Lightbody on Liberty (1936)
Synopsis: Following several minor run-ins with the law, a small shopkeeper is sentenced to imprisonment. Having been released on bail, Alfred Lightbody finds that his case is soon taken up by a larger-than-life philanthropist (and rampant self-publicist). The League of Free Britishers is formed as a result and Lightbody becomes a campaigner for justice and an unlikely celebrity in this gentle farce, which also serves as a satire on both politics and the PR industry.
Context: Balchin’s father was a small shopkeeper, and so may have served as the model for the title character. Balchin knew about advertising too, which would have helped with the PR strand of his novel. The rest of the story seems to have come out of his head, helped perhaps by contemporary reports of some of the restrictions of liberty perpetrated in the name of the Defence of the Realm Act (1914), better known as DORA.
Verdict: It’s an amusing and enjoyable read and, as Clive James has astutely pointed out, it would have made the basis for an excellent Ealing or Boulting brothers’ satire on the British way of life. Lightbody on Liberty is much too long though and not as funny as it should be given the promising situations and nice blend of comical characters that Balchin dreams up.
Praise for Lightbody on Liberty:
“A gorgeous book” — Observer
“Mr. Balchin is good fun” — Sunday Times
Availability: Copies occasionally turn up on the Internet or in second-hand bookshops. A fair price for a copy in good condition with a dust-jacket is about £30-40, and certainly not the £2000+ that some dealers will demand! My copy cost a mere €8 in Ireland.