Mostly in the Mind

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I watched a lot of television in my twenties and I doubt whether it did me much good. But it did lead, indirectly, to my discovering the fascinating novels of Nigel Balchin.

In 1990 I saw a TV drama series, bought a copy of the book on which it had been based and, among the endpapers, spotted a notice for another novel that sounded intriguing: The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin. I’d never heard of Balchin but tracked down The Small Back Room, read it and instantly became an ardent fan. I devoted much of the rest of the decade to finding and reading his other novels (he wrote fourteen in all), and now consider Mine Own Executioner to be one of the very best of them.

Balchin graduated from Cambridge in 1930 with a degree in Natural Sciences. He had studied psychology during his final term, and this enabled him to obtain a position as an industrial psychologist. In 1933, while on secondment to the confectioners Rowntree’s, he helped the company launch a new chocolate assortment. How many people who put a box of Black Magic in their supermarket trolley today know that its colour scheme was the work of a famous novelist? Standing in front of a confectioner’s shop window in search of inspiration, Balchin said that he could see every colour but black and realized that a black box would be both eye-catching and clearly differentiated from the competition, which relied in the early 1930s on classic staples of ‘chocolate-box art’ ‒ ivy-clad cottages, rosy-cheeked children and adorable kittens and puppies.

During the early part of the Second World War, Balchin worked for the Ministry of Food, where he was responsible for the allocation of supplies of raw materials to chocolate manufacturers. This phase of his wartime career provided much of the material for his first well-received novel Darkness Falls from the Air (1942). Then in 1941 he swopped butter for guns and joined the army. He

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About the contributor

Ten years in the making, Derek Collett’s biography of Balchin, His Own Executioner: The Life of Nigel Balchin, was published in 2015.

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