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Derek Collett, Freelance writer and biographer
16 January 2017
What follows is a summary by Robert Blackburn (Convenor, Literature and Humanities, BRLSI) of Derek Collett’s talk, which was illustrated by stills and short film clips from Balchin’s best-known novels, and drew on the fine critical biography of Nigel Balchin by Derek himself, published by Silver Wood Books, Bristol, in 2015. This was the first ever full-length study of the novelist, and appeared under the title of His Own Executioner, a direct reference to Balchin’s famous novel of 1945. The talk opened with a clip from the gripping final scene of the film version of Mine Own Executioner (London Films, 1947), directed by Anthony Kimmins, with the screenplay by Balchin himself.
Nigel Balchin was a baker’s son, born in Wiltshire in 1908. He attended Dauntsey’s School, West Lavington (near Devizes) on a scholarship. A flourishing independent school now, in those days, it was more like an agricultural college; many of Nigel’s contemporaries were farmers’ sons. In 1927, Balchin went up to Peterhouse, Cambridge, to read Natural Sciences. The future actor James Mason was a contemporary at Peterhouse, Cambridge’s oldest college; they both sang in the college choir. The Ministry of Agriculture had part funded Balchin at Cambridge, on the expectation that he would choose a career in or related to agriculture. However, he made it clear in 1930 that he did not want this; his interests had turned to psychology. The big influence on him at this time was Frederic Bartlett, Director of the Cambridge Psychological Laboratory, and University Reader in experimental Psychology. After graduation, Balchin began to work for the NIIP (National Institute of Industrial Psychology), a pioneering non-governmental organisation. The NIIP was supported by wealthy benefactors, including leading chocolate manufacturers, notably Rowntrees of York. The aim of the NIIP was to study and develop the application of psychology to industry. Balchin put it very dryly when he said it was mainly about ‘seeing a good idea in Factory A and selling it to Factory B.’ After publishing a ‘spoof’ under the title How to Run a Bassoon Factory: Or Business explained, by ‘Mark Spade’ in 1934, Balchin went to Rowntrees in York, and developed the Black Magic chocolate box merchandise, duly launched in 1933, and very successful, especially after the Depression and war years, that is from 1947 on. Aero chocolate bars followed in 1935. He married Elisabeth Walshe, an English student at Newnham College, in 1933, having met her in his last year at Cambridge. They had three daughters over five years, the middle one of whom was the distinguished psychologist Penelope Leach. Balchin remained at Rowntrees until 1939.
Nigel Balchin’s first three novels met with only limited success. No Sky, an ‘industrial novel’ appeared in 1934, and was inevitably influenced by his work at Rowntrees. The central character was George Ordyne. It was followed a year later by Simple Life, with the central character this time being an advertising copywriter, Rufus Wade. The book was praised by LP Hartley and Cyril Connolly, two leading literary figures of the day. Lightbody on Liberty appeared in 1936. This was a social comedy, though it lacked the special comic gifts of either Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell (both five years Balchin’s senior). Nigel Balchin was writing prolifically throughout the 1930s - plays, stories and articles - and in September 1939 was earning the modern equivalent of £60,000 a year, at the age of 30. He went to work for the Ministry of Food in 1939, and joined the army in 1941, rising to the rank of Brigadier. His observational skills, and knowledge of practicalities bore fruit in each of the three wartime novels on which Balchin’s reputation largely rests - Darkness Falls from the Air (1942), The Small Back Room (1943) and Mine Own Executioner (1945).
Nigel Balchin in the 1950s
At the end of 1942, Balchin joined the Army Scientific Research Wing, among other things testing and evaluating machinery. Throughout the war, he ‘felt a burning need to say something’, to use his own words. The war transformed his standing as a writer. Darkness Falls from the Air‘s central character is a young temporary civil servant, Bill Sarratt, in the 1940 London Blitz, and the main event is a massive German air raid on the East End of London. Sarratt has allowed his wife Marcia to engage in an affair with the poet, literary poseur and limitless egotist Stephen Ryle. Mysteriously, Ryle’s surname does not appear until near the book’s end. He is an irritant to Bill Sarratt throughout, needless to say. This situation was drawn from the actuality of the author’s own life, as Balchin’s wife Elizabeth was carrying on an affair with the now forgotten British composer Christian Darnton (1905-1981). This novel was notable for its quickfire dialogue and brilliant satire, and was praised highly by Elizabeth Bowen, among others. The Small Back Room was a satire on the misuse of scientific expertise. It opens as an office satire, but becomes much darker later. Written at the height of the war, The Small Back Room tells the story of Sammy Rice, a weapons scientist, and one of the ‘back room boys’ of the Second World war. Rice has a crippling physical handicap, which Balchin does not flinch from mentioning, a problem which has led in part to Sammy’s drink problem. In later novels, megalomania, schizophrenia, and kleptomania are brought into the narrative. As Derek Collett observed, troubles never come singly in a Balchin novel.
The Small Back Room was the novelist’s first bestseller, and was made into a film in 1948, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. A clip was shown from this celebrated film, demonstrating the careful and agonisingly tense defusing of a dormant bomb on a British beach. Mine Own Executioner appeared in September 1945, and told of the effect of the war on Felix Milne, a young psychoanalyst. Another young man, a schizophrenic airman, aims to murder his own wife. This novel had the best critical reception of any Balchin novel, and was praised by LP Hartley and John Betjeman.
In 1947, Balchin (still only 39) and his wife moved into a fine half-timbered mansion near Canterbury. The author wanted his wife to be a ‘country lady’, but Elizabeth was bored, frustrated and resentful in this unsought for role. The couple met Michael Ayrton (1921-1975), the versatile and very articulate painter, sculptor and designer in that year. Although Joan Ayrton had changed her name to ‘Ayrton’ by deed poll, she and Ayrton had never married. In effect, two new couples formed. While Balchin’s affair with Joan was shortlived, the relationship between Liz and Michael Ayrton blossomed. Balchin divorced Liz in 1951, and she married Ayrton a year later, in November 1952. Balchin was devastated by the turn of events. He put some aspects of it into A Way Through the Wood (1951), in which the world of work featured hardly at all. It was in effect a love story, and a police procedural in one. In 2005, A Way Through the Wood was used as a basis for a film, scripted by Julian Fellowes, under the title Separate Lies, with Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Rupert Everett. Clive James has described A Way Through the Wood as ‘…the key to Balchin’s conception of himself as a social, sexual human being.’ In 1953, Balchin married his attractive young Yugoslavian-born secretary Yovanka Tomich after (perhaps inevitably) starting an affair with her. He was 44, she 22. It turned out to be a very fractious and stormy relationship, and Balchin was not faithful to Yovanka, nor she to him. Nevertheless, the couple stayed married until the writer’s death in January 1970. Yovanka is still alive, aged 87, at the time of writing this.
Despite all the stresses in his personal life, the writing continued. The Borgia Testament appeared in 1948, A Sort of Traitors in 1949, and Sundry Creditors in 1953. Clive James has commented that ‘ as a novel about business decisions, Sundry Creditors is out on its own.’ The Fall of the Sparrow (1955), another psychological novel, is essentially about corruption. The main characters are seen before, during and after the Second World War, and the central relationship is that between the narrator, Henry Payne, and the amoral, difficult, but surprisingly courageous younger man, Jason Pellew, who eventually reaps what he has sown. Many readers would place this novel high on the list of Balchin’s best work.
Overall, Derek Collett felt that Balchin’s best novels can be seen as not only very readable, humorous and incident-packed, but as fast-paced and sticking to the point. They are conspicuously without descriptive padding. Balchin draws everywhere on his technical and scientific background, pursuing psychological themes, and aiming for dramatic, thriller style climaxes. There is no doubt that the female characters are less well done than the male, and Balchin has often been criticised as a misogynist.
In 1956, Balchin went to Hollywood as a scriptwriter, earning large sums of money. Twentieth Century Fox offered him the equivalent of half a million pounds (in today’s money) to write scripts over three years. The Man who Never Was, directed by Ronald Neame, and set in Sicily and Greece in World War Two, was one outcome of this, and won Balchin a BAFTA award in 1957. Another was Mandy, a social realist drama, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, about a deaf and dumb child. Cleopatra, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was a commercial failure for Twentieth Century Fox, largely because of its protracted filming.
Balchin’s later years are indeed sad. He gradually descended into alcoholism, and was profligate over money, to the point where he and Yovanka were definitely overstretched financially. A villa was rented just outside Florence; he bought a big house in Sussex (with 76 acres of woodland and a 93 acre farm) and, in the late 1960s, a former public house, The Greyhound. In addition, he and Yovanka had a town house in Regent’s Park Road! Yet at the end of his life, Balchin and Yovanka were living in a flat in Marlborough Mansions, Hampstead.
In 1970, he was signed up by the Famous Writer’s School, a testing arrangement, but, already seriously ill from his drinking, he was taken to hospital where he died of a heart attack, aged only 61. Balchin can be placed alongside certain other marginalised or even forgotten writers of the period, such as Patrick Hamilton, Henry Green, Eric Ambler, Victor Canning, Gerald Kersh, and Julian Maclaren-Ross. The reason for the faltering of Balchin’s career centre on his alcoholism and his other personal problems, but also include his going Hollywood in the 1950s, the big gaps between novels, and the changing literary climate of the 1960s. Anthony Powell said of Julian Maclaren-Ross that he was ‘…unable to keep in touch with the things that were worth writing about…’ a judgment which may well be seen to apply to Balchin in his later years. Once Balchin removed himself from the working environment, his works became less good, less interesting, and their texture was impoverished. After his death, he was propelled into obscurity.
Yet Nigel Balchin’s individual talent, so many years later, is still evident. He had been a psychologist, an industrial worker, an army officer, a civil servant, and throughout his mature years had been a writer of energy and skill. Ruth Rendell said of him that ‘…he writes about timeless things, the places of the heart.’ Clive James has described Balchin as ‘…the missing writer of the 1940s…’, while Philippa Gregory has felt that ‘I’d put him on a par with Graham Greene.’
Dr Robert Blackburn Convenor for Literature and Humanities, Bath RLSI
Collett, Derek - His Own Executioner: The Life of Nigel Balchin; Silver Wood Books 2015
James, Clive - The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin; New Review, April 1974 (see clivejames.com)