Chris Lee

Chris has lived in Royston for 25 years and has put down roots in the community by co-founding Royston Recycle and the Royston Repair Café, organising cash mobs, and singing with the Royston Choral Society
The Moon’s A Balloon by David Niven

If the definition of a great book is that it’s laugh-out-loud funny, was reprinted 11 times in its first year in paperback, and describes incidents that this reviewer can recall pretty much verbatim 47 years after a first reading, then The Moon’s A Balloon by David Niven fits the bill.
First published in paperback in 1972 when I was 17 and the author was 62, I’ve hung on to my 1973 edition and, after nearly half a century, it’s looking in better shape than I am! At first I couldn’t think why, fresh out of school, I would have wanted to read a book about the life and times of a man, albeit a former English Hollywood film star, old enough to be my grandfather. Then I remembered that I’d seen David Niven being interviewed by Michael Parkinson in 1972; the telling of his life story must have grabbed me.
The book opens with Niven’s early education including banishment to a school for ‘difficult boys’ and expulsion from another. In 300 pages he recalls his military service, peacetime loves and wartime losses, and his early stage and screen successes and failures, ending up in Hollywood.
Niven’s father died when he was five, and without trying to play the amateur psychologist, I think the search for the love of a father-figure runs through the book. There was little affection shown by his mother’s second husband ‘Uncle Tommy’, but he credits a benevolent headmaster at Stowe School, his comrades in arms, and those who nurtured his talent and watched his back in the Hollywood hothouse.
The book is, of course, big on name-dropping – the index is packed with stars of stage and screen – but isn’t that the essence of an autobiography? As David Niven himself says in the introduction “Once behind those [open] doors it makes little sense to write about the butler is Chairman Mao is sitting down to dinner.”
As a skilled raconteur, his description of sexual encounters and general laddish behaviour was enough to hook me. And the hook sunk deep. Nearly 50 years after reading the book, I can still recall with delight the description of his sexual initiation, aged 14, at the hands – if that’s the right expression – of a whore. A stage performance that involved olives is hilariously described, and a laugh-out-loud account of a navy medical examination would bring tears to the eyes of most male readers for more than one reason. For me it was literally laugh-out-loud; I read it on a train en route to the south of France and got some funny looks from fellow travellers.
In fact, I think that time and place – travelling to work abroad for six months – explains why the book struck a chord with me. I was 18 and travelling lone – embarking on an adventure and taking David Niven as my companion; his own journey unfolding alongside my own.