this is definitely a thriller hero’s behaviour, since Dornford Yates’ crowd did this all the time, but it is not, strictly speaking, the conduct of a gentleman). Graham hires a car and zips off along the south coast of France, looking for something important and plot-relevant which is merely a McGuffin. The rest of the novel is concerned with him evading capture, escaping cleverly, deceiving and outwitting and taunting his captors, doing some damage to other people’s cars, shooting perfectly and casually, and displaying his perfect knowledge of the south of France’s highways and byways. Also of their hotels and cafes: it is extraordinary how many small villages he goes through where he is still on perfect best friend terms with the owners, no matter how many years have passed since the war and his presumable activities with the Résistance. Pretty nearly all of his meals are perfect. He hands out 5,000 franc notes for information, he gets hidden by innumerable allies, and he has a triumphant game of canasta that lets him nobble the scary gunman, against all the odds.

As in Moonraker, you do not need to understand the rules of canasta to survive the ten or more pages of what might otherwise be deeply tedious card-bore hell to understand that Graham is a great player. His playing is clever enough to make the bad man think Graham is hopeless. Acting stupid is a great skill, and it’s fun to watch it unfold. I’ve never played canasta, but even I could sense the points of tension and near-missery that we need to appreciate to enjoy this scene properly.

A gentleman has to be skilled in cards: this is a long-established fact from the eighteenth century, and it is so interesting that in the 1950s this still held true. Why cards? The demonstration of having a lot of money to lose at will? Graham loses no money in these games (though Bond wins a lot in his.) As an indication of skill at a game of chance, a pointless art? The ability to accept the responsibility of debts of honour? I do think it comes down to the money, but in Run for Cover there is also a strong sense that a man who can play cards well is likely to be a great winner of the game against life. He’s not a chancer, but a deliberate player of the odds, who knows how to accept good luck and bad luck, and play his cards as well as he can.

Graham does have a rather good bit of good luck in this novel, when he runs into another woman. His interactions with the not-quite perfectly accented Jacquie have left the reader feeling ruffled: why is he still mooning about after her, when she is so obviously a tart with no heart? So he’s on the run in the south of France, in a rather fetching disguise of a crew-cut, a pair of shorts, a sailor hat and a striped jersey. I laughed out loud when I read that: what a ludicrous caricature of a Frenchman’s disguise, but perhaps in the 1950s this had not yet reached caricature status. He’s had a night out sleeping in the woods, and he hears voices arguing. A couple are squabbling over a car that won’t start: the man (English) is clearly useless, since all he can do is make threats about their chauffeur who hadn’t serviced the car properly, whereas the woman is bored of this, and wants him to go and get help. So the woman is left in the car, alone in the woods, and Graham strolls over to see what’s up. He fixes the car, she realises he’s English and now knows instinctively what she’s dealing with. She offers him the use of her husband’s shaving kit, and then feeds him from the hamper in the back, and then, before we’ve can blink, they’re all over each other. At least she pulls the hood of the car up for a little privacy, but we are asked to assume that thriller heroes having wild outdoor sex with strange Englishwomen happened all the time in the south of France in the 1950s. No doubt they were up to date on how gentlemen should behave.

Was James Bond a gentleman?

This podcast was written for the miniseries on Thrillers for Gentlemen. I was looking at the kind of thriller or spy novel that was masculine without being brutal, and that was written about men of a certain generation who understood the value of the gentleman’s club, and worked within its rules. These thrillers were tough, but with good manners.

the very edition I reread addictively, and then gave away, drat it
the very edition I reread addictively, and then gave away, drat it

I was reading Bond, James Bond. I love Ian Fleming’s writing, and used to read him addictively when I was a student, seeking relief from the sterner kinds of books I had to work through when I was writing my PhD. I owned most of the novels, in nice 1950s Pan editions, but moved house too often to keep them, and now I only have one rather horrible mass-market anthology of Bond that I bought cheap when I really could not live without reading Dr No once more. But this podcast was about Bond, rather than about one particular novel. I wanted to see what I could find out about Bond as a product of gentlemanly writing for the clubman and for the post-Second World War officer and gentleman.

Let’s start with who Bond is. He’s ex-Royal Navy, with the rank of Commander, which means he wore three gold stripes and a ring as his uniform insignia while still in the Service. This is the same rank in the US Navy, and is equivalent to Lieutenant-Colonel in the British and US armies. So he’s fairly high up the tree, but not into top brass territory. Now, of course, forever and in perpetuity, he is 007, authorised to kill in Her Majesty’s secret service. In the novels his boss is M, also ex-Navy, and a titled gentleman who, in Moonraker, takes Bond with him to Blades, the venerable card club in St James, Mayfair, to play cards.

very unlikely to have been used in Blades
very unlikely to have been used in Blades

Blades is, of course, totally fictional, but is written with such assurance by Fleming that you have to google the place to be embarrassed at how well you’ve been fooled into accepting it as real. Fleming invented this club to be able to write about its activities and members without fear of libel. He also wanted to take Bond to a place where he would fit in, and know how to behave, but would probably not be asked to join, or even want to. Bond is not a fogey; he is a modern, post-war hero. The conflict he has with senior colleagues, even his adversaries, stems from this whipper-snapper identity. He is probably only just past 35 or so, but still fearsomely fit and impressively knowledgeable about pretty much everything, especially manly things to do with metal and power and speed. He knows how to behave in different social circumstances (which is something Fleming borrowed from Buchan: in 1936 the Earl of Clanroyden got away with being disguised as a surrealiste. Was Bond ever a beatnik, or into Sartre?) But is he a gentleman?

sartorial disaster
sartorial disaster

Well, we need to look at his record. Let’s stay with Moonraker, a novel published in 1955, and the only Bond novel that Fleming wrote (because, of course, the canon has been extended by many other writers since Fleming’s death: I’m only looking at Fleming’s own novels) that was set entirely in the UK. Unfortunately, the very name Moonraker brings to mind the truly terrible film starring Roger Moore as Bond, which only had the name of the phallic rocket in common with the book. Forget about that. Sweep away those ludicrous images of wrinkly Roger Moore trying to look passionate and stern in a space suit with ankle ties, and think about sharp navy blue suits and a vintage Bentley.

Moonraker starts in a basement firing room, where Bond is trying to beat the machines. He’s still not quite as good as the automatic firing devices he’s been pitted against by the armaments trainer, but, as we learn when Bond has left, he’s the best gun they’ve got. So he’s a sharpshooter: does this make him a gentleman? No. However, the fact that he and the master gunner have a bet on, and Bond loses, and pays up cheerfully, does make him a gentleman. Paying one’s debts is one of the first rules of correct gentlemanly behaviour, and Bond qualifies easily. The reason he’s taken to Blades by M is to see if he can beat a habitual cheat at cards, and he does this easily because he knows how to cheat too. Would a true gentleman know how to cheat at cards? I think so, yes, because a gentleman can recognise ungentlemanly behaviour. Gentlemanly behaviour is mostly unconscious, inherent, the result of training from birth; but it certainly helps to know when the edges of gentlemanhood are being breached, to maintain these standards. It’s also useful for a gentleman to be sufficiently at home in a gentleman’s surroundings, but also able to bring in the rough stuff, when needed.

Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny. Note the perfect uniform shirt.
Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny. Note the perfect uniform shirt.

Next, we see Bond in the office, and hear a lot about his secretary Loelia Ponsonby. Where does Fleming get his women’s names from? The men’s names are either nationality caricatures or anonymous, like ‘Bond’, whereas the women are saddled with impossible names like Moneypenny, Goodnight, Trueblood. They also all wear beautiful clothes. This is one of Fleming’s great strengths as a writer: the magazine-like focus on consumer detail in the descriptions. His attention to the details of the food and guns and drink that Bond consumes are famous, but his fashion writing is really very evocative. Loelia Ponsonby, as a good civil service secretary, wears a skirt and a blouse, as does Miss Moneypenny, and Gala Brand later in the novel, but it’s the detail of a hand-sewn belt and the colour coordination, that grip me. A mere man could only have written that by poring over Vogue beforehand. Does Bond subscribe?

Lois Maxwell keeping Sean Connery at bay
Lois Maxwell keeping Sean Connery at bay

We are told that Bond and the other 00 chaps in that office had cheerfully made assaults on their secretary’s virtue, but that she refused to allow herself to get too fond of any one of them because any one of them could be dead before the end of the next mission. She sounds like a sensible person, and they sound like perfectly normal youngish men, but are they gentlemen, in that regard? Probably not as John Buchan would have understood it, especially if the assaults on her virtue were more about list-ticking conquests after drinks than the expression of a lifelong, monogamous passion, but we are now in the 1950s, after all. Fleming wants us to understand Bond as an all-conquering sex god. We are also asked to believe that Bond cares properly about the women who come his way. In Moonraker we see him stymied, all ready to have an affair with a girl whom he thinks has earned it, and then she tells him quite nicely that the man waiting politely some yards behind her is her fiancé and that they’re getting married tomorrow. Bond behaves very well, and they say goodbye and walk out of each other’s lives. But I do wonder, to whom did he take his bruised pride? He has a string of married women, it appears, with whom he makes love rather coldly at weekends, so perhaps he’ll go and ring one of them up. On being rejected, a gentleman will never make a fuss and will always sublimate his desires decently in something, or someone, discreet and harmless. Another woman, preferably an anonymous one, seems a heartless choice for a gentleman who’s just been rejected, but he may not have been very much into the first girl in the first place. However, he behaves decently, and that’s what matters.

The girl in my favourite Bond novel, Dr No, is Honeychile Rider, a child of nature and what we would now call a zoologist. She’s child-like but not that innocent, and very keen to have sex with Bond, without shame. It’s good for thrillers to have shameless women in them, it gives the sex scenes exuberance without the squealing modesty that must get so boring when you’ve only got a few hours. Honeychile reminds me a lot of Jenny, from Dornford Yates’ thriller She Fell Among Thieves, because Jenny is alarmingly child-like, totally lacking lack in nous and worldly wisdom. Yates created her character to allow some titillating voyeurism in the novel, and to offer a very strange fantasy of an adult bride with a child’s understanding, but Honeychile is not quite that disturbing. She is afraid of land crabs, but she sails Bond back to Jamaica in the dark: a practical role in the plot. She supports herself, lives alone, can and does defend herself, is a born but untaught scientist, and, very importantly, as we only find out at the end, she is a lady. For a gentleman to have an affair it is much better if his partner is at the same social level as well as cultural level. Bond does not have many (any?) affairs with prostitutes. As the orphaned child of an old Jamaican landowning family, Honeychile deserves to be launched in the world properly, whether she gets her broken nose fixed or not, so Bond arranges for her to be found a job at the Zoological Institute in Kingstown, and asks his local friend to get his wife to take Honeychile under her wing socially. We know that soon she’ll be wearing the right clothes and will know where to get her hair done properly. But first she and Bond will have sex in a sleeping-bag because he owes her slave-time. These are gentlemanly courtesies.

a gentleman keeps his shirt off when others keep their on. John Kitzmiller, Sean Connery, Ursula Andress (who wasn't allowed to voice her own lines!)
a gentleman keeps his shirt off when others keep their on. John Kitzmiller, Sean Connery, Ursula Andress (who wasn’t allowed to voice her own lines!)

The actions of a gentleman are also concerned with noblesse oblige. Bond feels nothing towards what Fleming calls the ‘Chigroes’, the Chinese-negro Jamaicans who work for Dr No, because they are mixed race, and thus in Fleming’s 1950s world view, living on Jamaica, they are socially and culturally inferior to the colonial whites. He also feels nothing for the Chinese girls who flit through this novel, mainly because they are all Dr No’s creatures, but also, I suspect, because they are not presented as people. Fleming just drew them as women of a certain race, and their race is what defines them: not their names or personalities. So these, like the prostitutes, are not where Bond will look for sex (because sex is the only thing he could possibly want from these women). He is protective and admiring of his friend Quarrel, whom he takes on as fixer and local contact once he arrives in Jamaica, but Quarrel, a big warm black man from the Cayman Islands, sleeps on a separate part of the beach from Bond because Bond is his master. Yet Quarrel is indispensable, a knowledgeable hero with the wrong colour of skin for Fleming’s readers. He knows everything important locally, hires the equipment, arranges to lose the car, knows the route, has the expertise, and is the one to die. Why does Quarrel die, and not Honeychile? Maybe because a gentleman can protect a girl better, and is able to fight for his own survival more effectively as part of the struggle to save her? Quarrel is very effective; he just got caught in the wrong place by a flame-thrower. In the 1950s, it was easier to show a character being a gentleman to a white lady, than to a black man.

Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise

Peter O'Donnell (photo: The Guardian)
Peter O’Donnell (photo: The Guardian)

(Forgetfully and foolishly I wrote this pod script up twice: here in January 2015, and here in Sept 2015. They’re mostly the same, but there will be slight differences. Sorry about that.)

This podcast was written for the letter O, the classic 1960s cartoon strip writer, Peter O’Donnell. He is most famous for his creation of the glorious Modesty Blaise: action heroine, secret agent, assassin, and all-round perfect thriller feminist. For years – really, YEARS – this podcast was the most often downloaded from Why I Really Like This Book, so I’m putting it up here in case the O’Donnell fans want to read what I say instead of hunt down what is now a rather old pod.

ModestyModesty Blaise first appeared in a cartoon strip in 1963, and was a permanent presence in British newspapers until 2001, largely unaltered in style. She was drawn by a series of different artists, but O’Donnell wrote all the stories. In 1965 his first Modesty Blaise book appeared, and came about because when O’Donnell was a soldier during the Second World War, he had noticed a girl in a displaced persons camp. The memory of how this refugee looked, how she held herself, and her confidence, and what her story might have been, stayed with him, emerging 20 years later as a character for an action story. A rather decorative film was made shortly after the first book appeared, starring Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp, but the script for that veered wildly away from the original concept.

In the books, Modesty is a retired criminal mastermind (retired in her early thirties), who made the money she wanted to through non-vice crimes, but now she is bored. Her sidekick, not her lover, Willie Garvin, is also bored, which is why he loses his touch, and gets caught by a gang in Latin America. MI5 want Modesty to help them with a sticky problem of their own, so they offer her Willie as a favour, and she rescues him from captivity. She accepts that tip-off from British intelligence as a debt of honour that she wants to repay, in sorting out a little problem for them. And so the relationship develops: Modesty and Willie become the go-to team for the really dangerous jobs that British Intelligence can’t handle alone. And they win, every time. Casual deaths with no repercussions are standard. The police rarely interfere, and when they do, they do what Modesty wants. There are a lot of set-piece impossible escapes from impossible situations, and many, many single combats, lovingly described.

Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise
Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise

You’ll probably have spotted that Modesty is pretty much like a female James Bond, except that she’s independent. This independence is crucial for her character: she will not be tied, and she operates following her own judgement rather than following orders. She’s also an armed and unarmed combat expert, a jeweller, a diver and goodness what else. She has a compass in her head that never fails, she has yoga meditation skills that enable her to ignore pain and exhaustion etc, etc. She is effectively a superhero without supernatural powers: she just has an impossible number of phenomenal powers and skills that normal people would be glad to have only one of. It’s a very attractive combination. Did I also mention that she’s drop-dead gorgeous? It should go without saying. Modesty would be a good match for Emma Peel of The Avengers. Remember Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, and as Mrs Smith from Mr and Mrs Smith? Modesty preceded her by about 40 years, and she’s better at the job because she does it all without computers or cell phones.

All this would be wasted material were it not for Peter O’Donnell’s writing. He is not quite as good as Ian Fleming for insouciant style, or as good as Geoffrey Household in cranking up the tension, but he comes very close. O’Donnell borrows heavily from Fleming and James Bond in his attention to detail: we hear a lot about the style and colour of clothes, even the kinds of fabrics, and of course we hear a lot about the make of drink, the way of cooking the meat, the colour of the car. On weaponry Fleming is outclassed by O’Donnell, I think, because both Modesty and Willie Garvin are expert in every kind of combat invented by humans, and probably some that O’Donnell invented himself. We hear a lot about throwing knives and a special kind of throwing and whacking weapon that lurks in the back of Modesty’s hairdo. O’Donnell is really good on ingenious places for hiding weapons: time and again Modesty strips off her clothes so she can extract the components of a bomb, or a radio transmitter, or a bow and arrows, from her underwear or her skirt. They’re kept in the seams and under false linings, for verbal titillation. It’s a good thing airport scanners hadn’t been invented then.

Peter O'Donnell in the 1960s
Peter O’Donnell in the 1960s

Modesty is not just a brilliant fighter, marksman, fencer, what have you: she’s also a strategic genius. She computes situations in her brain and produces a solution for every sticky situation. This is where O’Donnell outclasses Household. Modesty and Willie have a very long back history, and so whenever she or he is about to attack an enemy, they can throw words at each other to suggest that this is a particular trick they know well, or one that worked once and might just work again, and all this time the reader is going ‘Yes? Yes? What?’, hurtling through the narrative to find out what, precisely, they will do to free Willie from being chained to a radiator by one hand while holding a bomb at full arm’s length in the other, knowing that when Modesty bursts into the room to rescue him she will be mown down by a machine gun. Naturally he gets out of the chain by breaking it one-handed, as you do, and then she drops through the window from the floor above, having shot the machine gunner faster than he can draw. She disables the bomb for Willie, because the blood from his wounds is making his hands a bit sticky. It’s all rather exciting.

Here’s another one: they’re being held in the desert with a group of other people, and Modesty has to get them all out before they’re killed for fun. She induces the Austrian fencing champion guard to a duel, kills him by playing against the rules but also allows herself to take a slight wound. She’s fighting naked, by the way. One of the leering bad guys comes over to fondle her bloody body in her apparent exhaustion, during which time she picks his pocket of the secret notebook. Willie forges an entry in the secret notebook to make it seem that the pilot of the hired plane is to be executed, so that he will come over to their side, and get the rest of the captives away to Tangier, leaving Modesty and Willie to build an emergency sand-yacht to get across the desert to a Foreign Legion fort where Willie has the final showdown with the big boss, after performing emergency surgery on Modesty’s shoulder wound, which is now impendingly gangrenous. That caper is particularly complicated, but it is deeply, deeply satisfying. O’Donnell’s plotting is superb.

Modesty 3There is a certain forcedness in O’Donnell’s dialogue, and in his namedropping of brand names and new products. He spells Crimplene with a capital C, because when he was writing, this was an up-to-the-minute social reference. Now, of course, this dates the books quite strongly, but this is part of their attraction: they’re a repository for social history. We can see which words were new to the language in the 1960s by the difference that common usage has made in them now. Initial capitals are a common sign of this, for brand names and for things that are now generic names. We also see different, earlier spellings: ‘git’, for instance, now a mild term of abuse in British slang that also means ‘stupid idiot’, is spelt with a double tt in 1965. O’Donnell spells mac, as in mackintosh raincoat, mack. It’s linguistic archaeology.

I don’t remember Ian Fleming using Arabic as a secret language for James Bond as often as O’Donnell does. Modesty and Willie are, of course, fluent in it, and speak to each other in Arabic over the radio and in private exchanges, because the criminals they are fighting are not Arabic speakers: this is a Cold War world. The Arabic nations were not yet political powers that the west took much notice of. Arabic is also used as a language of civilised values: several times Modesty discusses Arabic poetry as a coded cover for her real intent: I don’t think you’d get that kind of respect in thrillers of a later date.

no-one knows why Monica Vitti kept her natural blonde hair in the film's publicity
no-one knows why Monica Vitti kept her natural blonde hair in the film’s publicity

O’Donnell has a very interesting attitude to Modesty, considering that he was writing her in the unliberated 1960s. The contraceptive pill was just about to be made available to British women, but ladies had to wear stockings, hats and gloves as a matter of course, and were expected to stop working once they married. Modesty preceded the swinging sixties. However, O’Donnell gives her remarkable freedoms. She is a woman, but she is also the best secret agent around. She’s sexualised, in that she has sex with whichever man she wants, but also when she wants and on her terms. This makes her a truly liberated woman, in that she controls her own sex life. It also makes her a male fantasy figure, since she is freely available and no strings of responsibility or fidelity are attached. She has a very loyal and strictly non-sexual relationship with Willie Garvin: he’s played by the breathtakingly beautiful Terence Stamp in the film, but is always drawn as a very craggy and muscular lunk in the cartoon strips. Modesty requires respect for her authority, and is treated throughout as the most powerful and skilful operator in the book. She is never a victim, but is often presented a sexual object, and O’Donnell frequently describes her as wearing her nakedness as if she wore clothes, which helps the imaginations of her readers nicely. One of her techniques for gaining a few seconds while confronting a room of guards or other male antagonists is to walk in on them, stripped to the waist. This moment of leering amazement of course allows to her to shoot them all, while they gawp. It’s a good use of that character’s power, but it’s also a predictable use of sexuality by a male writer.

Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin. Yes please.
Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin. Yes please.

O’Donnell had some very predictable opinions about women and sexuality in general. In the first book, Modesty is the focus of attention because she is the only active woman in a cast of men. There are two other women in that story, a dancer called Nicole who asked too many questions on Willie’s behalf, and a sadistic murderer called Mrs Fothergill. Mrs Fothergill is a close relation of of Ian Fleming’s Irma Bunt and Rosa Klebb, and also of C S Lewis’s Fairy Hardcastle, from That Hideous Strength, all of whom share a taste for sexual pleasure from torture or killing. In addition to not fulfilling conventional ideas of physical beauty, these ugly, lumpish, killer women who work with bad guys all appear to have the ‘wrong’, that is, non-heterosexual proclivities, whereas the other women who are killers in the action thriller genre, Modesty herself, and even Emma Peel, are definitely into men, and thus have the ‘right’ proclivities. I have never been able to work out exactly how Fleming’s Pussy Galore swung, so let’s leave that analogy there, and accept that O’Donnell’s sexualising of his women characters is dated about orientation too. It would have been astonishing if he had written in any other way, so let’s stop forcing anachronisms on the past.

After all this, you may wish to start reading Modesty Blaise for yourself. There are some really excellent websites and blogs out there with all the bibliographical information you need: see below. Thirteen novels were published, the last in 1996. There is a massive collected edition of all the comic strips which costs over £200. And there is always the film, but it really is not as good as the books.

The official site for the Modesty Blaise character and Peter O’Donnell’s books.

A fan site from Scandinavia

Another fan site, with the best home page image

Titan Books, where you can buy the books

A vintage book covers fan site

And finally, ‘The Complete Modesty Blaise Dossier’ (that’s what it says)