The Nigel Balchin Newsletter
Issue 16: June 2015
After a mad, last-minute scramble, I sent the final manuscript of my biography of Balchin to the publisher on 10 May. It is currently being typeset. All being well, I anticipate publication in the final week of August. I made a number of late changes to the book (hence the mad rush) but I think they have improved it considerably and certainly the structure has been tightened quite successfully. I look forward to receiving the verdict of the wider world at the end of the summer.
There were only a very small number of entries for the competition I announced in the previous edition of this newsletter. I am therefore extending the deadline for entries to 1 August in the hope of receiving a few more. As a reminder, all you have to do is to come up with what you think would be the perfect title for a biography of Nigel Balchin. Please email your entries (in not more than 15 words) to me, Derek Collett, at firstname.lastname@example.org. The winner will receive a signed copy of my biography of Balchin upon publication and I’ll announce the result in the next issue of this newsletter.
Three Technocrats: Eric Ambler, Nigel Balchin and Nevil Shute
For some while I have been promising to write an article about Nigel Balchin, Eric Ambler and Nevil Shute. When I finally sat down to do so I found it much more difficult than I was anticipating and so the article has not ended up quite as I imagined it would! In all honesty, it has been thrown together rather at the last moment owing to pressure of other work; however, I hope that at least some of you will find it interesting and useful.
I should say that although I have read almost all of Ambler’s books and know quite a lot about him, I certainly don’t consider myself to be an authority on the man. With Shute I am on even shakier ground: I read a handful of his novels about 20 years ago and have recently reread his autobiography but my knowledge of him is even less than my knowledge of Ambler. So, with those necessary provisos out of the way, on with the article itself.
Did You Know?
For his first novel, No Sky, Balchin received an advance of £30 (equivalent to about £1750 today). Shute received £30 in 1926 for his first novel, Marazan and, not to be outdone, Ambler also commanded £30 from Hodder and Stoughton for his debut novel, 1936’s The Dark Frontier.
Links Between the Three Men
The inspiration to write this piece came from reading an article by the author and critic Clive James about Eric Ambler. As far as I know, it was James who first lumped together the subjects of this article and described them as three of a kind. This is what James said about them:
Ambler, Balchin and Nevil Shute seem to form a type – the type of the ex-technocrat writer. All three are on top of events rather than at the mercy of them. None hesitates to sum up the world. All are aggressively productive. It doesn’t occur to any of them to pursue uncertainty. Their insights are drawn from their dealings with men in the world of action. In the novels, these insights are applied.
There are many links between Ambler, Balchin and Shute, some of the more obvious being as follows:
- All three men had jobs of a scientific or technical nature (hence James’s use of the word ‘technocrat’) in their early working lives and used the knowledge they gained at work to inform their subsequent fiction.
- For a long while, both Shute and Balchin tended to regard their writing more as a hobby than a profession, treating it as gentle relaxation from the cares of the working environment and writing only in the evenings or at weekends.
- All three men had very distinguished careers in the military during World War Two: Ambler and Balchin in the army, Shute in the navy.
- All three technocrats had profitable brushes with the film industry, Ambler and Balchin as screenwriters and Shute as the provider of material for a number of successful films, most notably A Town Like Alice.
- Ambler and Balchin were both connected with the advertising industry for a time.
It is also interesting to note that both Ambler and Shute wrote autobiographies (Balchin of course did not). Shute’s book, Slide Rule, was subtitled The Autobiography of an Engineer and this gives a sizeable clue as to its content. The book deals almost exclusively with the author’s work in the aviation industry, his writing is barely mentioned at all and the story concludes in 1938, more than 20 years before Shute died. Ambler’s volume had a brilliant title (Here Lies Eric Ambler) but the book itself provided a very fragmented account of the man’s life and career, his work in the film industry being largely ignored. Ambler had a second stab at the memoir format some years later with The Story So Far. This was a book of short stories linked by biographical sketches but illuminating revelations were again thin on the ground and one is led to the inexorable conclusion that the autobiographical format just didn’t suit him (he wrote both books primarily to please his publishers).
Did You Know?
All three technocrats became tax exiles. Shute went to Australia; Ambler ended up in Switzerland; and Balchin, after spells in America and France, settled in Italy.
If I Like Balchin Then Will I Automatically Like Ambler and Shute?
That is a difficult question to answer and clearly my response has to be a subjective one.
Ambler’s political thrillers were very different to Balchin’s psychological ones and although Ambler did deploy his technical knowledge in his fiction, the settings he used for his novels were rarely as scientific or technical as those of Balchin. In my opinion, Balchin’s novel In The Absence of Mrs Petersen took him into Ambler territory, the later part of the book being reminiscent of Ambler’s novel The Schirmer Inheritance. Otherwise, there are relatively few links between the two authors but anyone who appreciates well-written, absorbing and intelligent thrillers is likely to enjoy the work of Eric Ambler.
There is more similarity between the work of Balchin and Shute. Some of Shute’s novels have mystical elements or are set in the future (as indeed was Balchin’s Kings of Infinite Space) but the early ones tend to be grounded in solid reality. A number of Shute’s best novels were set during the Second World War, which provides an obvious point of comparison with Balchin. Shute wrote some technical novels (such as No Highway, which was about metal fatigue in aeroplanes), as did Balchin of course, and the two men generally obtained more fictional mileage from the expertise they had gained during their working lives than Ambler did. Shute’s novels tend to be gentler, warmer and slightly more lowbrow than those of the resolutely middlebrow Balchin. I think that so long as you don’t approach Shute’s work expecting it to be the same as that of Balchin then you probably won’t be disappointed as his better novels are certainly the equal of many of Balchin’s.
Did You Know?
Balchin, Ambler and Shute all wrote books under pseudonyms. Ambler wrote four novels in the 1950s with a co-author under the pseudonym Eliot Reed. It is perhaps not widely known that the name Nevil Shute was also a pseudonym. Shute’s full name was Nevil Shute Norway and he wrote his books under his Christian names in order not to antagonize his bosses at the aeronautical company Vickers (‘It seemed to me that Vickers would probably take a poor view of an employee who wrote novels on the side; hard-bitten professional engineers might well consider such a man to be not a serious person.’). For much the same reason, Balchin chose to write some of his early non-fiction books under the name Mark Spade (‘I had to use a pen name because it wouldn’t have done for me to reveal that I found anything funny about business life.’).
Eric Ambler (1909–1998)
Eric Ambler was one of the best (and most highly acclaimed) thriller writers of the twentieth century.
He trained as an electrical engineer but then spent several years writing advertising copy for the Edison Swan Electrical Company before becoming a full-time writer in 1937. In similar fashion to Balchin, he wrote short stories and plays before settling on the novel. Between 1937 and 1940 Ambler wrote the five great thrillers on which his reputation was founded, the masterpiece among them being The Mask of Dimitrios.
In 1940, Ambler enlisted in the Royal Artillery as a private soldier. He later transferred to the Army Film Unit, where he helped to make more than a hundred training films for the service. One of these, The Way Ahead starring David Niven and Stanley Holloway, was so good that it even achieved a cinema release. Ambler finished the Second World War as Assistant Director of Army Kinematography, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
After demobilization, Ambler worked for a long time in the film industry. He scripted some very impressive films, including the likes of The October Man, A Night to Remember and The Cruel Sea. In an echo of Balchin’s involvement with Cleopatra, Ambler became embroiled in the 1960s Marlon Brando/Trevor Howard remake of Mutiny on the Bounty: he wrote fourteen draft screenplays, all of which were rejected by Brando, before terminating his involvement with the project.
Ambler returned to the novel in the early 1950s, after a break of more than 10 years. Although his post-war output is generally considered by critics to be much more uneven than his early work, he did write a further handful of absorbing thrillers, among which can be numbered Judgment on Deltchev, The Schirmer Inheritance, Passage of Arms, The Light of Day (which was filmed as Topkapi, starring Peter Ustinov) and The Levanter.
Graham Greene once described Eric Ambler as ‘Unquestionably our best thriller writer’.
Five to Read: Uncommon Danger, The Mask of Dimitrios, Journey into Fear, Judgment on Deltchev, The Schirmer Inheritance
Did You Know?
Balchin and Ambler met, briefly, in 1945 after a V2 rocket launch in Germany. The two men did not get on very well and the full story of their clash is told in my biography of Balchin. I don’t know whether Balchin ever met Shute but I did discover (very recently) that both men were working in York in the autumn of 1930 so that it is at least possible, although probably not very likely.
Nevil Shute (1899–1961)
Nevil Shute was one of the most popular British writers of the twentieth century. He authored a string of best-selling novels in the 1940s and 1950s, including A Town Like Alice.
Shute emerged from a solid, middle-class background (his father was a civil servant in the General Post Office) and read Engineering Science at Balliol College, Oxford. After completing his education, he worked for nearly 20 years in the aviation industry. Of note, he was Chief Calculator for the privately funded R100 airship and was part of the crew that flew the dirigible to Canada and back in 1930. The following year, Shute set up Airspeed Ltd., an aircraft manufacturing company, and served as Joint Managing Director until 1938.
Shute dabbled with poems and short stories before turning to the novel. His first two novels were rejected; the third, Marazan, was accepted and his writing career was up and running. He received a substantial sum of money after selling the film rights to his fourth published novel Ruined City and this windfall enabled him to become a professional author.
Shute served in the navy during the Second World War, rising to become a lieutenant-commander. In comparable fashion to Balchin, his war work included the development of secret weapons. Again similarly to Balchin, Shute made his breakthrough as a novelist with a series of books that had a wartime background, including What Happened to the Corbetts, Landfall, Pied Piper and Pastoral.
When the war was over, Shute moved to Australia and he remained ‘Down Under’ for the rest of his life. He continued to write novels, notable post-war works including No Highway, In the Wet and On the Beach. Among other reasons, Shute’s reputation lives on today because his novel A Town Like Alice was made into a very popular film starring Virginia McKenna. Shute died in 1961 after suffering a stroke (he had a long history of heart problems).
John Betjeman hailed Shute as ‘a born storyteller’.
Five to Read: What Happened to the Corbetts, Pied Piper, No Highway, A Town Like Alice, On the Beach
Did You Know?
Acerbic book critic Nancy Spain launched a vicious attack on Shute and Balchin in the Daily Express in 1953. She accused them of ‘taking a sad way to fame’ and said that they were responsible for writing ‘sad little works of fiction like “In the Wet” or “Sundry Creditors” ’. Spain attacked Balchin again, in 1955, upon the release of The Fall of the Sparrow.
Every Picture Tells a Story
This is Villa di Tizzano in the Florentine suburb of Antella. Nigel Balchin installed his family here in 1959. Talking about the move, his wife Yovanka observed that ‘In many ways it should have been the most idyllic of existences.’ It turned out to be anything but. Find out why in Chapter 20 of my forthcoming book His Own Executioner: The Life of Nigel Balchin.
These are the covers for the Orion Books’ reissues of Darkness Falls from the Air and The Small Back Room (see Newsletter 15 for details). I like them: I think they have a certain gravitas and convey an accurate impression of the contents of the two books. Let’s just hope that they end up looking as good on the inside as they do on the outside!