I have twice abandoned my attempt to write this. The first time happened when I reread Nigel Balchin’s novel, Darkness Falls from the Air, which I had admired to distraction many years ago, partly because I so loved the poem from which the title is taken (Thomas Nashe, ‘In Time of Pestilence’), partly because it seemed to me a brilliant account of what it must have been like to be in London when it was being bombed during the Second World War. This time round, however, I noticed the extent to which the novel is bedevilled with occasional but regular anti-Semitic remarks of a kind which become even more horrible when one remembers it was published in 1942. Although I tried to pretend to myself that the problem was not systemic but merely cosmetic, after a while I decided my excuse wouldn’t wash any more. This is a poison which infects the whole novel, not just the parts.
The second abandonment of the project came when I reread Clive James’s essay on Nigel Balchin, first published in the New Review in 1974 (now updated, and readily available on Clive James’s website), and began to wonder what more there was to say that had not already been said so well by him.
Then I went back to the next novel Balchin wrote, The Small Back Room, and found myself once again spellbound. So now, holding my breath a little, I risk saying again what I have thought for many years: that it would be sad if Balchin were to be forgotten as a novelist, that four or five of his novels are still well worth reading, and that one of them, The Small Back Room, is, if not a small masterpiece, at any rate close to being one.
It is odd there has been no full biography of Balchin. Clearly, he was a man of immense and varied talents, who had an interesting and wide-ranging life, although perhaps ultimately tormented. He was a brilliantly successful schoolboy at Dauntsey’s (Captain of Cricket, Hockey and Rugby, and Head of School too) and w
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