Balchin’s Maimed Brilliance

By C J Driver

I have twice abandoned my attempts to write this short essay. The first time happened when I re-read 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 World War 2. This time round, however, I noticed as I had not done before the extent to which the novel is bedeviled 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 the usual excuse of blaming the remarks about “Jewboys” (oh, and worse) by thinking this was the narrator’s unreliable voice (and it is), and then tried to pretend to myself 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.

All one may say, in the end, is that one still reads T.S.Eliot, despite the evidence of his anti-Semitism, and Ezra Pound, despite his ludicrous adulation of that fat fascist, Benito Mussolini (may the sun never rise on his like again, though I fear it has, and will); but I am afraid this particular novel is no longer one I want to recommend, at least not with a whole heart.

The second abandonment of the project came when I re-read 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 in that witty and judicious round-up of Balchin’s success and failure as a novelist.

Then I went back to The Small Back Room itself, and found myself once again spell-bound. So now, holding my breath a little, I risk saying again what I have thought for many years: that it would be sad if Nigel 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 book-length biography of Balchin. Clearly, he was an extraordinary man of immense and varied talents, who had an interesting and wide-ranging life, although perhaps ultimately tormented. He was a brilliantly successful school-boy at Dauntsey’s (Captain of Cricket, Hockey and Rugby, and Head of School too) before going on an Exhibition to Peterhouse, Cambridge, to read Natural Sciences. After the university, he became an industrial psychologist, working mainly for Rowntrees, but turned more and more to writing, first as a writer of sketches 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 Balchin liked people to remember (he apparently refused permission for the re-publication of the first two novels, and they are not listed under “By the same author” in later books).

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. In 1942 came Darkness Falls from the Air; in 1943 The Small Back Room, and in 1945 Mine Own Executioner. These three were tremendously successful, both in terms of critical reception and sales, despite the exigencies of wartime publishing, 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 Traitors (1949), Sundry Creditors (1953) – probably the best of the post-war 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, complicated the friendly arrangements by falling in love. Nigel and Elizabeth Balchin divorced in 1951 and in 1952 Elizabeth married Michael Ayrton. In 1953 Balchin re-married, this time a 22 or 23 year old Yugoslavian refugee, Yovanka Zorana Tomic; they had two children. From 1952 to 1961 Balchin concentrated on writing screenplays, not without success, as he got a BAFTA award for The Man Who Never Was in 1956. For a time he and his new family moved to live in Hollywood, but he seems now to have succumbed almost completely to an addiction to alcohol.

Eventually, he came back to England, did some work for TV, and began writing novels again. However, of the last three novels, 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, aged only 61. There was some posthumous success, when his novel of 1951, A Way through the Woods, became the basis of the film, Separate Lies (2005), with a screenplay by Julian Fellowes.

Though one could make a case for some of the other novels, it is almost certainly The Small Back Room which gives Nigel Balchin whatever small hold he has on immortality – or, if not something that grand, at least readability into the 21st century. It is not a big novel, only 192 pages, and seeming even smaller if one reads it in its pocket-sized war-time version with barely a margin in sight – and, despite being set mainly in London in war-time, with a relatively small cast of characters. The first-person narrator is Sammy Rice, a scientist who has (one gradually learns) particular expertise in (among other things) fuses, and who works in Professor Mair’s “outfit”, providing the Minister with what is intended as objective and independent advice on scientific proposals, new weapons and so on.

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…” The date is never explained, so one assumes the injury was sustained in the Great War. Although he has medication for the pain, Sammy’s preferred pain-killer is whisky, though he struggles not to succumb to the temptation. His mistress, Susan, works in the same office as he does, and wishes he would be more ambitious than he is; 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 desire for that completion. In other ways, too, he refuses to accept more responsibility than he has to.

The ostensible subject of the first part of the novel is the shenanigans of office life within the war-time 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 also to convey the man’s dreadful charm – and he does end the novel having done very well for himself, despite the fact that he knows nothing which actually matters, and is prepared to lie and to cheat without scruple. There are other minor characters portrayed with equal savagery, and minor tragedies in the background: for instance, one of the young men 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 (though if they seem “good sorts” he does tell us that much). It is very English, too, in that social class is portrayed with an exactitude which wouldn’t disgrace Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell. Gradually, 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 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 of the objects are dropped; more civilians are killed, then a couple of curious soldiers, one of whom manages to give Captain Stuart and Sammy 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 traveling to join the bomb-disposal team, 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 – a failure few people would regard as such, because it isn’t a failure of intelligence or of courage, but of strength. 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 help of the unit’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Strang, who comes out to where the bomb is half-buried in the sand of the beach to help, when he realizes Sammy is at the end of his tether, both physically and emotionally – and Sammy chooses to regard this as his failure, even when – after the bomb is defused and Sammy is taken by Strang to the station to go back to London – Strang salutes him as the train leaves: a lieutenant –colonel saluting a civilian, mark you.

For some, the fact that this is a physical rather than any other kind of failure might be regarded as a failure of artistic imagination in the novelist. I think anyone who supposes that misses a crucial aspect of Sammy Rice’s self-loathing. He loathes being a cripple. There is a scene earlier in the novel, in a night club, where a horrible young man turns out to be a wonderful dancer – and demonstrates his prowess not with the girl he is with (who is so stupid she doesn’t realize why Sammy can’t and won’t dance) but with Sammy’s mistress, Susan. There are other scenes of a similar burden – and, crucially, near the end of the novel, when the bomb has been defused, there is this passage:

When I tried to get up I couldn’t. Strang said, “Half a mo’.” He put his hands under my armpits and picked me to my feet as though I weighed six ounces. He hesitated for a moment and then said, “Look, why the hell should we carry all this stuff back? You sit down for a moment and I’ll go and get the car”.

He started off, running along the beach. He ran beautifully, as though running were one of his things. I went over very slowly and sat down on a sand hill. I looked back at the thing lying there with the caps off and the earthing wires. I thought, “I shall never be able to pay more than that for anything, and even that wasn’t enough.”

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. The hero is missing out on something. Perhaps it is something irrational. The true tension in the book comes from Balchin’s self-defeating urge to define what that something is, to… see beyond the limit of rational understanding. But if rational understanding includes everything, there is no beyond…” Part of the evidence he offers for this interpretation is that, when The Small Back Room was made into a film, the ending is changed, apparently with Balchin’s blessing, so that Sammy is successful in defusing the bomb without any help from Strang.

I think myself that ending the film that way 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, just because he cannot accept that the fact that he has lost a foot doesn’t make him less than a whole man. He has behaved like a hero, even though 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, of himself, in a way which seems to contradict Clive James’s point about Balchin’s failure of comprehension:

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. “They seem less than completely serious because they reinforce the author’s wishes more than they clarify them, and some of their popularity can be put down to the fact that they do the same job for the reader…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… It appears that Balchin’s ego counted on being able to sum everything up. Mysteries did not exist – until they surprised him. The economy of his books rings like falsity, since it has been won at the cost of imposing logic on life. His orderly mind forced him to settle for perfection… 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 – a critical biography, preferably. 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 at all 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, nor the accuracy of his notation of the myriad gradations of English social class, nor the laconic skills with dialogue, nor 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.

C.J. (“Jonty”) Driver’s last novel, Shades of Darkness (Jonathan Ball, 2004), disappeared without trace. So Far, Selected Poems 1960-2004, is still available if one looks hard enough.

*It’s also available on this site: see the link under ‘Other Nigel Balchin articles’.