“I’m a scientist, not a not a bloody politician.”

The Small Back Room, by Nigel Balchin

Nigel Balchin is one of a great many authors who were once highly popular and are now largely forgotten. The public move on, tastes change, and writers who were once household names fade from view.

To an extent that’s a good thing. We have to let go of some of the old writers to make space for the new, and forgetting writers allows us to discover them again as if they were new themselves.

From that perspective I can say that Nigel Balchin is one of the most exciting new writers I’ve read this year. The fact his The Small Back Room was first published in 1943 doesn’t change that at all.

balchin

Sammy Rice is a scientist working in a small quasi-official research group. The group’s headed by the “Old Man”, Professor Mair, but Mair’s past his best and Sammy is now easily the most technically adept of the team and quite possibly the brightest. He’s an extremely talented man.

Unfortunately, he’s also a fairly self-destructive man. He’s struggling with a drink problem which he keeps in check, but only just; he’s in a relationship with the number-two’s secretary which neither of them can admit to since it’s a workplace romance; and while he’s an unsentimental sort he’s dangerously prone to self-pity.

Here’s how the novel opens:

In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminium one that only hurt about three-quarters of the time.

Mair’s number two is Waring, a former ad-executive. Mair has the ear of the minister and that’s what gives their little outfit its reach and clout, but Mair’s an ivory-tower sort with no instinct for politics. Waring by contrast is all about the salesmanship. Mair and the rest of the team come up with the ideas and Waring makes them happen.

The problem is Waring doesn’t understand the science and sometimes makes promises the scientists struggle to deliver. Recently he’s promoted a new type of anti-tank weapon that Mair was quite fond of, but Sammy’s researched it and the weapon’s a dog. The army is already complaining it’s too complex and will cost lives, but the minister’s been briefed and wants it to happen and nobody wants to say no to the minister.

That’s all very wartime and specific, except of course that if you just change the details a little nothing’s really changed. For the minister read a CEO, for Mair senior management, for Waring middle management, and for Rice someone on the front line trying to tell a lot of very senior people that they’ve got it wrong…

For Rice the question isn’t what the minister wants or who’s fond of which device but what the science says. He’s aware that departmental politics can mean one project gets approved and another canned and he knows that which is which can have little to do with their quality. Even so, he disdains politics, is loyal to the Old Man and rather looks down on Waring. It’s because of that he keeps finding himself blindsided by him:

As I went upstairs I wondered whether the point was that Waring was clever or that I was dumb. It was always the same story. He’d say something in his careless way that got you darned angry. Then as soon as you tackled him he’d open his eyes very wide and explain that he’d meant something else quite innocent. The trouble was that other people only heard the first bit. They didn’t hear the explanation.

Meanwhile, Rice has been asked unofficially to help look into a new type of bomb the Germans have developed. It’s a small device and particularly lethal as it lies on the ground until picked up and then detonates. So far it’s killed everyone who’s encountered one, including several children.

The bomb project is exactly the sort of thing that interests Rice: a purely technical challenge with no messy interdepartmental issues to worry about. Back at his day job though powerful forces within the Ministry of Defence are moving against Mair and his little outfit and Rice’s refusal to play politics could cost him.

Small Back Room has one of the best portrayals of the quiet viciousness of internal politics that I’ve seen. There’s a tremendous scene where various scientists, army officers and officials are gathered to consider the new anti-tank weapon. Mair is too grand and remote to realise that the meeting’s a power play and that his job could be on the line. Rice is too honest to lie when asked point-blank what he thinks of the weapon. It’s an avoidable disaster. Waring of course was the weapon’s chief champion so logically you’d think he’d be most damaged. He gets promoted.

At the same time Small Back Room is an astute psychological portrait of self-sabotage. Rice prefers to stay above the fray, let things go wrong and then complain rather than take control and risk getting his hands dirty. It’s clear from the start of the book that Mair’s days are numbered and that he’ll soon be put out to grass, but Rice would rather wait for it to happen than position himself as a potential successor – a role he’s amply suited for and which is his for the taking.

Rice’s long-suffering girlfriend, Susan, can see that he’s unhappy but can’t force him to take responsibility for his own life. She worries that her presence gives him just enough comfort that he doesn’t feel the need to fix the rest of his life, but she can’t leave because they do love each other and she can see his ability even as it frustrates her that he wastes it.

Rice battles his drive to drink with little rules and games and mostly succeeds. In fact it’s one of the best illustrations of someone successfully fighting alcoholism I’ve seen, but while he seems mostly to be winning he hasn’t won. He’s stuck; not moving forward and not happy where he is.

Rice has a lot to prove: to himself; to Susan, to the world. Increasingly the problem of the bomb starts to look like an answer. If he can work out how this new bomb is triggered, why it’s so dangerous and how to disarm it perhaps that one success will make the rest of his life a success. Perhaps.

There’s much more I could say (and in an earlier draft, did). What’s important though is that I thought Small Back Room absolutely exceptional. It manages to make an interdepartmental meeting almost as tense as a scene of a single man desperately trying to defuse a type of bomb that’s killed everyone else who’s come near it. It’s tightly written, convincing and genuinely tense. It deserves rediscovering.

Other reviews

I discovered this thanks to Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations. His review is here. Interestingly Clive James also wrote about Balchin and this novel here, though he discusses more of the plot than I do (and I don’t entirely agree with his take on the ending).

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16 Comments

Filed under Balchin, Nigel, Military Fiction

16 responses to ““I’m a scientist, not a not a bloody politician.”

  1. From your description, it makes me think of Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn. Set in the 1940s, it also has scientists trapped in a claustrophobic group working for unseen and over-demanding masters (in this case, the other side of the Cold War in Soviet Russia).
    I’m not sure this book would appeal to me though, as it seems a bit too pro-military for my tastes. I’d prefer something like Catch 22, where poor Yossarian’s fears of the consequences of the stupidity of his senior officers is all too up close and personal.

  2. I only heard of Balchin fairly recently when the Backlisted team covered another of his novels, Darkness Falls from the Air, on one of their podcasts – giving new life to old books, and all that. It sounded excellent, with some interesting parallels with Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. I love this era so much, another good reason for me to try Balchin at some point. Great review as ever – I like the comparison you’ve drawn between the situation here and the equivalent in the contemporary world.

  3. I think Balchin is long overdue for a revival. Thanks for the mention btw. I hope you get a chance to watch the film–Balchin had a special relationship w/Powell and Pressburger

  4. I like what you say about us having the chance to rediscover these lost authors – one of my favourite things! Balchin seems to be sneaking onto the radar lately – I’ll keep my eyes open!

  5. I read this novel a few years back, and I recommend both it and the highly-underrated Powell-Pressburger film made from it to people constantly.

    Regarding that film’s slightly different ending from Balchin’s novel, if that’s what you’re disagreeing with Clive James about, he may be right. The novel’s ending is great but relies totally on 1st person POV interiority and Sammy Rice’s irremediably crooked timber:

    ‘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.’

    The truth will not always set one free.

  6. A. Savage wrote: “From your description, it makes me think of Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn.”

    It’s nothing like Solzhenitsyn in actuality, however. THE SMALL BACK ROOM is very succinct and Balchin achieves the most successful adaptation of Hemingwayesque prose I can recall seeing from a British writer of any period.

    I mean, it’s _very_ British, and Sammy Rice’s tortured but stiff-upper-lip voice and the sentences are definitely Balchin’s own constructions. But I’m sure Balchin read Hemingway — very much a stiff-upper-lip man in his own way, right up till when he put a shotgun to his own head — and it’s really not so far from Sammy’s final lines in BACK ROOM (that I quoted above) to Jake Barnes’s “It would be pretty to think so” in THE SUN ALSO RISES.

  7. God parallel with the corporate world here there are certainly many examples of people afraid to pour cold water on the latest pet project. It’s how we end up with some rubbish advertising campaigns…
    It’s interesting how some authors just fall out of consciousness but it’s not always clear to me why that happens. Balchin wasnt writing about a subject that dates that badly nor, judging from your extracts, was his style old fashioned. So why did he disappear?.

  8. Seems like an interesting discovery. The longer you read, the more you realise that authors falling in and out of fashion is not all about quality – if at all.

  9. Alistair, interestingly that’s the only Solzhenitsyn I ever really liked. I don’t remember it well, save Kostoglotov being a character.

    I wouldn’t call this pro military, or anti for that matter. It just depicts the situation of the time. In any event, Sammy isn’t part of the military though he’s a bit more sympathetic to them than most of his peers on the civilian side (who generally rather look down on the generals as being hidebound, while the generals look down on them as being impractical).

    Jacqui, I do think you’d like this and I think the parallels hold good. Specifics vary by time and place, but interdepartmental infighting would probably have been recognised by the Mesopotamians (unfortunately for them).

    Guy, very much so, and since I like Powell and Pressburger I’ll look out for it.

    Kaggsy, I hope he is sneaking back on the radar (generally and for you specifically) because he definitely merits rediscovery.

  10. Mark, the ending in the book is I think unfilmable because as you say it depends on interiority. Actually, perhaps better to say you could film it but without the interior interpretation it would I think look very different.

    Irremediably crooked timber is a very good way of putting it. One thing which is quite unusual in this is that Sammy’s idea that he can have some kind of single redemptive act isn’t supported by the text. He chooses to believe that, but as his struggle with his alcoholism shows success isn’t one good day, it’s keeping going and resisting temptation day after day.

    It is intensely British. I can’t recall The Sun Also Rises enough to see the link, though I do recall that being one of my favourite Hemingways (I read him a bit pre-blog and was rather impressed. He seems to have gone out of fashion, which is perhaps reasonable given he was being held up so very high, but he is a marvellous writer).

    Booker, exactly. Here it’s an anti-tank weapon, but it could just as easily be an ad campaign or new company product or whatever. The details change, the personal dynamics remain the same.

    Who knows why he vanished? Chance I think. Grant, I agree that it’s little to do with quality. Good writers, sometimes great writers, can just slip from view for no obvious reason at all.

  11. I’m working my way through, slowly, a Balchin bio.He seems to have fallen out of vogue more than anything else. His later books were problematic for various reasons and were criticized for being dated and misogynistic.

  12. The later books then might have eclipsed the earlier, more successful ones. I did note on wikipedia that he’s most praised for a trio (including this) written in the 1940s yet went on writing for at least a couple of decades more.

  13. I bought Darkness Falls from the Air off the back of listening to the Backlisted podcast, so I’ll start there. Good to know there’s more to look forward to…

  14. Sounds fantastic.

    I was reading this part…
    “Waring by contrast is all about the salesmanship. Mair and the rest of the team come up with the ideas and Waring makes them happen.

    The problem is Waring doesn’t understand the science and sometimes makes promises the scientists struggle to deliver. Recently he’s promoted a new type of anti-tank weapon that Mair was quite fond of, but Sammy’s researched it and the weapon’s a dog. The army is already complaining it’s too complex and will cost lives, but the minister’s been briefed and wants it to happen and nobody wants to say no to the minister.”

    and thinking “Wow this sounds like war between Sales, Finance and Production” and then you made the parallel. It’s a never ending story.

    If you and Guy found it great, there’s a good chance I will too. I’m glad I keep unread posts in my mail box.

  15. It’s a real find Emma, a gem of a discovery by Guy.

    The parallels with today are striking. I hope you read it as I do think you’d enjoy it too.

  16. Pingback: 2016 end of year roundup | Pechorin's Journal

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