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.
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.
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).