The Nigel Balchin Newsletter
Issue 11: March 2014
In This Issue
The main feature of this issue of the Nigel Balchin Newsletter is a new article that I have written about Balchin’s alcoholism, an aspect of his personal life that had a very bad effect on his writing in the latter stage of his career. This is obviously a very delicate subject and, perhaps not surprisingly, I don’t think that anyone has really tackled it properly before. The article is based on one of the chapters of my biography—which is currently being considered for publication by a London publisher—but contains some additional material that I removed from the book during the revision process.
I am also pleased to announce the first in what I hope will be a regular series entitled ‘How I First Discovered Nigel Balchin’. On page 5, Andrew Fisher from Hertfordshire in the UK tells us how he first encountered the author’s works. I am delighted that Andrew has taken the time and trouble to put his thoughts on paper and I hope that other subscribers will be encouraged to follow his example. If you wish to do so, then just email me an article, in no more than 500 words, on the subject of ‘How I First Discovered Nigel Balchin’. I will print the best entries in forthcoming editions of this publication.
Until the summer…
“Have a Drink Sammy!”: Examples of Boozing in Balchin’s Novels
As many of you will already be aware, Nigel Balchin was a very heavy drinker for much of his career as a novelist. Those writers who have discussed Balchin’s personal life in the past have had a tendency to tiptoe around this subject and to be very cagey about the precise extent of Balchin’s ‘drink problem’. But having interviewed all of his surviving relatives for my biography I can say, without fear of contradiction, that Balchin was undeniably an alcoholic.
To be slightly more specific for a moment, Balchin was once described by his GP as being “a circumstantial alcoholic”. What he meant was that Balchin, rather than being a constant heavy drinker, was instead somebody who drank to excess when he was faced by difficult circumstances. Those circumstances could include a heated argument with his wife, interference with his work in Hollywood or harsh criticism of his writing.
Balchin’s use of alcohol as a means of softening the blow when his ego had taken a battering is mirrored in his fiction. Bill Sarratt drinks in Darkness Falls From the Air when his superiors meddle with his work; Jim Manning in A Way Through the Wood reaches for the bottle when his wife abandons him; Felix Milne in Mine Own Executioner gets drunk after arguing with the principal of the psychiatric clinic where he works and resigning his position there; and almost the first reaction of Lawrence Spellman in Sundry Creditors when he is accused of making improper advances towards a female worker in his factory is to steady his nerves with a slug of alcohol (“What I need at the moment is a drink”). Balchin’s GP would undoubtedly have been able to diagnose circumstantial alcoholism in a great many of his patient’s characters…
It is not known what caused Balchin to become an alcoholic. Apparently, he did not drink at all as a young man but was imbibing heavily by the early 1950s and it is thus tempting to speculate that the steady disintegration of his marriage that had taken place over the course of the previous few years may have brought about that transformation. There is also a school of thought that suggests that the three years that Balchin spent writing film scripts in Hollywood in the mid-1950s may have finally tipped him over the edge, drink-wise. The Hollywood lifestyle was uncongenial to Balchin and he found adapting other writers’ work for the screen to be a frustrating and uncreative business. He also resented having his scripts interfered with by the host of other parties involved in the film-making process, a situation that inevitably resulted in, as the central character of In the Absence of Mrs Petersen remarks, “the gradual tearing away of all distinction from what one has written”. As Balchin was often separated from his wife and young son when he was toiling in California, he also drank, perhaps understandably, as a way of combatting the pain of isolation.
The love of fine wines that Balchin indulged when he was living in Italy in the late 1950s confirmed his alcoholism and later precipitated his demise as a writer.
In my forthcoming biography I describe in some detail the ramifications of Balchin’s alcoholism, and particularly the effect it had on his immediate family. But for the remainder of this article I want to concentrate on the role played by alcoholic drink in Balchin’s novels. There is no shortage of examples to choose from…
I had a drink while I waited for Ted and it went down very well and I had another, and that went down very well too. I told myself that I was beginning to drink too much and ordered another and shut my eyes. –Nigel Balchin, Darkness Falls From the Air
Not much alcohol is consumed in Balchin’s debut, No Sky. However, the hero, George Ordyne, compensates for this ‘deficiency’ by being a heavy smoker (a trait he shares with his creator): in the course of the novel he seems to puff his way through the contents of an entire tobacconist’s shop. In the follow-up, Simple Life, alcohol replaces nicotine as the poison of choice for Balchin’s characters. Advertising copy-writer Rufus Wade gets drunk in a pub with a couple of off-duty furniture-removers. As a result, he is transported overnight in their furniture van bound for St Ives, and all his subsequent adventures unfold after this single night of overindulgence. This pattern of drunkenness having humorous repercussions is repeated in the next novel in the sequence, Lightbody on Liberty, in which the titular character drinks too many cocktails in the lead-up to a political rally at the Albert Hall, and much later on in the canon by fifteen-year-old Walter in Seen Dimly Before Dawn, who, during a trip to a fairground, consumes a fish-and-chip supper on a stomach full of sherry, attempts intimacy with his Aunt Leonie and is promptly sick: “Poor Walter—you’re the first man who has actually thrown up because he kissed me”. And in Balchin’s final novel, Kings of Infinite Space, a trainee astronaut is apprehended by Texan traffic cops and charged with driving recklessly and fondling a fellow astronaut’s wife whilst inebriated.
The main character of Balchin’s most famous novel, The Small Back Room, is of course a drinker. I have never been totally convinced in my own mind that Sammy Rice is a true dipsomaniac—scarcely a drop of drink passes his lips throughout the story—but he can certainly be filed in the same ‘circumstantial alcoholic’ bracket as Balchin himself because he drinks principally when the pains that emanate from the vicinity of his amputated foot get him down, having discovered by trial and error that alcohol is a no less effective remedy than his prescribed medication (“Whisky didn’t stop the thing from hurting either, but at least it left me not caring whether it hurt or not”). The connection between Rice and alcohol will have been indelibly etched in the minds of all those who have watched the film that was developed from the book because arguably its most memorable scene—and certainly the most notorious—is the one in which David Farrar as the crippled weapons researcher is menaced by an enormous whisky bottle. It should also not be forgotten that the final words of the film are an invitation, issued by Rice’s girlfriend Susan, to imbibe alcohol: “Have a drink Sammy!”.
There are plenty of good party scenes to be found in these two books.
In the mid-period novels with which Balchin made his name, drinking was no longer used principally as a way of generating humour but often instead as a prelude to some piece of heroic action by the protagonist. In Darkness Falls From the Air, Sarratt is heavily under the influence when he takes it upon himself to crawl inside a bomb-flattened building to try to rescue his injured wife from the rubble. And Milne the psychiatrist in Mine Own Executioner describes himself as being “very tired and rather drunk” not long before he is summoned in his professional capacity and feels compelled to ascend a towering, wind-whipped fireman’s ladder, a brave gesture that precedes his attempt to talk down his schizophrenic patient Adam Lucian. As exemplified by the examples from Seen Dimly Before Dawn and Kings of Infinite Space mentioned above, in Balchin’s last few books the ramifications of excess alcohol consumption tend to be humorous again, as was the case in his early fiction.
Although this article has mostly focused on depictions of drinking in Balchin’s novels, I don’t wish to downplay or trivialize the damaging effects that being an alcoholic had on the author and those closest to him. Alcoholism is clearly a serious medical condition and I treat it with due gravity in my biography. Balchin’s drink problem negatively impacted his general health, almost certainly shortened his life and caused a great deal of anguish to his family. It also greatly impaired his ability to work to his previous high standard during the last few years of his life. But if there is a silver lining to this story then for us, as readers, it is to be found in the fact that Balchin’s fiction is enriched by scenes in which drinking is at the heart of the action. His ability to write about social occasions was virtually unrivalled and the scenes that he set in pubs, bars, night clubs and restaurants, at dances or parties are a delight to read. Particular favourites of mine include Willie Hubbard’s party in Darkness Falls From the Air, the shindig hosted by Peter and Barbara Edge in Mine Own Executioner, Kathy Grayson’s parties in The Fall of the Sparrow and the drunken night out in Paris enjoyed by Bill Bule and the Mannings in A Way Through the Wood.
The precise roots of Balchin’s alcoholism may well remain permanently obscure but one thing that is not in doubt is that his legacy of fine novels would be impoverished if some of their characters, like the author himself, were not such heavy drinkers and if so many memorable, vibrantly written set-pieces were not drenched in alcohol.
Did You Know?
Balchin was made a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society in 1944. This was purely an honorary position, and took no account of the novelist’s statistical prowess. The appointment was arranged for him by his friend Maurice (later Sir Maurice) Kendall, who was knighted in 1974 for services to the theory of statistics and whom Balchin may have met as a student at Cambridge, where Kendall was a member of the University’s chess team. Balchin repaid the compliment in 1949 in A Sort of Traitors by way of a passage in the novel in which Bob Marriott decides to alleviate boredom by working on some statistical problems he finds in a textbook written by Kendall:
…Marriott took a lot of paper, a slide rule and Kendal’s [sic.] Advanced Statistics and settled down quite happily.
How I First Discovered Nigel Balchin, by Andrew Fisher
I first encountered Nigel Balchin in the early 1990s—Michael Powell died in 1990 so it may well have been then. A talking head on a documentary criticised the room-sized-bottle sequence in the film of The Small Back Room, and mentioned in passing, ‘None of that was in the book you know’. A couple of years or so later, kneeling down in the local secondhand bookshop, having found nothing to read, I saw a copy of the book one up from the bottom of a precarious, vertical pile four feet high. It was next to a pile marked 20p, and if it had been in that pile I think I’d have left it, but the pile it was in was marked 10p, so I held my breath and pulled it out and bought it and took it home. If the bottle wasn’t in it, what was?
I’ve only ever immediately re-read two books in my life, Transmission by Hari Kunzru, and The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin. What a funny, annoying, exciting, thrilling little book The Small Back Room was! Despite its far from usual circumstances, what struck me most was its wry analysis of the humdrum aspects of human interface, and particularly relationships at places of work.
In those pre-internet days, there was scant information on Balchin to be found. A small article in a back issue of Book and Magazine Collector provided me with a bibliography, but the books themselves always seemed beyond my grasp. Especially Darkness Falls From the Air: by the time I tracked that down, I already somehow resented it, and never liked it as much as Mine Own Executioner or The Fall of the Sparrow. I loved Seen Dimly Before Dawn, but found A Way Through the Wood stodgy and unbelievable. In 1996 I spent three months touring Britain and among other things scoured the nation’s secondhand bookshops for Balchin, finding none I liked along the way: The Borgia Testament, The Anatomy of Villainy, In the Absence of Mrs Petersen, A Sort of Traitors (the only Balchin I didn’t already have, found after a whole day’s trawl of Hay-on-Wye); I preferred Kings of Infinite Space to all of them. Much later I bought Lord, I Was Afraid, for more money than I’d paid for the rest of them added up (about a tenner I think), but never got further than its first four pages.
I returned home to a local pub which had been an old stomping ground in my late teens. It had been done up to be old, and in the place of the Smoke Room toilets a false chimney breast had been installed with weathered book cases on either side. In one case was a copy of Sundry Creditors. I knew they wouldn’t sell it to me. I have to confess: my penultimate Balchin book (and a great favourite) was stolen.
In the Next Issue
To back up my belief that Balchin was a writer who put a lot of his own personal experiences into his novels, I currently intend to write a (longish) article that will look at the many links that exist between Balchin’s life and his books. I also hope to announce some positive news about the publication of my biography. Watch this space…