Those who know Peter O’Donnell’s resourceful heroine Modesty Blaise and her lethal associate Willie Garvin only through the camped-up Joseph Losey movie are missing a real treat in his brilliantly plotted, strikingly characterised novels, a world away from the jaded spoof of the movie. Similarly, in the long-running comic strip in the Evening Standard, O’Donnell has been able to sustain a level of invention and intelligence all too rare in the thriller genre. Crime Time has made several efforts to catch up with one of its heroes, and here, exclusively (as Souvenir Press reissues the first novel, Modesty Blaise) is O’Donnell’s own account of how he came across the real Modesty…
In 1942 I was an NCO in charge of a mobile radio detachment in what was then called Persia. We were working to a widely spread line of observation posts whose task was to give warning if German forces began to move down through the Caucasus to seize the oilfields of the Middle East.
This didn’t happen, but what did come trickling down between the Black Sea and Caspian was a scattering of refugees from the Balkan countries keeping ahead of the German thrust into Russia. Some were in small family groups, some were alone. All had the simple aim of reaching what they hoped would be the safety of British-controlled territory. This was by no means a flood of refugees. It’s a very long way from the Balkans to the Caucasus, and I think many failed to make it.
Our radio truck stood close to a shallow stream that wound its way through low hills. The terrain was a mixture of sand, gravel and broken rock, offering little sustenance for any plant life. The nearest village was five miles away, where our small stream joined a larger tributary. Camouflage nets were spread over the truck, as much to offer a scrap of shade in the intense heat as to deceive any enemy aircraft – which in fact never appeared. Rations and water were delivered to us every four days from somewhere to our rear (I never knew where) and consisted mainly of bread, biscuits, tinned goats milk butter, jam, bully beef, and a tinned meat and veg stew called McConnochie’s. I don’t know what I’d think of McConnochie’s today, but at that time we thought highly of it.
The army didn’t go in for luncheon, and we were having our midday dinner one day, sitting below the spread camouflage netting, when a small figure appeared wearing a thin sunbleached shirt that fell to just below her knees. On her head she carried a small bundle wrapped in a piece of blanket, and something hung on her chest from a cord looped about her neck. It was difficult to make out what this was, for she was still 20 yards away when she saw us and stopped short, looking at our group carefully as if assessing us.
We called out to her in what we hoped was a reassuring way, and was certainly in a mixture of accents, for the detachment consisted of a Scot, a Geordie, a Cockney and me (three radio operators and a driver mechanic). After a moment or two, the little girl looked up and down the stream, perhaps seeking a better spot, but then moved to a strip of shade thrown by the bluff and set her bundle on the ground. I was very curious about her because although her hair was black and she was deeply tanned, she didn’t seem to be to be an Arab child. This was hard to define, but she was simply not quite like the many Arab children we had seen during our time in Persia and Iraq. I told Jock to heat another tin of McConnochie’s, and as the four of us talked, I found we all had the same feeling – that this child might well be one of the long term refugees from the Balkan country who had lost whatever group or family she had been with. If this was so, the loss was surely not recent, for the little girl was very much in charge of herself, clearly used to being alone, wary but not afraid, and with no expectation of help from anybody.
While we talked, she moved knee-deep into the stream, bending to wash her face and hands and splash the dust from her legs, contriving all the time to keep an eye on us without seeming to look at us directly. She spent several minutes in the stream, part of the time bent forward to comb her long hair with her fingers before tying it at the back of her neck with a scrap of cloth. When she came out she sat down in the patch of shade, unfastened the blanket bundle and took out something wrapped in thin cloth. She peeled the cloth away and began to eat whatever it was – chupatti we thought, but it was hard to tell with from where we sat.
Jock put the heated stew into a mess tin, put a spoon and some biscuits with it, filled a mug with the from our char-dixie, and started towards her, calling something like, “Here you are, lassie, nice bit of grub and a wet.” The girl came to her feet, snatched up her bundle and began to back quickly away, poised to turn and run. All our Middle East forces had picked up a handful of the Arab words: Jildi: hurry up; Kem: how much? Felousse: money; Stanna: wait; Asti: be careful; Mahleesh: never mind; Aywah: yes. So when the girl prepared to run, Jock stopped dead and we all began to call out “Stanna, stanna!” And to make what we hoped were reassuring gestures.
There was a low flat rock on the edge of the stream, about the same distance from us as was the child, and I told Jock to put the mess tin and tea on it. This he did, then beckoned to her, pointed to the rock, walked back to join us, and sat down. The girl studied us thoughtfully for perhaps half a minute, then she put down her bundle and moved slowly to the rock. There she looked at the stew and the tea uncertainly for a moment or two before pointing to them, pointing to herself, and saying something in a foreign language that was clearly a question. The language, we agreed later, was not Arabic, but we assume that even if this was not her first language, she must have picked up much the same handful of Arabic words as we had, so we all called out “Aywah, aywah!” And mimed eating. The girl put her hands together in front of her chest, bowed her head briefly, then picked up the mess tin, sat on the rock and began to eat. Again I noticed the object that hung from the cord round her neck, but was still unable to make out what it was.
She was a skinny little thing, and I thought she would wolf the food down, but she ate very slowly, seeming to focus on each mouthful, and when she had eaten most of the solids, she crumbled the biscuits into the gravy to soak up the last of it. She put down the mess tin and sat gazing at us, at our truck and at our camp (two two-man bivouacs) in that odd, very focused and appraising way. Her head turned quickly when the sound of our call sign came from the radio in the truck. Geordie climbed in to deal with it. He was back with us by the time the girl had finished drinking her tea. It was then that she stood up and did something that surprised us, taking the mess tin, spoon and mug to the stream to wash them up. Wet sand is great for washing-up, even with cold water; it absorbs all the grease. When this was done, she put the things back on the rock, repeated her “thank you” gesture, moved back to the strip of shade and sat down with her back to the bluff.
After about half an hour, during which we went about the usual routines without approaching her, she got to her feet and began to tie up her blanket bundle. I called “Stanna” to her and gestured for her to wait, then collected two tins of McConnochie’s from our rations, picked up two of the empty tins left from our dinner, and added a tin opener. It was standard practice in our detachment that we each carried a tin-opener, so we could spare one readily enough.
I moved to the flat rock, knelt down, beckoned to the girl and waited, displaying the tins and opener with large gestures. After a few minutes she picked up her bundle and came to within ten paces of me, then said something that had the inflexion of a question. Indicating that she should watch, I very slowly demonstrated the use of the opener on the bottom of one of the empty tins, a performance attended by much merriment and comment from the detachment. The opener was of the old lever type, and as I worked it in exaggerated fashion, I kept glancing at the girl. She watched intently, and now she was closer I could see that the thing hanging from her neck like a pendant was a short piece of wood with a long nail bound tightly to it with thin wire, the nail projecting a good two inches from the makeshift haft. It was a weapon, a crude weapon – and I felt chilled as I wondered what might have brought home to her the need for some way of defending herself.
When I had finished opening the tin I laid the opener down beside the other empty tin, made signs for her to copy what I had just done, and to further insubordinate applause from the detachment, I rejoined them. She moved to the rock, picked up opener and tin, and looked a question at us, to which we responded with much encouragement. She set the practice tin on the rock and tried to force the point of the opener into it as I had shown, but hadn’t quite the strength in her wrist. After two attempts, she picked up a small rock and used it to hammer the butt of the opener, driving the point through.
We looked on anxiously now, and I recall Geordie calling something like, “Watch you don’t cut yourself, hinny.” We need not have worried. Slowly and carefully she levered the opener round the edge, then used the point to lift the lid, raising it on the hinge where the cut met. She held up the tin in one hand, the opener in the other, and looked at us solemnly. We broke into happy applause, clapping and calling out to her in our various accents. That was when she smiled, and to me it seemed you could’ve lit up a small village with that smile. I don’t recall what we said to each other, but I believe the whole incident was the best thing to have happened to us for a long time.
She put down the practice tin, touched the two unopened tins and the opener, and again asked a question. We called enthusiastic assent with assorted gestures. She untied her blanket, rearranged some of her worldly possessions in it, put the two tins and opener carefully away, and re-fastened the blanket. For a few moments she just stood looking at us, then she put hands together and spoke several short sentences, which we took to be words of thanks. We smiled, waved, wished her good luck, told her to take care, etc., then watched as she put the bundle on her head and walked away beside the stream, heading south along the shallow valley. To this day I can see in my mind’s eye the smile she had given us and the sight of that upright little figure walking like a princess as she moved away from us on those brave skinny legs.
Twenty years later, in early 1962, I had a call from the Strip Cartoon Editor of the Express group of newspapers, Bill Aitken. He said he had been following the strips I wrote for the Daily Mirror and Daily Sketch (Garth, Romeo Brown, Tug Transom) and he would like me to write a strip for him for submission to the Daily Express. I asked what kind of strip he had in mind, and he said “I want the strip you want to write.” I agreed to provide a format, a story, and the first four weeks of script, but said it would be six months before I could deliver. That’s fine, he said. At this time I had been a freelance writer for some 12 years, with an office in Fleet Street conveniently situated over the renowned watering hole for hacks and lawyers, El Vino, and I was now mainly writing strips for national newspapers and serials for women’s magazines (which carried far more fiction in those days than they do now). So in effect I was working in two different genres, one featuring macho male heroes and the other featuring romance, though there was always a strong element of adventure in the stories I wrote for the women’s market. For some time before the call from Bill Aitken, I had been intrigued by the idea bringing these two genres together by creating a woman who, though fully feminine, would be as good in combat and action as any male, if not better. The call from the Express made me decide that the time to start work on this idea was now.
I let it simmer on the back burner for some weeks, but came very quickly to the conclusion that you couldn’t plausibly create the character I wanted by taking a girl in, say, her teens and putting her through long and intensive training in a variety of skills. That would only provide a veneer. My character would have to have had a childhood of unrelenting struggle, in which he had been tested to the very core by danger, loneliness, fear and every kind of hardship, a child with a diamond hard will to survive. There would have to be far more to the concept than that, but I had no doubt that this was the essential beginning.
Of course, I had seen this very child 20 years before, and knew she was the perfect prototype for the character I would eventually call Modesty Blaise. I began to create a detailed background for her, starting with the idea that she was a refugee from Hungary whose mother and father had been killed somewhere between the German and Russian armies during the long flight to the East. This little girl’s memory had been destroyed by the trauma, but somehow she had survived and had learnt how to continue surviving, as for more than a year she had made the slow and lonely journey that other refugees were making.
I decided that once she was south of the Caucasus (where some friendly soldiers gave her a little food) she would find a companion, perhaps in one of the refugee camps, forerunners of the Displaced Persons Camps. This companion would be a Jewish professor from Bucharest, in his middle Fifties, who spoke five languages and was a brilliant academic but quite hopeless at surviving on his own. She would take him under her protection, they would leave the camp, and together they would roam the Middle East from Persia to Morocco. She would be the provider and protector, he would give her the education she would crave as essential to her future.
When she is perhaps 17, he dies one night in the desert. She buries him, weeps for the first time in many years, and moves on towards the nearest big town, Tangiers. The girl to whom he long ago gave the name Modesty Blaise is alone again, and what comes next is in the novels.
I am in debt to the child I saw that day in 1942, both for the privilege of having met her, however briefly, and for her providing the role model for a character I have now written about for close on 40 years. I still think of her from time to time, and wonder what became of her. If alive today, she would have just turned 70. Whatever the length of her days, I can only hope that she was granted some measure of the reward she deserved for her courage and spirit. I salute her.