The Nigel Balchin Newsletter
Issue 8: June 2013
Welcome to this latest edition of the Nigel Balchin Newsletter. Following on from the supersized edition last time around, this one is somewhat slimmed down by comparison. This is an inevitable consequence I’m afraid of the huge amount of time I have been devoting in recent months to the finalization of the manuscript of my biography of Balchin (see page 4 for a report on how I have been faring in that regard). This edition does not therefore include my usual article on an aspect of Balchin’s life and works but this omission will be remedied next time (see page 3 for a sneak preview of the subject of that article). I hope there are still enough interesting bits and pieces here to keep you all entertained for a while.
If you have not visited my Nigel Balchin website (www.nigelmarlinbalchin.com) lately then please do so—it is now sporting a cleaner, more contemporary look and the content has been refreshed too, with a number of new features incorporated. I apologize yet again for the delay in updating the website but I hope you will be as impressed as I am with the appearance of the new-look site. I intend adding further content as time allows and when my biography is finally published I will of course use the site to actively promote it.
I will return with more about Nigel Balchin in the autumn: enjoy the summer in the meantime!
Did You Know?
According to the man himself, Nigel Balchin wrote the manuscripts of his novels “rapidly and rather illegibly in pencil”. Having witnessed many examples of his handwriting, I can confirm its illegibility! The manuscripts were then typed up by his secretary, who for a number of years in the middle of his career was his second wife Yovanka. Balchin would constantly light cigarettes whilst he was writing, abandoning each of them after just a couple of puffs. The point of this, he once said, was that “the actual motion of taking out a cigarette and a box of matches and lighting a cigarette gives me just the pause that I need in which to think”.
Following on from one of the Did You Know? features in the last edition of this newsletter, I thought I should say a bit more about potential reissues of Balchin’s novels. A few years ago I approached Penguin Modern Classics and asked them if they would like to consider reissuing some of the books: at first they were very keen but the idea foundered eventually and this was largely because, in their opinion, so many of Balchin’s later novels are generally easy to buy in second-hand form. I’ve not given up though: I do intend approaching some more publishers—including UK ‘heritage’ imprints such as Vintage—later this year. Before I do so though, it would be handy for me to know which Balchin titles you, his readers, feel are most deserving of being reissued. This will give me some valuable data to draw on when I make my pitch to publishers.
Let me be absolutely clear about just what sort of reissues I have in mind. I’m not thinking about reissues of just one or two of Balchin’s best-known books, such as Darkness Falls From the Air and The Small Back Room, or merely ‘reprints’ like the Cassell Military Paperbacks versions of those two books. What I’m envisaging is something slightly grander. I would like to see the coordinated reissue of four to six Balchin novels in new covers (ideally adorned with atmospheric 1940s/1950s photographs) each containing an introduction to the book written by prominent admirers of Balchin’s work, such
as Clive James, Philippa Gregory and Ruth Rendell. These would therefore be brand-new, high-quality versions of the novels with reset text and as such would fit in well with the ongoing resurgence of interest in ‘the book as beautiful object’. This may seem like something of a pipe-dream on my part but a very similar reissue programme for Eric Ambler was put into practice in 2009 by Penguin Modern Classics and was apparently successful. (I do appreciate of course that it will be easier to get a reissue programme off the ground if I am able to find a publisher for my biography, and combining the two ideas is certainly something I am contemplating at present.)
Sundry Creditors: deserving of a reissue?
I would be grateful therefore if subscribers to this newsletter could please email me and let me know which three Balchin novels (in order of preference) they would like to see reissued as part of the sort of scheme I have outlined above. It doesn’t matter if you already have the books in question; remember that the reissues I am envisaging are intended to be entirely new versions so, in effect, what I am really asking you, in a roundabout way, is what are your three favourite Balchin novels? Send your votes to me at firstname.lastname@example.org by 31 August and, assuming enough are cast to make the exercise worthwhile, I will construct a chart and reveal it in the next issue of this newsletter. So please get voting: I look forward to receiving your lists. NB. For the purposes of this exercise, Lord, I Was Afraid is disqualified because I consider it to be a play, not a novel! However, that still leaves you with fourteen titles to choose from and I don’t imagine that book would have garnered too many votes…
Thanks for your help.
Did You Know?
Nigel Balchin is buried in Hampstead Cemetery in London, final resting place of the likes of antiseptic pioneer Joseph Lister, music-hall star Marie Lloyd and satirist Alan Coren. If anyone wants to visit Balchin’s grave (see photo on page 4) then it is not too difficult to find. Enter the cemetery at the main entrance on Fortune Green Road, walk down the path in front of you and take the first right turn. When this path forks take the right-hand fork. Balchin’s grave is on the right-hand side of this path, about 15 metres further on.
Balchin TV Drama Shown in UK for First Time in 45 Years
I mentioned in the last issue that I was going to Stourbridge, near Birmingham, in March to watch an example of Balchin’s television work. ‘Gentle Counsels’ is one of the tales in the 1954 short-story compilation Last Recollections of My Uncle Charles and Rediffusion, an Independent Television channel that broadcast in the London area in the 1950s and 1960s, transmitted it, along with five of the other stories, in 1967. Rediffusion lost its franchise in 1968, and Balchin was thus denied the opportunity of building up a profitable long-term working relationship with the channel. His final piece of television work, Better Dead, appeared on another ITV network, Anglia, in the summer of 1969.
The showing of ‘Gentle Counsels’ in Stourbridge was part of a television festival devoted to highlights of Rediffusion’s output. I said a few words to introduce it and then watched it with the rest of the audience. Whenever I’ve watched 1960s British TV dramas in the past—with certain honourable exceptions such as The Prisoner and The Avengers—I’ve found them to be rather slow, plodding and quaint by modern standards, and ‘Gentle Counsels’ fell into the same category. It is quite a short short story and would perhaps have been better suited to a half-hour format (the version I saw lasted for about 45 minutes) because it felt as if it had been stretched beyond its natural length. It certainly made for an interesting viewing experience and Alfie Bass was near-perfect casting as Pike, Charles’s mild-mannered batman who goes off the rails when denied the chance to go into battle, but otherwise I found it a little disappointing. Perhaps the five other episodes in the Uncle Charles series (‘Patience’, ‘Mrs Phillipe is Hurt’, ‘The Bars of the Cage’, ‘The Forgetful Man’ and ‘Mrs Sludge’) were better—one or two on that list would seem to possess more televisual potential than ‘Gentle Counsels’.
I intend writing an extended piece on Balchin’s radio and television work for inclusion in the September issue of this newsletter.
Balchin’s gravestone in Hampstead Cemetery (see Did You Know? on page 3). The inscription pays homage to Lord, I Was Afraid, the book he was most proud of having written.
News of Progress with my Biography
I am delighted to report that the writing of my biography of Nigel Balchin is now more or less complete. I have been working for more than nine months on overhauling the manuscript—several chapters have been completely rewritten, various pieces of new material have been added and the entire text has been thoroughly edited, revised and, crucially, shortened! This process, although very lengthy and laborious, was necessary because I wasn’t happy with the book when I finished writing it last summer but this latest round of changes has improved it immeasurably. I now intend taking a well-earned break for a little while but after that I will direct my attention towards trying to get the book published…
My current working title for the biography is Nigel Balchin: The Man Who Never Knew Who He Was. In the next edition of this newsletter I will unveil the titles of the chapters and also give you all a rough idea of the contents of the book.
Did You Know?
Just before Christmas last year I discovered a ‘new’ Balchin short story, i.e. one that I had previously been completely unaware of. It was called ‘The Heriot’, was published in the London evening newspaper The Evening News on 2 July 1934 and, to the best of my knowledge, is Balchin’s earliest published piece of fiction. Believed to be based on a true piece of Balchin family lore, the story is about an old woman who is dying in a house with a ‘heriot’ on it, i.e. an ancient form of tax that entitled the exciseman to seize an item of livestock if anyone died on the premises. The dying woman insists on being carried into the garden in order that she can expire outside the house and so thwart the man from the revenue, who is thus prevented from seizing her prized dairy cow! A radically reworked version of this tale later became ‘The County Wench’ in Balchin’s 1954 short-story compendium Last Recollections of My Uncle Charles.