The Nigel Balchin Newsletter
Issue 13: September 2014
Welcome to this latest issue of the Nigel Balchin Newsletter, which contains the concluding part of my article examining how Balchin’s real-life experiences had a significant influence on his fiction. The latest entry in the ongoing series ‘How I First Discovered Nigel Balchin’ also comes from quite close to home, having been contributed by some bloke living on the edge of The Cotswolds in England. But to prevent me from descending too deeply into nepotism, I should say that there is still time for other subscribers to see their names up in lights before I pull the plug on the series! Just send me up to 500 words on the subject by email and I will be very happy to consider them for publication.
As some of you may perhaps have noticed, I have recently added much longer synopses for all of Balchin’s full-length works of fiction (i.e. all fourteen novels plus Lord, I Was Afraid and Last Recollections of My Uncle Charles) to the Nigel Balchin Website (www.nigelmarlinbalchin.com). You will find them under ‘Books’, which can be reached from the ‘Works’ menu bar on the home page. Just click on the blue pieces of text to read the new content but do please beware of plot spoilers if you have yet to read the books in question! I have several other ideas for additions to the website up my sleeve—all I need now is to find the time to implement them all…
Finally, I’m afraid that there is still nothing definite to report regarding the fate of my Balchin biography. Various things are happening at the moment but I can’t say too much about them except that I now have more than one publisher interested in publishing the book. Personally, I am determined that it will appear in some form or other during the course of 2015 but other parties involved in the process will of course have their say regarding that timescale. I will keep you all posted as and when the situation becomes clearer.
I will be back with another bulletin in December. Until then…
Translating Fact into Fiction: An Analysis of the Autobiographical Content of Nigel Balchin’s Novels (Part Two)
The first part of my article concentrated on autobiographical material that Balchin incorporated in the novels he wrote before and during the Second World War. In this concluding part, I will focus attention on four late works with sizeable autobiographical elements.
A Way Through the Wood
It has long been considered by literary commentators that A Way Through the Wood is one of the most autobiographical novels of Balchin’s entire career but such an assertion is at best no more than a half truth. The novel consists of two main plotlines: the first half of A Way Through the Wood is dominated by a ‘police procedural’ story involving the hunt for the killer of a hit-and-run victim, whereas the second half is mostly taken up with a harrowing account of the disintegration of the marriage of the narrator, Jim Manning.
The first strand of Balchin’s two-ply novel is emphatically not based on the author’s own experience: the search for Joe Pearce’s assailant emerged from the ashes of a much earlier (unperformed) play called The Highway Code, written by Balchin in about 1935 and later described by him as being “very bad”.
The writer and critic Clive James has observed that A Way Through the Wood has been “generally thought of as Balchin’s response to the collapse of his marriage”. This is true to some extent, although the novel is far more than a mere fictionalized account of a marital break-up. In the late 1940s, a ménage-a-quatre that also involved the artist Michael Ayrton did lead eventually to the irrevocable fracturing of Balchin’s marriage and the author did respond to the personal trauma he had suffered by writing A Way Through the Wood. But Balchin’s daughter Penelope Leach told me once that the characters in the book were not much like the real figures ensnared by the ménage, although some of her father’s attitudes towards his characters were influenced by events in his personal life at the end of the 1940s.
Balchin lived in this house near Canterbury in the immediate post-war period. Some aspects of its location seem to have inspired parts of A Way Through the Wood.
The second half of A Way Through the Wood is much more autobiographical than the first, and one can look at the locations in which the book is set (and certain specific incidents) to find reflections of reality. The peculiar geography in the vicinity of the Mannings’ house in Sussex (an important plot point in the police procedural side of the story) is mirrored fairly closely by that surrounding the house in Kent in which Balchin was living when his wife began her affair with Ayrton. The central section of the novel—which details a lot of European travel on the part of the three protagonists—is matched by trips that Balchin took to Paris and Italy with Ayrton and Elisabeth in the late 1940s. Finally, the account of Manning living on his own having begun divorce proceedings against his wife is, I believe, strongly based on Balchin’s own experience, a contention borne out by a factual account given by Balchin to an American newspaper in 1950 that parallels the fictional version set out in A Way Through the Wood. But it is the combination of pure fiction and fiction created from a factual starting point that gives A Way Through the Wood its unique flavour and strength.
Like No Sky (which was considered in Part One of this article), Sundry Creditors is a novel that emerged from Balchin’s links with industry, and in particular from the time he spent working in and around factories during the 1930s. But I have long suspected that there may be more than meets the eye where Sundry Creditors is concerned and intriguing new evidence suggests that I may have been thinking along the right lines.
Naturally enough, much of the material in Sundry Creditors was invented by Balchin to suit his fictional purpose. However, certain scenes appear to have been lifted more or less wholesale from life. To give an example, the entertainer who performs a turn at Lang’s annual works party and conveys the impression that he is closely acquainted with several of the directors is based on a real comedian who entertained the guests at a Rowntree’s party in the early 1930s. If Balchin didn’t actually attend this particular party then he would either have received reports on it from colleagues or else attended similar examples during his association with Rowntree’s.
Benjamin (Seebohm) Rowntree may have been the model for the character Gustavus Lang in Sundry Creditors.
One of the entertainer’s remarks during the works party gives a substantial clue as to what Balchin is attempting to do in Sundry Creditors:
“Oh yes,” said the entertainer. “Oh yes. I can always depend on Gus. Of course me and Gus is like that. Went down there the other day. Maid said: ‘He’s out looking at the pigs.’ I said: ‘I’ll go out and find him.’ ‘All right,’ she said. ‘You’ll know him. He’s the one with the hat on.’ ”
Oscar Rowntree, brother of social reformer and Chairman of Rowntree’s Benjamin (Seebohm) Rowntree, was a pig farmer who served on the Rowntree’s Board for less than a year before returning to his farm to tend his porkers. It has been clear to me for a long while that Gustavus Lang, the kindly, paternalistic director who expires during the works party, was probably based largely on Seebohm Rowntree, a man whom Balchin knew very well. But the new research that I mentioned earlier—and which I hasten to add has not been carried out by me—suggests that Sundry Creditors may in some senses be a roman-a-clef (a novel in which some or all of the characters have counterparts in real life, in this case, at the Rowntree’s chocolate factory in York). Most notably, it appears that the megalomaniacal Walter Lang may have been modelled to some extent on George Harris, a post-war Chairman of Rowntree’s who was ousted by his fellow Rowntree’s directors in 1952 when his erratic behaviour finally made his position untenable. The work on which this roman-a-clef theory is based is unpublished at present; if and when it is published, I will be sure to mention it on the website (and hopefully in my biography too).
In the Absence of Mrs Petersen
Balchin’s 1966 thriller is one of his most autobiographical creations, as he confessed to the Daily Express when it was first released:
“It must always be so. In the last decade of my life I’ve spent most of the time abroad, script-writing in Hollywood and so on.
That’s why the hero of my book is a script-writer and why the action swings from America to Yugoslavia.”
Once again, not all of the book’s content was based on real occurrences by any means. As stated in the first part of this article, the idea for the story originated in a true event—a plane carrying Balchin’s wife landing heavily on the tarmac at Los Angeles airport—and the author’s imagination got to work after that. The character of the hero, Jim Petersen, is similar in some respects to that of Balchin and the author’s second wife Yovanka has intimated to me that she can certainly recognize a lot of herself in Katherina, the Yugoslav émigré with whom Petersen becomes entangled after his own wife dies in the plane crash that Balchin dreamt up after his wife’s brush with disaster.
Balchin (front left) pictured in the mid-1950s with some of his Yugoslav relatives. His second wife Yovanka is standing far right.
The action that unfolds in the novel takes place in Hollywood, Paris, Venice and Yugoslavia. These were all locations that were either fairly (or very) well known to Balchin but to ensure that his knowledge was up to date he wisely used his family’s 1965 summer holiday as an excuse to gather ‘local colour’ for his forthcoming novel. He and Yovanka travelled from London to Venice aboard the Orient Express, spent a few days there and then took a ferry to Rijeka in Yugoslavia. Balchin also met some of his wife’s elderly Yugoslav relatives during his stay in their country, which must have come in handy when he came to write about Katherina’s grandparents. Finally, Chapter 8 of In the Absence of Mrs Petersen is set in the casino situated on the Venice Lido. As preparation for writing it, Balchin’s diligence extended so far as to take a number of ‘research trips’ to a Knightsbridge casino in 1965.
I must stress again that much of the material in In the Absence of Mrs Petersen—and, in particular, the book’s thriller-style conclusion—was pure invention on Balchin’s part. However, the broad outline of the story was factual and the way in which Katherina’s grandparents had lost their fortune resembles what had happened to Yovanka’s previously wealthy parents during the Second World War.
Kings of Infinite Space
By the mid-1960s, Balchin’s powers as a novelist were fading due to the combined effects on his brain and body of a damaging cocktail of ill health, alcoholism and marital instability. Sensibly therefore, with 1966’s In the Absence of Mrs Petersen and the following year’s Kings of Infinite Space, Balchin largely stuck to writing about what he knew (and, moreover, what he had recently experienced).
Kings of Infinite Space (which would turn out to be Balchin’s last novel) was a science fiction story set in the near future and much of the plot was invented by the author. But, with the approval of NASA, Balchin undertook a six-week research trip to America in the summer of 1966 and many of the events he observed later appeared in the novel in a lightly fictionalized form. Balchin and Yovanka watched a Titan rocket being launched from Cape Kennedy and Frank Lewis, hero and narrator of Kings of Infinite Space, does the same in the book. Balchin attended a press briefing prior to the launch of the Gemini X manned space flight; Lewis sits in on a comparable briefing in the fictional work. Balchin toured locations associated with the US space programme in Florida and Texas and descriptions of what he had witnessed subsequently found their way into Kings of Infinite Space.
Over and out: Kings of Infinite Space was Balchin’s final novel.
Other scenes in Kings of Infinite Space would also seem to have been drawn from life. Before he is accepted for training as an astronaut by NASA, Lewis undergoes a round of psychological and psychometric tests. Balchin had helped to develop and administer such tests during the middle years of World War Two when he was employed by a personnel selection unit in the British army. There is also a scene in Kings of Infinite Space in which a trainee astronaut is caught by traffic cops whilst drink-driving and has to be bailed by Lewis. Balchin had direct experience of this sort of thing because, in 1956, he had stood bail for his good friend the actor Nigel Patrick (star of The Sound Barrier, The League of Gentlemen, etc.) after Patrick had been apprehended by police whilst driving drunk in the Hollywood area.
Although set a few years in the future, Kings of Infinite Space was very factually accurate and took account of real events that were taking place at NASA at around the time when Balchin was researching his novel. The team of aspiring astronauts that the Cambridge physiologist Lewis joins in Kings of Infinite Space (which also includes a physicist and a geologist) was based on a real intake known as ‘Astronaut Group Four (The Scientists)’ who had begun their training almost exactly a year before Balchin arrived in the States to dig up material for Kings of Infinite Space. This group of scientists—it consisted of three physicists, two physicians and a geologist—differed from previous intakes of astronauts, who had almost exclusively been military test pilots. In Balchin’s novel, Zenno Fillipini, an Italian geologist, becomes the first scientist to set foot on the moon. Back in the real world, Harrison Schmitt, a member of Astronaut Group Four, became the first scientist to leave his boot prints on the moon as part of the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Schmitt was a geologist.
Balchin’s novels have many admirable qualities, such as their humour, drama and psychological insight. But perhaps their greatest quality of all is their truth to nature, a strength that arose because Balchin, in common with many of his fellow novelists, used a lot of his own experiences to inform his fiction. He just happened to go slightly further than most of his contemporaries, and I believe this is what makes his books so vivid, so real.
Balchin’s Work on DVD
I wrote last time about a new DVD release of Mine Own Executioner that I was intending to buy and then review in this newsletter. But when I looked through my collection of Balchin DVDs I saw that I already owned a copy of Mine Own Executioner and so didn’t really want to buy another one, especially as the price had shot up significantly in the meantime! What I shall do instead is to write an article next time about the current availability of DVDs of Balchin films, i.e. both those that he scripted and those that were developed by other people from his stories.
How I First Discovered Nigel Balchin by Derek Collett
I watched a lot of television in my twenties. Apart from helping me to perform reasonably well nowadays whenever there is an ‘Entertainment’ round in my local pub quiz, I doubt whether my viewing obsession ever did me much good. But one very tangible benefit was that it did lead, indirectly, to my discovering Nigel Balchin.
It was the spring of 1990 when I settled down one evening to watch a BBC Television adaptation of John Mair’s 1941 novel Never Come Back. At the time, the BBC was in the habit of broadcasting high-quality drama on almost a weekly basis—if only those days would come around again!—and Never Come Back was no exception. It was an exciting, atmospheric political thriller and I was captivated by it.
About a year later I spotted an Oxford Paperbacks ‘Twentieth Century Classics’ edition of Never Come Back in the window of my local bookshop and quickly snapped it up. Among the notices for other books in the same series nestling in the endpapers was one for another 1940s novel: The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin. I read the blurb. It sounded like the sort of book that might well be right up my street. I managed to track down a copy of The Small Back Room in the municipal library of my home town just a few weeks later. I read the book in a state of total absorption. I was hooked.
So what was it about The Small Back Room that made such a deep impression on me? Well, there were many things that I admired about the book: the utterly believable dialogue; the crisp economy of Balchin’s writing style; the fast-paced narrative; the absorbing background of weapons researchers at work in wartime London. But I think what appealed to me more than anything was the attitude of the novel’s protagonist, Sammy Rice. Tired, cynical, jaundiced, wise-cracking, world-weary and at loggerheads with his superiors: I could empathize with him. At around the time when I first discovered Balchin, I was struggling to cope with all manner of problems in my own workplace. A character like Sammy, who was constantly fighting with limited success against bone-headed, ill-informed authority, seemed to be very much on my side. I was no longer alone, and that helped a lot.
Luckily for me, one or two of Balchin’s novels were still in print (or had only recently gone out of print) in the early 1990s and so I was able to tuck into some of his other works, such as Darkness Falls From the Air, Mine Own Executioner and A Sort of Traitors, without too much difficulty. Everything that has followed since—this newsletter, The Nigel Balchin Website, my biography of Balchin, crippling financial debt—sprung from my initial love affair with The Small Back Room. And so in a sense I owe everything to the BBC and their adaptation of an obscure novel written in the same decade as most of Balchin’s finest books!