The Nigel Balchin Newsletter
Issue 12: June 2014
Welcome to this twelfth issue of the Nigel Balchin Newsletter, the main feature of which is a new article of mine in which I take a look at autobiographical aspects of Balchin’s fiction. I am also very pleased that George Thomas from near Melbourne, Australia has taken the time to write a piece for the occasional series ‘How I First Discovered Nigel Balchin’. You can read George’s antipodean perspective on this subject on page 7 of this newsletter. If anyone else would like to make a contribution to this series then you are very welcome to do so: just email an article (in no more than 500 words please) to me at the address shown below and, if I like it, I will publish it in a forthcoming issue. If no further entries are forthcoming then I will just have to write my own account of how I first discovered Balchin so you have been warned!
I am currently knee-deep in the task of overhauling and updating the Nigel Balchin website (www.nigelmarlinbalchin.com). Some new information will be appearing there over the course of the summer so do take a look at what’s new if you get the chance.
Much to my frustration, there is still nothing definite to report regarding the fate of my biography. The manuscript is currently with a publisher, awaiting a decision from them as to whether to publish it or not. The main reason for the delay is that the publisher wants to reissue a handful of Balchin’s novels simultaneously with my biography and is experiencing difficulties in obtaining the rights to those books. There is not much that I can do in the meantime except sit and wait although I am taking the opportunity to tinker with the manuscript again, improving and streamlining it still further. If and when the book is accepted for publication I will announce the fact in the first instance under ‘Latest News’ on the home page of the website (and later on also in this newsletter of course).
Enjoy the summer and I hope to have some more positive news to report in the autumn.
Translating Fact into Fiction: An Analysis of the Autobiographical Content of Nigel Balchin’s Novels
It has long been my contention that Balchin was a novelist who put rather more of himself into his fiction than some of his contemporaries. This became apparent to me quite early on in my research for my biography of Balchin and nothing I discovered in five more years of intensive study disabused me of that notion. This article therefore takes a look at the extent to which Balchin utilized events from his own experience as the basis for his fiction, with the help of illustrative examples drawn from a representative selection of his books from throughout his novel-writing career.
I need to make it clear at the outset that, during the course of my research, one or two of Balchin’s family suggested to me that my theory that Balchin often used events from his own life as ideas for fiction ran the risk of denigrating his achievements as a novelist. I would say three things in response to this. Firstly, Balchin’s fiction obviously does contain a great deal of material that he made up out of his own head (almost the whole of Lord, I Was Afraid for example, as well as large chunks of many of the other books). Secondly, as with many other novelists, Balchin often used, as the starting point for a piece of fiction, an actual event that he had witnessed (or perhaps just read or heard about) and simply extrapolated from it, saying in effect “What if this had happened instead of that?” An example that springs to mind is the opening of In The Absence of Mrs Petersen. That book was inspired by a real occurrence: Balchin’s wife came to visit him in Hollywood and her plane landed badly in Los Angeles. Disaster was happily averted but Balchin said to himself “What if the plane had caught fire and my wife had died: what then?” and the plot of the novel developed from there. Lastly, far from disrespecting Balchin’s abilities as a novelist, by suggesting that he often drew on events from his own life in order to write his novels I am in fact paying him quite a sizeable compliment. I think that he displayed intelligence and prudence in putting his own experiences to such good use, that he brilliantly integrated real-life material into his novels and that they therefore have much greater truth to life than they would have done if he had just made everything up out of his own imagination. Aspiring authors are often told to “Write from your own experience”: Balchin is an excellent example of the validity of that observation.
Examples of ‘autobiographical’ novels in the Balchin canon
As a young man, Balchin understandably drew quite heavily on his own life experiences when he began composing fiction. I have written before about Balchin’s debut novel No Sky (see Newsletter 7) and stated that it is probably unfair for me to say too much about it given that it is a book that very few of you are ever likely to have the chance to read. However, I can’t ignore the fact that No Sky is one of Balchin’s more autobiographical novels. It is set in a large engineering works and although Balchin himself never worked in such an establishment he would undoubtedly have visited them in his capacity as an industrial psychologist in the first half of the 1930s. George, the book’s protagonist, is a young time-and-motion man working in Lancashire, a long way away from his family. Balchin’s depiction of the home-sick George eking out a boring, miserable existence in digs in the fictional town of Berrington is strongly reminiscent of the time that Balchin (whose family home was in Wiltshire) had spent in York a few years earlier when he was working for the chocolate-makers Rowntree’s. In particular, when George remarks, apropos of his life in lodgings, that “the mere necessity of keeping sane had made one go to the pictures regularly three times a week”, one only has to look as far as the non-fictional Income and Outcome: A Study of Personal Finance published two years later to find a closely related quote that refers directly to Balchin’s own life:
…I have been marooned for months in a northern manufacturing town so desperately dull and depressing that about three visits to the cinema a week were essential, merely to pass the time and to keep myself sane.
The Rowntree’s factory in York. Events that took place inside this building, where Balchin worked in the early 1930s, probably gave him some ideas for his debut novel.
I also believe that the whole premise of the story that animates No Sky may have been suggested to Balchin by a real event. George only ends up working in an engineering works because his father dies suddenly, preventing the young man from finishing his medical studies at Cambridge. One of Balchin’s old university friends, Dorothy Jackson, married a man, Eric Stein, who was denied the opportunity to study medicine at Oxford because of the death of his father. Dorothy met Stein for the first time in the summer of 1933, and Balchin probably began work on No Sky shortly afterwards. Following Dorothy’s marriage, Balchin stayed in close touch with her for the rest of his life. One of the Steins’ children is Rick, the famous television chef and restaurateur.
However, I should emphasize that much of No Sky is not autobiographical. For example, I am not aware that a romantic subplot involving George and a young working-class girl has any known counterpoint in real life.
Darkness Falls From the Air
Balchin’s big breakthrough as a novelist was of course achieved in 1942 with Darkness Falls From the Air, “the classic novel of the London Blitz”. The book was widely praised on first release for its vividness and verisimilitude. It should therefore come as no great surprise to learn that Darkness Falls From the Air is another of Balchin’s more autobiographical novels and that, wisely, he relied largely on his own recent experiences in order to make his great leap forward as a novelist.
There are three (interlocking) strands that make up Darkness Falls From the Air: (i) the working life of the hero, Bill Sarratt, in a government ministry; (ii) Sarratt’s personal life, especially that portion of it involving himself, his wife Marcia and her lover Stephen; and (iii) the London Blitz of 1940–1. The first two of these strands were heavily influenced by Balchin’s own life.
When the Second World War broke out, Balchin went to work for the Manufacturing Confectioners Alliance, a body that had very strong links with the Ministry of Food. In the summer of 1940, Balchin’s job as Allocations Officer to the MCA was subsumed by governmental bureaucracy and he became an employee of the Ministry of Food himself. Balchin’s satire of a government ministry in Darkness Falls From the Air (“so fierce, so pungent” in the view of one critic) was clearly informed by his own experience of working with and for the Ministry of Food in the early years of World War Two. The ministry described in Darkness Falls From the Air (which is never given a name incidentally) may not actually have been the Ministry of Food but I do know for a fact that the ‘Area Unit Scheme’—a plan described in the book to enable manufacturers to cooperate if one or more of them were put out of action by enemy bombing—is a real idea that was being kicked around by the Ministry of Food in 1940.
As many of you will probably know already, the love story at the heart of Darkness Falls From the Air was inspired by a romantic complication that endangered Balchin’s marriage during the first few months of World War Two. His wife Elisabeth met the avant-garde composer Christian Darnton in 1939 and conducted a brief—but evidently very intense—love affair with him. Balchin responded to his wife’s infidelity by caricaturing Darnton (“quite viciously” in the opinion of Darnton’s biographer) in the form of Stephen, the narcissistic, self-pitying poet memorably described in the opening pages of the novel as looking “big and handsome and haunted and so like a creative artist that you wouldn’t have thought he’d have the nerve to go around looking like that.”
Balchin’s fictional recreation of the Blitz, which is woven so skilfully through the narrative, is completely gripping. His descriptions of barrage balloons, air-raids, bomb-damaged buildings and shelterers in Tube stations have such an air of documentary realism about them that one would have thought that they could only have issued from the pen of an eye witness. I was therefore astonished when it dawned on me comparatively recently that Balchin was working for the Ministry of Food in North Wales (to where it had been evacuated from London in June 1940) throughout the entirety of the Blitz. He may perhaps have gone to London for meetings from time to time during 1940–1 but otherwise he probably relied primarily on newspaper or newsreel reports of the bombing (or accounts from friends and colleagues) in order to construct his eerily precise rendition of it. This is a very good example of Balchin’s extraordinary ability to write about matters outside of his own experience in a realistic and authoritative manner.
These two magazines contain a pair of humorous articles by Balchin that relate directly to the content of The Small Back Room.
The Small Back Room
Balchin’s best (and best-known) book is not one of his most autobiographical works. However, being a Balchin novel, it is still possible to draw a number of parallels with reality.
Balchin’s idea of writing a novel criticizing the government’s use of scientists during World War Two (“Somebody had to write The Small Back Room to deal with the question of the treatment of scientists in the war”) derived from bitter personal experience on the part of the author. He joined the army’s scientific research wing at the end of 1942 (about a year before The Small Back Room was published) and worked his way up through the hierarchy to become Deputy Scientific Adviser to the Army Council in 1945. Some (but by no means all) of the duties carried out by Sammy Rice in the novel are duplicated by Balchin’s own wartime activities. Specifically, ideas submitted by the public—such as poisoned barbed-wire, bomb-carrying dogs and germ-spreading birds—dismissively referred to by the back-room scientists as ‘The Keystone Komics’ are similar in some ways to actual ideas pitched to Balchin when he was working for the army and which later formed the basis for two very amusing articles published in the pocket magazine Lilliput in 1944 and 1947, respectively.
Most of the rest of The Small Back Room would appear to have been invented by Balchin. However, it should be pointed out that the bomb disposal episode that provides the book with its thrilling climax may have been based on the wartime work of Victor Rothschild, who defused bombs in his role as head of MI5’s counter-sabotage section and was awarded the George Medal on the personal recommendation of Winston Churchill after disarming a new type of Nazi bomb discovered onboard a ship heading for England laden with a cargo of Spanish onions.
Balchin’s knowledge of developments in experimental weaponry, acquired during his work for the army during 1941–45, helped to inspire The Small Back Room.
I will conclude this two-part article with a look at four late Balchin works with substantial autobiographical content.
Update on Balchin-Related Books and DVDs Available on the Internet
I have written before (see Newsletter 3) about how to buy second-hand copies of Balchin’s books, mentioning in particular my favourite second-hand books website, Abebooks (www.abebooks.co.uk). At the time of writing (April 2014), I see that Abe are offering for sale a signed copy of Lightbody on Liberty for £2250 and an (unsigned) copy of Simple Life for £1500! But leaving aside such criminally overpriced items, there are bargains to be found on Abe (and no doubt elsewhere on the Internet too). I recently picked up a hardback first edition of Darkness Falls From the Air for a mere £8.50. Although the book’s dust jacket (see photo below) is a little torn and tattered it’s quite remarkable to find a copy of Darkness Falls From the Air with a dust jacket of any sort these days and my understanding is that the edition I purchased is worth several times what I paid for it. At present, I see that Abe’s listings also include a signed copy of A Sort of Traitors and interesting editions of many of the other novels, all priced at well under £10. So Abebooks is a very good starting point if you are looking to fill some gaps in your Balchin library.
Darkness Falls From the Air: an Internet bargain at just £8.50.
This DVD edition of Mine Own Executioner has recently been doing the rounds on eBay and Amazon. I’ll try to get hold of a copy and then report back on its quality next time and also tell you whether, in my opinion, it’s worth buying or not.
How I First Discovered Nigel Balchin by George Thomas
I first encountered Nigel Balchin when ABC television screened The Small Back Room one Saturday afternoon in about 1969. I watched it with my brother and we were both enthralled. We talked about it afterwards, and it and Nigel Balchin’s name stayed in my mind.
In later years, when I was browsing for novels in second-hand bookshops, the only Balchin novel I ever seemed to find was Mine Own Executioner. So prevalent was the old Penguin edition at the time that I suspect it may at one stage in the 1950s or early 1960s have been set for schools in Victoria. Unfortunately the title always put me off, so I never bought a copy. I wasn’t going through the happiest of adolescences, and the title did not promise the uplift I needed.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that I finally read a Balchin novel. I was a regular reader of Jeffrey Bernard’s “Low Life” column in the Spectator, which had recently become available at larger newsagents in Melbourne. In one column he spoke enthusiastically of The Small Back Room as a depiction of courage, and as such enthusiasm was rare for Jeffrey Bernard I was impressed and thought it was about time I read it.
It wasn’t too hard to find a copy of The Small Back Room second-hand, and I enjoyed it so much—like most of his novels, it drew me in from the first sentence and held me until the end—I set about finding Balchin’s other novels. At the time, apart from the elusive first three novels, they were not hard to find, and I bought them all. Nowadays they are much harder to find. I also got to see the film of The Small Back Room again, though it was in the days before we had a video recorder and I had to get up in the middle of the night to do so, and some of the finer points were lost on me.
Apart from Lord, I Was Afraid, which I still haven’t been able to read past the opening pages (but I will try again some time), I’ve read most of the novels two or three times, and look forward to further re-readings. And of course the biography!