Seven characters representing a range of individuals who, like Balchin, reached adulthood between the First and Second World Wars are placed in a number of different scenarios, some of them realistic, others fantastical, surreal or nightmarish. The book can be divided into three sections: the pre-Second World War period; 1939–1945; and 1947. A reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement provided a useful and fairly accurate delineation of the principal characters: an artist (Phillip Locke); a businessman (Peter Hargreaves); an humane cynic (Raymond Murray); a playboy (Punch Hopkins); an emancipated woman (Sheila Murray); a frightened woman (Pamela Hargreaves); and a loving woman (Anne Rayne).
In the pre-war section one sees the characters either pairing off or experiencing difficulties in their relationships: Anne and Phillip meet at a party and become a couple; Peter and Pamela Hargreaves break up; the Murrays decide to have their child murdered because he has destroyed their lives. There is a grail quest and a scene in which a dictator called Smith—an obvious pseudonym for Hitler—attempts to win the characters over to his fascist ideology.
The middle section of Lord, I Was Afraid is arguably the most successful. It consists of ten short scenes, most of which deal with a particular aspect of the wartime experience on the home front, such as the possibility of invasion, the role of women at war and Anglo–American relations. In one episode, the war is satirized as a boxing match in which three men team up in order to fight a big blond man. In another, the desperate longing for an end to the conflict is alluded to by the characters, adrift in a boat at sea, anxiously scanning the horizon for a sight of land:
HARGREAVES We are now passing under Sydney Bridge—I beg your pardon—the Forth Bridge.
MURRAY According to your calculations we’ve been rowing across Yorkshire for some days. I look forward to anchoring beside Wigan Pier at any moment.
In the book’s final section, Balchin outlines various problems—personal, political or philosophical—confronting the post-war world. There is an excellent skit in which a meeting of the Security Council is presented as a game of cards in which none of the players trust each other an inch and the participants cannot agree who should cut the cards, who should deal or even what game they are about to play. But perhaps the finest scene in the entire book (and certainly one of the funniest) takes place in a department store with next to no stock but some very forthright ideas about what it ought and ought not to sell. For example, in the Games Department, Peter Hargreaves finds that the game of Happy Families has been supplanted by one called Happy Communities and that Mr. Tape the Tailor has become Mr. Red Tape, the Civil Servant.
Lord, I Was Afraid closes with a speech by Phillip in which he appears to advance Balchin’s contention that the principal fault of his own generation is that they were afraid to do anything definite lest it should turn out to be the wrong thing:
We stood at a cross-road of time, with all the signposts down. We saw error and ignorance and prejudice and stupidity go marching boldly down the roads away from somewhere and towards anywhere. The bands were playing and the flags flying. It would have been easy to follow. But we stood, there fumbling for our lost compass and our missing map—waiting for the stars to come out and give us a bearing; waiting until it was light; and in the end, waiting because we had always waited.