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Balchin’s Maimed Brilliance

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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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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 won an Exhibition to Peterhouse, Cambridge, to read Natural Sciences. After university, he became an industrial psychologist, working mainly for Rowntrees, but turned more and more to writing, first as a writer for Punch, under the pseudonym Mark Spade. Then, after his marriage to the daughter of another writer, he wrote three novels, Lightbody on Liberty (1936) being the only one he liked people to remember. Balchin had ‘a very good war’, both as a novelist and as an officer in the Department of the Scientific Adviser to the Army Council; he ended the war with the rank of brigadier and with three more novels published – Darkness Falls from the Air (1942), The Small Back Room (1943) and Mine Own Executioner (1945). All were tremendously successful, and Balchin appeared to be set on a sure course to considerable fame as a popular novelist who was also capable of getting critical acclaim. However, things seemed to go wrong from then on, despite his apparent productivity, which included Lord, I Was Afraid (1947), The Borgia Testament (1948), A Sort of Traitor (1949), A Way through the Woods (1951), Sundry Creditors (1953) – probably the best of the postwar novels – and The Fall of the Sparrow (1955). What the DNB calls ‘a cordial ménage’ between Balchin, the artist Michael Ayrton, and Ayrton’s wife, ended when Ayrton and Balchin’s wife of nearly twenty years, Elizabeth, fell in love. Nigel and Elizabeth Balchin divorced in 1951 and in 1952 Elizabeth married Michael Ayrton. In 1953 Balchin remarried, this time a 22- or 23-year-old Yugoslavian refugee, Yovanka Zorana Tomi´c; they had two children. From 1952 to 1961 Balchin concentrated on writing screenplays, not without success – he received a BAFTA award for The Man Who Never Was in 1956. For a time he and his new family lived in Hollywood, but then he succumbed almost completely to alcohol. Eventually, he returned to England, did some work for television, and began writing novels again. However, of the last three, only Seen Dimly Before Dawn (1962), about an adolescent boy’s awakening, both sexual and moral, is memorable, though somehow attenuated, more like a short story writ large than a whole novel. He wrote two more undistinguished novels before his death in 1970, in a nursing home in Hampstead, when he was 61. Though one could make a case for some of the other novels, it is almost certainly The Small Back Room that gives Nigel Balchin whatever hold he has on immortality. It is not a long novel, and seems even shorter if read in its pocket-sized wartime edition. The first-person narrator is Sammy Rice, a scientist who has a particular expertise in (among other things) fuses, and who works in Professor Mair’s ‘outfit’, providing the Minister with objective and independent advice on scientific proposals and new weapons. The novel begins: ‘In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminium one that hurt only about three-quarters of the time.’ One assumes the injury was sustained in the Great War. Sammy’s preferred pain-killer is whisky, though he struggles not to succumb to the temptation. His mistress Susan works in the same office and wishes he were more ambitious; he claims to be content with where he is and what he does, though he is not content with who he is: he is maimed in more than one way. He won’t, for instance, offer to marry Susan, despite her obvious willingness. The ostensible subject of the first part of the novel is the shenanigans of office life within the wartime Civil Service – who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s out. The main mover in this is the non-scientist in the office, the appalling R. B. Waring, smooth, lubricious even, a fixer, what would now be called a spin-doctor. He cares for no one but himself, and has no real interest in the successful progress of the war; but Balchin manages to convey the man’s dreadful charm. Other minor characters are portrayed with equal savagery, and there are minor tragedies in the background: for instance, one young man in the office has married someone who is (as is clear to everyone except the man himself ) determined to stay a whore. The novel is brilliantly laconic: we learn what people are from what they do and say, not from what Sammy tells us. It is very English, too, in that social class is portrayed with an exactitude that wouldn’t disgrace Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell. Gradually, however, the real subject of the novel obtrudes, until by the end it is centre-stage. The Luftwaffe have been dropping booby-traps, designed to explode if they are handled – but these are booby-trapped booby-traps, deliberately made to kill anyone who thinks he has managed to defuse one. By the time Sammy Rice gets involved, five children attracted to the objects dropped from the skies have been killed. More are dropped; more civilians are killed, then a couple of curious soldiers, one of whom manages to give a scrap or two of information before he actually dies. Gradually, the conflicts of the various agencies within the Ministry become background, as the urgency of bomb-disposal takes over. Two of the objects are found and isolated. While Sammy is travelling to join the bomb-disposal team, its leader Captain Stuart is killed just as he thinks he has managed successfully to defuse one of the bombs. Now Sammy Rice gets his chance. He succeeds, though he chooses to regard what he achieves as failure. He has done everything he needs to defuse the secondary booby-trap, but he hasn’t the physical strength to twist the hidden cap off the bomb. He needs the assistance of the unit’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Strang, who comes out to help when he realizes Sammy is at the end of his tether, both physically and emotionally. That this is a physical rather than any other kind of failure is significant. Sammy Rice loathes being a cripple. Clive James regards Sammy’s interpretation of this failure as ‘a catastrophic revelation of weakness’ as ‘excessive’. ‘As often in Balchin,’ he says, ‘a ritual maiming tends to distract the reader’s eye from a psychological problem that the author is having difficulty either suppressing or facing . . . What comes over strongly, and more directly than Balchin seems to intend, is his hero’s deadening quality, his lack of lightness. He would suffer from this, you suspect, whether he was maimed or not; his lack is a deficiency of the soul, and the physical inadequacies are simply convenient metaphors.’ Part of the evidence he offers for this interpretation is that, when the novel was made into a film, the ending was changed, apparently with Balchin’s blessing, so that Sammy succeeds in defusing the bomb without any help. I myself think that the film’s ending was a dreadful falsification, and a cheapening of the complexity of the novel into a mere thriller (something the films of novels often do). Sammy’s imperfection requires him to see his physical failing as absolute. He has behaved like a hero, but he has no notion that he has done so. Indeed, at the end of the novel, as he watches the moon go down over London, he says to himself:

If I’d been a bit sillier, or a bit more intelligent, or had more guts, or less guts, or had two feet or no feet, or been almost anything definite, it would have been easy. But as it was, I didn’t like what I was, and couldn’t be what I liked, and it would always be like that.

So he goes home to seek solace in Susan, almost as if she were a mother not a mistress. Balchin’s depiction of the relationship between men and women is what Clive James calls ‘a weakness in his own view of life’ – and the continuing and major flaw in almost all his novels. ‘Balchin is remembered by his contemporaries as the kindest of men. He is also remembered (especially, among his acquaintances I’ve spoken to, by women) as a man whose confidence in pronouncing on other people’s motives was unshakeable and finally tedious . . . He was too certain of himself to let his imagination do its own thinking.’ That Clive James turns for evidence to biographical information is one of the reasons I wish there were a full biography available. As he also admits, ‘A writer as good as Balchin won’t go away just because you’ve established that there are departments of his own psyche he was unable fully to explore.’ It is never easy to separate an author’s own attitudes from those which he puts into the voice of a protagonist. However, I don’t myself think Balchin could have written the novel if he hadn’t seen Sammy’s weakness – his imperfections – so clearly. In the end, what I admire in the novel is not just the satirical insight into bureaucracy, the accurate notation of the myriad gradations of English social class, the laconic dialogue, the clarity of the scientific descriptions or the excitement of the thriller (and, yes, the penultimate sequence of The Small Back Room is very exciting, even when one knows the outcome), but the moral insight into a maimed personality.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 24 © C. J. Driver 2009


About the contributor

C. J. Driver’s last novel, Shades of Darkness, disappeared without trace. So Far, Selected Poems, 1960–2004, is still available if one looks hard enough.

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