The Nigel Balchin Newsletter
Issue 10: December 2013
So, we’ve made it to issue 10 of this newsletter—who would have thought it? Thanks to everyone who has supported this publication since it launched in 2011 and especial thanks to those of you who have taken the trouble to get in touch with me to say that you have enjoyed what you have read here.
There has been a certain amount of Nigel Balchin-related activity taking place recently that I need to tell you about. Firstly, Balchin was name-checked in the London Review of Books in September in the course of a book review by Adam Mars-Jones (click here to read what he said: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n17/adam-mars-jones/peroxide-and-paracetamol). As Mars-Jones had got the wrong end of the stick concerning one aspect of The Small Back Room I took the opportunity to write a letter to the LRB to correct him (click here to see what I wrote: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n20/letters). By doing so I perhaps succeeded in raising Balchin’s profile a little. There was a marked increase in traffic to the Nigel Balchin Website (www.nigelmarlinbalchin.com) after the first mention of Balchin in the LRB so that was nice to see and hopefully a sizeable number of people have now become aware of him for the first time as a result.
Talking of the website, I’m continuing to tinker with it from time to time and am still adding steadily to its content. I think there is also a strong possibility that during the course of 2014 some bits and pieces from my Balchin biography that did not quite make the final cut will appear on the website so do look out for those.
As I mentioned in issue 9 of this newsletter, I have now started to send out sample chapters from my biography to a number of publishers. I am very pleased to say that I have already received an encouraging response from one company. I can’t divulge any details at this stage but it is of course gratifying to know that there is some interest out there in publishing my book. I will of course keep you all informed as this story develops.
There is nothing definite to report this time around on the subject of reissues of Balchin’s novels. However, I do know that several companies are keen to reprint some of the books and I am becoming increasingly optimistic that we will see at least one or two of Balchin’s finest works back where they belong, i.e. on the shelves of high street book stores, before too much longer. Watch this space for more details.
As flagged up in the previous edition of this publication, this issue contains an article concerning what one might refer to as ‘The John Furnell Problem’. I hope you enjoy it. If anyone has any suggestions for articles to go in future issues then I would be very pleased to receive them. I have a few ideas for the next issue but after that there is a big yawning hole so if you would like me to write about any particular aspects of Balchin’s life and works then do please let me know. Also, if any would-be scribes among you would like to write a brief article on a Balchin-related topic then I would be very happy to consider it for publication in a future issue. Perhaps we could have an occasional series entitled something like How I First Discovered Nigel Balchin?. Please get in touch should that idea encourage you to put pen to paper!
Until next time…
Did You Know?
The famous bomb-disposal episode in The Small Back Room, which brings that novel to its resounding conclusion, was written by Balchin in the course of a single writing session and he didn’t feel the need to make any changes to it at all when he revised Chapter XV of the book. In the film version, this climactic sequence occupied about seventeen minutes of screentime. For director Michael Powell, such a duration comprised “the longest time that an audience can hold its breath”.
Will the Real John Furnell Please Stand Up?
It was 2006 when I first saw the name ‘John Furnell’ mentioned in connection with Balchin. A search for ‘Nigel Balchin’ on the bookselling website Abebooks (www.abebooks.co.uk) had turned up a novel called The Dark Portal by Furnell and my attention was drawn to the following quote that had been lifted from the book jacket:
“Nigel Balchin at his best — maybe even better.” — Eileen Bigland
I quickly became quite excited by this discovery. At the time, I was struggling to make much headway with the research for my biography of Balchin. It occurred to me that if I could prove that one of Britain’s leading twentieth century novelists had enjoyed a secret life as a writer of slightly racy novels about the occult then it would give my research some impetus and my book a much-needed extra dimension.
That initial excitement quickly dissipated over the course of the summer of 2006 as I tried (in vain) to uncover information about John Furnell, and particularly anything that would link him with Balchin. My principal findings can be summarized as follows:
- In 1950, the publishers Skeffington & Son of London published The Dark Portal, a story about a young female pianist who becomes demonically possessed by another woman.
- A year later, the same company published The God on the Mountain, Furnell’s follow-up to The Dark Portal.
- Rider and Company, another London publishing firm, brought out The Stringed Lute — An Evocation in Dialogue of Oscar Wilde by Furnell in 1955.
A dictionary of pseudonyms that I consulted confirmed that Furnell was a false name, but gave no indication as to the writer’s true identity. Library catalogues were no help in this regard either. I then scoured newspapers from the 1950s in search of reviews of Furnell’s work but could find them only for the Oscar Wilde book, and those that I did find made no mention at all of any Balchin connection. If Eileen Bigland really had reviewed The Dark Portal, as quoted on the book’s dust jacket, then her notice would not seem to have appeared in a mainstream publication.
Was this novel authored by Balchin or not?
During the long hot summer of 2006 I read the two Furnell novels. It was a curious experience: a long-standing and devoted fan of Nigel Balchin reading two books that may or may not have been composed in his study and trying to determine whether they could possibly be true Balchin works. John Furnell had certainly made a decent fist of conjuring up Balchin’s world, several of the themes of the books—psycho-analysis, classical music, the occult—being familiar to me from Balchin’s novels and short stories. In addition, some of the language used in the books had a distinct Balchin flavour to it and there was also a strong dependence on dialogue to tell the stories, a characteristic Balchin trait.
However, the style of the writing and the structure of the books did not seem reminiscent of Balchin. They were reasonably well written and quite interesting to read but not a patch on the novels that Balchin had written at around the same time, namely A Sort of Traitors, A Way Through the Wood and Sundry Creditors. Crucially, they lacked Balchin’s astringent humour, his fast pace and his ability to generate excitement in his narratives. My feeling was that, rather than being genuine Balchin works, it was far more likely that these two novels represented examples of another author attempting to write Balchin-type fiction and, by doing so, trying perhaps to emulate the success that Balchin had enjoyed with the succession of acclaimed novels that began in 1942 with Darkness Falls From the Air.
When I conducted interviews with Balchin’s relatives in the months that followed my reading of the two Furnell novels I made sure to ask them if they knew of any books that Balchin may have written under such a pseudonym. They, together with his original literary executor, denied all knowledge of Furnell, and I believed them.
For a while, I entertained a theory that Balchin might perhaps have written The Dark Portal and The God on the Mountain when he was just starting out as a writer in the 1930s. This would explain why the books have something of a Balchin feel to them but are stylistically very different to his mature works (one must remember at this juncture that No Sky and Simple Life, Balchin’s first two novels, read very differently from The Small Back Room, Mine Own Executioner et al.). But this theory (beguiling as it was to me at the time) immediately begged a question to which I have yet to find a satisfactory answer: why would Balchin have arranged to have these books published, under a pseudonym and not by his regular publisher, many years after they had been written? Balchin was perennially short of money and may conceivably have thought of raising funds in the early 1950s by attempting to publish some of his juvenilia. But, if so, why not just publish the books under his own name? He had established a considerable reputation by 1950 and would surely have made more money if The Dark Portal and The God on the Mountain had appeared with the name Nigel Balchin on their covers instead of that of John Furnell.
Without wishing to sit too hard on the fence, I refuse to completely rule out the possibility that Balchin was Furnell. Perhaps he did write two novels about the occult as a young man, never told his family about them and published them without ceremony and under a pseudonym in the 1950s because he thought they deserved to be published and might perhaps bring in a bit of very welcome extra cash. But all the evidence points to this being highly unlikely and, having read The God on the Mountain for a second time a few months ago, it does not read like any Balchin novel, even the very early ones.
So for now, until additional evidence comes to light, I think we have to assume that Nigel Balchin and John Furnell were two completely different people. And to anyone thinking of buying a Furnell book, hoping that it will have all the qualities that they have come to expect from a Balchin, I will simply say this: CAVEAT EMPTOR!
Some of Balchin’s early non-fiction books, such as the two examples above, were written under a false name, but the pseudonym he chose was Mark Spade, not John Furnell.
Did You Know?
With the exception of the 1956 BAFTA for his script for The Man Who Never Was, the only award that I am aware of Balchin having received during his lifetime is the 1939/45 War Medal. This was a decoration issued as a matter of course to all those who had served for at least 28 days in one of the armed forces during the Second World War and thus took no account of the quality of the service rendered to one’s country, which in Balchin’s case was considerable. Balchin did not win any literary prizes, although when he was writing there were of course nowhere near as many of those in existence as there are today.
Apart from a steady accumulation of pips on his collar, Balchin received little recognition for the work he performed for the army during World War Two.