Nigel Balchin in Wiltshire: A Famous Novelist’s Memories of the County by Derek Collett
The famous writer Nigel Balchin was born in Wiltshire. He came close to dying there shortly afterwards because, in his own words, ‘when I was about eighteen months old I knocked over a large kettle of boiling water and scalded myself so badly that I was not expected to live’. But fortunately he survived and went on to become one of the finest novelists of his generation. Three of Balchin’s best novels, Darkness Falls from the Air, The Small Back Room and A Way Through the Wood, have recently been reissued and would represent an excellent introduction to the man’s work for those who have yet to discover his writing.
Before he became revered as a writer, Balchin had succeeded in the business world. His greatest industrial achievement came in 1933 when he designed the Black Magic chocolate box for Rowntree’s, a simple but highly effective design that has subsequently come to be regarded as a classic. Balchin’s work for the Ministry of Food during World War Two led him to write Darkness Falls from the Air, a satire of government bureaucracy and his first really successful novel. He then joined the army in 1941 and was made a captain. Four years later he had risen to the rank of brigadier, a stunning rate of progress for a man aged just thirty-six. Balchin’s scientific research work for the army helped him to write The Small Back Room, an exciting thriller that was later filmed by Powell and Pressburger.
After the war, as well as continuing to produce novels, Balchin wrote a number of film screenplays. His successes include an adaptation of his novel about a psycho-analyst, Mine Own Executioner, a very moving film for Ealing, Mandy, the enjoyable thriller Twenty-Three Paces to Baker Street and the wartime espionage story The Man Who Never Was, for which he won a BAFTA. Balchin died in 1970 at the age of sixty-one, with fourteen novels to his credit.
In this article, I present a small selection of stories inspired by Balchin’s Wiltshire upbringing.
Potterne’s violent past
Balchin was born in 1908 in Potterne, a village of about a thousand souls situated roughly three miles south of Devizes. Largely as the result of a strong church influence, Potterne was a peaceful, law-abiding rural community during Balchin’s childhood but it had not always been like that!
In the nineteenth century, Potterne had acquired a bad reputation as a place that was ‘notorious for hooliganism’. The villagers were said to excel at three things only—working, drinking and fighting—and their favourite leisure-time activities (apart from drinking and fighting) included gambling, quarrelling and participating in a range of sporting contents in which aggression and violence were accorded a much higher premium than skill.
In 1834, an Assistant Poor Law Commissioner noted that ‘This parish of Potterne is filled with a very discontented and turbulent race’. The villagers were infamous for being in trouble with the law. They were awarded the ironic nickname ‘The Potterne Lambs’ and, when the Wiltshire assizes were in session, anyone present in the courtroom would often hear the magistrate, in a tone of intense exasperation, utter the words ‘Another case from Potterne!’. Cunningly, the paupers of Potterne even clubbed together to raise sufficient funds to buy themselves a copy of Burn’s Justice, a legal textbook. When on trial they would sometimes read passages out in court in an attempt to bamboozle the magistrate!
A Primitive Existence
When Balchin was growing up in Potterne the village did not benefit from either running water or electricity. Water was either dispensed from a pump or else had to be drawn up from a well using buckets. Illumination for both the houses and streets was supplied by paraffin oil lamps. The main street that snaked its way through the heart of Potterne was only lit between eight and ten in the evening, presumably just long enough to enable the locals to get to the pub and back without breaking an ankle. As Balchin pointed out, the lamp-lighting arrangements in Potterne were rather entertaining:
…the man in charge of lighting the lamps was an old gentleman with the rather appropriate name of Noah Dark. Well Noah was old, the street was long and he was not a fast mover. So what he used to do was to start at one end of the village and light the lamps, go up through the street lighting them and by the time he got to the last lamp it was just about time to put them out again. So he used to light the last lamp, immediately put it out and then go down the street turning out all the other lamps too.
A Tragic Accident
Balchin was a very talented schoolboy. He excelled at Dauntsey’s School in West Lavington between 1918 and 1927, winning a number of prizes, captaining the school at cricket and football, playing many other sports to a good standard and being made head boy in his final year.
Balchin might well have received prizes at the 1925 Dauntsey’s School Speech Day had it not been cancelled at the last moment owing to a bizarre accident. The Duchess of Atholl, a Scottish Unionist MP, had been invited to be the guest of honour.
On the morning of the Speech Day, two of the school’s pupils were asked to go and shoot a bird with an air rifle. This was not for the purpose of sport, but so that the dead pigeon or blackbird could form the centrepiece of a demonstration of anatomical dissection designed to impress the Duchess. Tragically though, instead of shooting a bird, one of the two pupils accidentally shot and killed the other boy. Somehow, I doubt whether the health and safety police would sanction such an activity as unsupervised rifle shooting on school premises these days…
One of Balchin’s fellow pupils at Dauntsey’s was Wilbert Vere Awdry. After World War Two, Awdry achieved great fame in the guise of ‘The Rev. W. Awdry’, author of ‘The Railway Series’ of books, some of which featured the much-loved character Thomas the Tank Engine. Awdry sat his entrance examination for Dauntsey’s in 1924, on which occasion the chief invigilator was Balchin, one of the school’s prefects.
The unpalatable nature of the meals that emerged from the Dauntsey’s kitchens made a deep impression on young Wilbert:
Arriving back after holidays in about 1925 all boys found inside the lids of their desks a list of injunctions, of which the most memorable read: “Tuck is a luxury and not a necessity, for the food supplied is good in quality and ample in quantity. These regulations are to prevent greediness and the bad habit of eating between meals.” There was perhaps a certain inevitability about the ignoble fate suffered by this high sentiment—to be chanted irreverently in the dining hall, particularly on those occasions when less than generous portions were doled out.
More than five years after leaving Dauntsey’s, Balchin too was clearly still haunted by the memory of the sub-standard fare that had been dished up in his old school canteen. His first non-fiction book, 1934’s How to Run a Bassoon Factory, was a spoof instructional manual for aspiring businessmen and, in this extract, Balchin describes how to draft a prospectus for a share issue:
Remember the prospectus of your old school and stick to about the same standard of accuracy and veracity. I don’t want to put ideas into your head, but you may remember that your old school described its food as ‘scientifically balanced, plentiful, appetising and nutritious’. Now think of what its food was really like, and you will see my meaning.
Girl-hunting in Devizes
Balchin once revealed that he had made occasional trips to Devizes in his teens in order to perform ‘tentative efforts at girl-hunting’. He was able to do so because a bus service had begun to operate a few years previously between West Lavington and Devizes, the nearest sizeable town. The buses were introduced by a man described by Balchin as a ‘famous local character’. This gentleman allegedly weighed more than thirty stone and his wife was no lightweight either because her amply proportioned frame tipped the scales at a whopping twenty stone!
As a teenager, Balchin was very much enamoured of a young Devizes beauty:
I never knew her, or even spoke to her, for I was sixteen and very shy, and Miss Mary Thomas must have been 21, and by my standards very sophisticated. But I loved her passionately from afar.
About twenty-five years later, Balchin happened to be passing through Devizes and popped into the same hotel bar in which he had first ogled Mary. And there she was again, looking exactly the same as she had in Balchin’s youth. Balchin said that he did not stop to do the ‘sensible mental arithmetic’ that would have told him that a woman can hardly be expected to look twenty-one if she is in fact more than twice that age. Instead, he asked the barman if the girl he was looking at answered to the name of Mary Thomas:
“No, Sir. That’s Miss Lloyd. But come to think of it, her mother’s maiden name was Thomas.”
All of these stories, and many others with a Wiltshire bent, are included in His Own Executioner: The Life of Nigel Balchin by Derek Collett.