Nigel Balchin (1908 – 1970) was a popular novelist in his day but is now nearly forgotten. He studied science at Cambridge, then industrial psychology, before joining a famous chocolate company in York, the output and marketing of whose chocolate bars he helped to improve.
He enjoyed initial success as a writer too. His novels of wartime (published during the War itself) spread, if they did not actually coin, two expressions that are still in use: boffin and back-room boys. When one considers the number of novels that are published, it is clear that few novelists leave so lasting a legacy.
His novel, Mine Own Executioner, was published just after the end of the War in 1945. Its protagonist is a lay psychoanalyst called Felix Milne who has chucked up his medical degree in order to study with a famous Viennese analyst before coming home to London to practice. Like many a religious person, he suffers from scruples: does he really believe or not?
The author himself appears not to be able to make up his own mind. At first he is satirical: the first of Milne’s patients he depicts is Lady Maresfield, a rich, spoilt and lonely woman whose marriage is unsatisfactory and who uses Milne merely as a shoulder to cry on, almost as a paid companion. Her name is surely significant: when Freud came to live in England, his address was Maresfield Gardens.
Later, however, the satirical tone is dropped. Another of Milne’s patients is Lucian, a former prisoner-of-war of the Japanese. He comes to Milne for help because, on his return to England, he nearly strangled his wife to death. Milne injects him with sodium thiopental to get him to speak of his experiences as a prisoner-of-war about which he has previously been unable to speak. After this abreaction Lucian feels a lot better and wonders why. Milne replies, ‘Haven’t you ever had a boil lanced?’ Emotions are like what the British used to say of their teeth: better out than in.
Alas, Lucian has a relapse owing to an unresolved Oedipus complex that Milne has failed to spot or do anything about. Lucian shoots his wife who for him symbolises his mother, who has so betrayed his love for her by allowing herself to have sex with his father (whom he has already slain symbolically in the person of a Japanese guard in the prison camp). After killing his wife Lucian commits suicide, and not surprisingly, perhaps, Milne begins to lose faith in his capacity as a healer.
The book ends in the Coroner’s Court. The coroner is a doctor, Dr Lefage, a pompous, shrivelled-up pedant full of prejudices in favour of doctors. ‘An inquest,’ remarks a character, ‘is a place for arriving at a comfortable verdict that no blame attaches to anybody.’
When I read that, I recalled the first coroner’s inquest I attended as a witness more than thirty years ago. I arrived early and sat in on the previous inquest. It was a tale of woeful incompetence. The deceased had taken an overdose and gone to hospital, where she was told that nothing was wrong with her and to go home, where she died a few hours later. The coroner, a doctor, said, ‘I want to assure the family that all that could have been done was done.’
Of course, things are completely different now.
Did the good doctor write this? From where is it? I can’t imagine him using those awful, incorrect commas in the first sentence in the third paragraph.
(It is of course possible that the error occurs earlier, and this is Mr Balchin’s only novel. The commas are merited if that’s the case.)
Yes, Dalrymple wrote this piece, commas and all. When his BMJ column was canceled a few years ago, he had a backlog of 50 to 60 unpublished pieces, which he graciously gave to us to post on the blog. We are posting one every Wednesday to coincide with the timing of the old weekly BMJ column. I’m going to add a note of explanation to the next few so that it’s clearer. As for the commas, these pieces were never edited, at least not by a real editor. I gave them a title but not much else. So yes, Dalrymple writes with less than perfect grammar. I hope I haven’t shattered any illusions.
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