The Nigel Balchin Newsletter
Issue 19: June 2016
Reaction to the Publication of His Own Executioner
I have now been promoting His Own Executioner vigorously for more than nine months. The success of my promotional efforts has been decidedly mixed but I have enjoyed a few triumphs along the way.
My most notable achievement since the last newsletter came out has been in getting Balchin’s name (and the title of my biography) into the pages of The Times Literary Supplement for three consecutive weeks around the turn of the year. DJ Taylor wrote a long (two-page) review of His Own Executioner for the Christmas issue of the TLS. Frustratingly for me, he didn’t say whether he thought the book was any good or not (!) but it was obviously important to receive such extensive coverage in a very prominent issue of the paper. Clive James responded to Taylor’s review by writing a letter to the TLS the following week that was broadly in support of Balchin and I then followed that up with a letter of my own about Balchin, Nevil Shute and 1940s authors in general.
I exploited Balchin’s connections with Wiltshire by appearing on their local BBC radio station in January. I then had a feature about my book published in the most prestigious newspaper in my area, The Oxford Times. A handful of magazine articles on the subject of Balchin have appeared since my book came out and a few others are scheduled for publication later this year, including one about Mine Own Executioner in the respected literary magazine Slightly Foxed. I have given a number of talks about Balchin, have been active on social media and have persuaded some book shops to stock my biography.
Although I have engaged in a huge amount of other promotional work, very little of it has been successful. I have lost count of the number of ideas I have pitched to people in the media (and elsewhere) that have fallen on deaf ears. Many of the people I have spoken to have never even heard of Balchin or, if they have, are not very interested in doing anything about it. So, a lot of the time, one feels as if one is bashing one’s head painfully against a hard and immovable brick wall!
If you have enjoyed reading His Own Executioner and can think of any other people who might also enjoy it then do please spread the word. I still have almost 200 copies (out of an original print run of 400) left to sell but no immediate prospect of doing so and am consequently heavily in debt. The book has now accumulated six five-star reviews on Amazon and the comments I have received from readers have been almost universally positive.
I always thought that my biography would be a ‘hard sell’ for a lot of people and that one or more positive reviews in national newspapers would probably be necessary to ensure good sales. Unfortunately, those reviews have not been forthcoming, partly I believe because there is still a stigma in the media attached to self-published books such as mine. I also think that some people in the media consider that writers such as Balchin have been forgotten for a reason and would therefore prefer it if they remain forgotten. When I began this project back in 2004 I earnestly believed that it was possible to resuscitate the reputation of a once-revered novelist such as Balchin. Now I’m not too sure: I think that influential advocates in the press are probably required in order to bring a forgotten writer back into the limelight.
Despite that last paragraph, I’m not too despondent. I’m proud of His Own Executioner and delighted that so many people who’ve read it seem to have enjoyed doing so and learned quite a lot into the bargain. I feel that I’ve rescued a previously untold story from the libraries and archives, authoritatively documented the life of a superb writer and an extraordinary man and, if it’s not too pompous to say so, added a little to the sum total of human knowledge in the process. The Balchin revival may be on hold for the time being, but I still don’t think it’s too late for there to be one at some point in the future.
From the City, From the Plough by Alexander Baron is one of the best novels I’ve read all year. The connection with Balchin is a somewhat tenuous one but there is a connection nonetheless.
I gave a couple of talks in London last autumn to coincide with the publication of His Own Executioner. After the first of them I got into conversation with a man called Robert Hastings, who has republished some of Alexander Baron’s novels in recent years. Knowing of my love of Balchin, and of 1940s novels in general, Robert recommended Baron’s work to me. I’ve subsequently read a couple of the man’s books and have been very impressed by them.
From the City, From the Plough is a World War Two novel but what makes it stand out from most of those that I have read so far is the fact that it was written by an ordinary private soldier and not by an officer. (Baron almost certainly would have been commissioned as an officer had he not been a Communist.) Most of the better World War Two novels that I have read, such as Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags and the excellent Sword of Honour trilogy and Nevil Shute’s Most Secret and others, were written by officers in the military and we should not of course forget that Balchin was surging up the army hierarchy (he eventually made it as far as brigadier) while he was writing The Small Back Room and Mine Own Executioner.
From the City, From the Plough tells the story of an infantry battalion in the early months of 1944, culminating in a hauntingly atmospheric depiction of the D-Day landings (Baron was there himself). It’s written in a clear, dispassionate, matter-of-fact style and in this way it perhaps has something in common with The Small Back Room. At times I found the book a little slow-paced for my taste but then the descriptions of cynical, war-weary soldiers waiting around for something to happen (and sometimes getting into trouble in the process) are extremely realistic.
Honest, heartfelt and deeply moving, From the City, From the Plough is a vivid recreation of the infantryman’s experience of World War Two. The book is published by Black Spring Press, price £9.99.
New Balchin Podcast Released
I’m very grateful to subscriber Mark Brend for kindly recommending the following podcast:
It features journalist Rowan Pelling and others discussing Darkness Falls from the Air. What emerges strongly from the discussion is how much all the contributors really like the novel, and especially Balchin’s dialogue. The Balchin-specific content starts at about 16:45 and runs until the end of the podcast, i.e. for just over 40 minutes in total. It’s well worth a listen.
I’ve finally got hold of a copy of the latest Balchin novel to be reissued, A Way Through the Wood. I’m very pleased to report that Orion Books have made a much better job of it than they did with their two previous reissues (see Newsletter 18 for a review).
To all intents and purposes, this latest reissue is a reprint of Separate Lies, the 2005 film tie-in edition of A Way Through the Wood that was released to coincide with the Julian Fellowes-directed film. This approach has several benefits for the reader. Firstly, the typeface is larger and much clearer than was the case for the 2015 Orion versions of Darkness Falls from the Air and The Small Back Room. Secondly, the book includes Fellowes’s original introduction to Separate Lies. Despite the incongruity of Fellowes referring to the novel using the name of his film, he does explain which features of Balchin’s story led him to adapt it for the screen. Finally, it’s reassuring to note that, acting on advice received from yours truly, Orion have corrected some of the biographical inaccuracies about Balchin that appeared in their previous reissues of his books.
Priced at £8.99, A Way Through the Wood will be a welcome addition to the bookshelves of all Balchin fans although I do appreciate that most of you will probably already own a copy in one form or another. Unlike with Darkness Falls from the Air and The Small Back Room, A Way Through the Wood is being stocked by Waterstones, which is a good sign.
For reasons too boring to explain, I’ve ended up with two copies of the new reissue of A Way Through the Wood when I only really wanted one. I’m therefore delighted to offer the spare copy as a competition prize. The cover is very slightly damaged (it was like that when I bought it from Waterstones) but the book is otherwise in pristine condition.
To be in with a chance of winning my spare copy of A Way Through the Wood, just send an email to me, Derek Collett (firstname.lastname@example.org), with the answer to the following question:
What was Balchin’s original title for A Way Through the Wood?*
The closing date is a fortnight from today, i.e. Wednesday 15 June. The winner will be chosen at random from the correct entries received and the judge’s decision is final.
- Profuse apologies to subscribers from overseas but, owing to high postal charges, I am only able to send the prize to an address in the UK.
*Tip: reference to a certain biography of Balchin may well provide you with the answer!
Every Picture Tells a Story: Evolution not Revolution
The photos above show how Balchin’s 1933 design (far left) for the Black Magic chocolate box has changed over the years. The box remained largely unaltered by Rowntree’s for many decades after its introduction and it’s only really in the last five to ten years that significant changes to the design have been made. Note however that even today (far right) the box remains primarily monochrome, attesting perhaps to the longevity of Balchin’s vision for a chocolate box that would stand out from the competition when displayed in a confectioner’s window.