The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin (1943)

The Minister looked round with a very nice, rather practiced-looking smile and said, ‘These are the backroom boys, eh?’ (p.32)

Ever heard of the novelist Nigel Balchin (1908-70)? No, me neither. Came across this because it was adapted by Powell and Pressburger into a movie in 1949, starring David Farrar, a pretty much now-forgotten leading man of the time who also starred in Black Narcissus. As forgotten an actor as Balchin is a novelist.

Balchin’s biography

Balchin went to private school then Cambridge where he took a Natural Sciences degree before going to work for sweet manufacturers as a consultant, and where ‘he was intimately involved in the design and marketing of Black Magic chocolates and, he claimed, responsible for the success of the Aero and Kit Kat brands’ (Wikipedia). Sounds like early brand management.

Balchin wrote business books and screenplays besides his 15 or so novels. Another notable novel is Brightness Falls From the Air set during the Blitz. His first novel was published in 1934 which makes him roughly contemporary with Ambler (first book 1936) and Innes (first book 1937).

During the war he worked as a civil servant in the Ministry of Food and it is the crossover between research science and bureaucratic administration where this novel sits. It is not a war novel in the conventional sense. There is no action, no fighting, not even the Blitz, until the last 20 pages or so. Instead this novel is a riveting and completely convincing account of Whitehall gossiping and in-fighting. A wartime version of Yes, Minister. When the slimy civil servant Pinker tells the book’s hero that a new, rather notorious Minister is being appointed, he goes on to reassure him:

‘Oh, he’ll be alright. He’ll do as he’s told. In his last job I’m told they had a marvellous technique for dealing with him. They just used to tell him that he mustn’t bother with detail because  his time was too valuable. The old boy ate it, and they got him to the point eventually where they only sent him about two papers a week. They called it his ration.’ (1968 Collin hardback edition, p.112)

The first 160 pages are all like this, conversations in which lots of clever people talk about how they are going to control and manipulate other clever people.

The Small Back Room

The book consists of a first-person narrative by one Sammy Rice, lead research scientist in a down-at-heel experimental arms laboratory in England during the Second World War. We’re thrown straight into its office politics and relations, his subordinates Tilly and Corporal Taylor, his boss Waring, the Old Man, Professor Mair, in charge. People tired, wearing patched up clothes, smoking vile pipes, working in a dingy back room, talking spiffing.

Ideas have to be vetted, reports written up, updates presented at the monthly meeting, everything turned out in a hurry for a surprise visit by the Minister. Almost all the ideas are rubbish. The other civil servants are permanently manoeuvring for power. Rice is continually involved in conversations he doesn’t quite understand as departmental politics and alliances shift around him. Through a series of encounters he realises his demanding boss is being slowly surrounded by enemies and lined up for a fall in which he is unwittingly manipulated into playing a part.

The tone is unhappy, veering from long-suffering sarcasm to bitter satire. At its lightest it is similar to the tone of Len Deighton’s early novels which are also much concerned with Whitehall bureaucracy.

The Minister looked round and said, ‘Well, there’s certainly a lot of most interesting work going on here, Mair. Most interesting.’ Just to show how fascinated he was he made for the door. (p.32)

I worked in a government ministry for a while and experienced exactly such visits from the gods where my bosses rushed to put out the shiny goods and fell over themselves to demonstrate our achievements to the Big Man, while we foot soldiers laughed up our sleeves. When Rice meets the mover and shaker Sir Lewis Easton the latter complains that different groups aren’t co-ordinated, everyone works in silos instead of being joined-up. This issue was still being ‘tackled’ in the three ministries and government agencies I worked for in the 2000s. 1943, 1963, 2003: nothing appears to change.

And was wartime research really carried out by the bored technicians, ignorant managers and mealy-mouthed civil servants portrayed in this book – how terrifying!

The focus of the Whitehall scenes is a disagreement about the viability of the Reeves gun. Balchin’s book conveys with searing accuracy how one project can become the focal point for multiple storms: it divides opinion within Rice’s little team, sets his managers at loggerheads, provides a stick for the Army to beat the government agency responsible with, and becomes the pretext for a power grab by the seasoned committee man Sir Lewis Easton.

Around the middle of the novel there is a masterful account of a committee meeting where the warring factions converge and in which the narrator, as the technician with the figures, is put right at the epicentre of the argument, to his acute embarrassment.

Eventually the inevitable happens and Rice’s superior, the head of the Research Section, is squeezed out to be replaced by a man hand-chosen by Sir Lewis, who will toe the corporate line, who will cancel most of the informal (and most interesting) work they’re doing, and limit their (previously uncoordinated) work to official commissions coming through official channels.

It went on like that for about twenty minutes. He’d no idea what things were, or who the people were, or what we were doing, or whether it mattered. All he knew was that he was going to stop pretty nearly the lot. (p.149)

Is there anyone who’s ever worked at a large organisation, who hasn’t had an experience like that?

Oedipus

A decade before the story starts the narrator had his foot amputated and replaced with an artificial one, but it hurts all the time which makes him irritable. First novel I can remember reading which is narrated by someone in constant low-level pain. Not a comfortable read. And it colours his troubled relationship with fiancée Susan, particularly at the end of each day when he has to decide whether to take painkillers, drown the pain in whisky, or stay sober and tetchy.

His battle with alcoholism has escalated into peculiar role-playing with his girlfriend: on their ‘problem’ evenings they play act to diffuse the situation. On this evening, when he’s really angry with her for being late and leaving him alone with the bottle of whisky, he storms off down the pub, and it’s pre-arranged that she turns up there too, pretending not to know him, pretending to chat him up. This enables him to pour out all his bitterness and anger against her, to her, in her playacting role as shoulder-to-cry-on. And when he’s finally spewed it all out, they go back to the flat and have sausages and mash with wartime cabbage.

These are odd scenes. They’d seem weird even in a modern novel but are positively surreal set against the posh chaps-with-bowler-hats scenes of daytime Whitehall. (This sense of two rather different types of novel existing side by side in the same book is compounded by the advent of a third theme in the surprisingly nailbiting climax, see below).

The story of an inadequate man

Around page 120 there’s a fascinating scene between Rice and his girlfriend where she really indicts his personality, systematically showing him that he always chickens out of big decisions and then blames everyone else. This is disarmingly the kind of conversation real people have in real life, nothing like the brisk, plan-making of the thrillers. Rice denies it but Susan gives him such powerful examples he’s forced to accept it and go to sleep wondering if he really is such a loser, someone who evades decisions, avoids confrontation, always does what’s easiest, and then moans and complains when things don’t turn out as he wants.

She said, ‘You really are hopeless, Sammy. You seem to go out of your way to make – to make yourself useless… You won’t face things – not real things that are difficult. You just work on little easy things, like whether you like people or have known them a long time or something. You just want to be safe. When it gets difficult you run away.’ (p.126)

Unexplosive finale

These two strands come together in the last thirty pages of this short novel. In among all his other calls and contacts, Rice had had a few conversations with one Captain Dick Stuart about a spate of explosions killing peple who had picked up some kind of booby-trapped device. Rice met Stuart a couple of times and helped him with technical advice. At just the time that the big changeover comes between Rice’s easy-going old boss and the new, more by-the-book chap, Rice receives another call from Stuart who says they’ve found two examples of the device, unexploded on a Welsh beach, and asks for his help.

Relieved to be able to drop office politics and the criticism of his girlfriend, Rice takes the train to Wales only to be told, on arrival, that Stuart was blown up and killed trying to dismantle the first device. In a nerve-jangling final twenty pages to the novel, Rice follows Stuart’s notes as he dismantles the second device.

He is racked with nerves, becomes drenched in sweat, can barely see, and unscrews the tight fuse cap of the device with shaking hands. We feel the muscle in his thigh begin to twitch uncontrollably, the wire from the phone line around his neck brush for a second against the detonation terminals, we feel every inch of his fear.

And there, right at the climax of the novel, comes its great question: Rice spends an hour-and-a-half defusing the bomb, and, by a lucky chance, realises the location of the second fuse. By this time he is too weak and shaky to unscrew the second cap and it is done in a jiffy by the brave, strong, virile and whole-bodied lieutenant-colonel Strang, who has been overseeing the operation. Rice lies back and almost weeps. He had been determined to completely solve the problem or die in the attempt. He was at the same moment petrified it would explode and didn’t give a damn. But he ends up with the worst of both worlds, surviving but convinced he is a failure who ended up needing someone else to finish the job.

The question is: Is he right to feel this way? Is he a failure or a success? He is alive whereas Stuart is dead. He spotted the vital clue which Stuart missed. Using his method all similar bombs will be able to be defused. But he chooses to dwell on his physical weakness at the vital moment. Similarly, he retains his job where others have been fired. But he chooses to focus on how he missed earlier opportunities, offers from the oleaginous Pinker in a pub or in meetings with Sir Lewis Easton, where he could have manoeuvred himself into a better position. Sure he’s kept his job but with the grumpy resentment that he’s now being managed by idiots. Is he the self-pitying failure his girlfriend accuses him of being? Or is he actually reasonably successful but just twists everything so that it seems like failure in his tortured mind?

He returns to London completely demoralised and, on the last page, wanders into Hyde Park after dark at the end of his tether.

The moon was just going down behind a tree. I decided that when it disappeared I’d get up and go. I sat and watched it going and I knew there was no answer. 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. (p.192)

This is an odd ending to an odd book. If it had stuck to the Whitehall merry-go-round theme and found some kind of fitting Yes, Ministerish ending to that plotline, it would have been one of the best books about office politics I’ve ever read. But it has this peculiar and insistent counter-theme which is almost tragic, or has a whiff of existentialism, concerning a man who is physically maimed and psychologically damaged and cannot be at ease with his own existence. That is the flavour which lingers when you close the book, and tends to eclipse the earlier, more humorous sections.

And then there is the nailbiting final sequence about bomb disposal, presumably a very early amateurish and more or less unsupervised bomb disposal, which also makes a powerful impression.

I think it’s the way it doesn’t really satisfactorily plumb the depths of any of these three subjects which has helped this novel sink into relative obscurity. But it’s a much more serious and searching piece of literature than the thrillers I’ve been reading recently, and well worth investigating.

Style

After the gripping narratives of Ambler and Innes it’s a shock to engage with Balchin. There is little or no dynamic to the story until the (exceptional) last twenty pages. Up till then everyone is stuck in the ruts of their boring nine-to-five, circling and conspiring against each other in the best bureaucratic tradition.

And after the thriller writers’ stripped-down, practical prose and dialogue, it’s like stepping into another world to hear Balchin’s characters talk: He and everyone he interacts with speak in old hat, clichéd, posh banter. Old chap, old man, old boy, sort of thing, for the love of Mike, the professor’s an old friend of the Minister, bung ho, what ho, oh I was at school with him, good show, good man, first-rate, frightful rot, ra-ther, get the wind up, prang, on the q.t., cheerful sort of cove etc etc.

(Note: It’s consistent with the jolly Battle-of-Britain bantering style, that – according to Wikipedia – this novel helped popularise the terms ‘boffin’ and ‘backroom boys’. If I’d read it in its year of publication I’d have wondered – like the protagonist does – whether anyone in Whitehall actually wanted to win the War or whether they were all too busy with their vicious little departmental in-fighting.)

All this said, Balchin does have a nifty way with a phrase. Earlier sections, in a nightclub, in a pub, in the office, sustain an entertainingly detached, satirical, sarcastic tone and pithy phrase-making:

He sat for a bit and stared into the distance as though he had known it once but proposed to cut it now. (p.82)

Easton turned his head very slowly and gave me the flat hard stare that served him as an expression of anger, surprise, interest and amusement, depending on the context. (p.85)

The doctor was a rather fat chap, very bald, with a red face and brilliant blue eyes. He had a hearty slap-you-on-the-back manner which he switched on and off like a motorist dipping his headlights. (p.99)

Dramatis personae

  • Sammy Rice: the narrator: research scientist with an amputated foot and artificial replacement, an inferiority complex and a drink problem. In love with…
  • Susan: his fiancée, who has to put up with Rice’s moods, bad temper, struggle with the booze. Also secretary to…
  • Waring: his boss, not a scientist, a PR man in Civvy Street, blissfully unaware of the complicated Whitehall politics surrounding him and his team – or is he? Is he in fact just effortlessly competent at playing the game?
  • Tilly: co-worker and scientist, the numbers man, always punching stats into his primitive calculating machine.
  • Joe Marchant: victim of the new broom who comes in and sweeps him right out of the department.
  • Corporal Taylor: working on fuses but troubled by his foreign-looking floozy of a wife.
  • Corporal Ellis: working on micro photographs.
  • Professor Mair: ‘the Old Man’, in overall charge of the research unit, we see him perform at various departmental meetings, before being ousted.
  • Dick: Sammy’s younger brother, twice-decorated RAF pilot.
  • Pinker: creepy civil servant acquaintance who’s always pushing for inside info about the department and conspiring to get other civil servants sacked: he’s managed 14 to date.
  • Iles: arrogant bureaucrat Rice encounters at a nightclub who thinks the services don’t deserve the wonderful civil servants who provide for them.
  • Sir Lewis Easton: chair of National Scientific Council. Extremely experienced political player ie slippery fish. Manages to get Mair ousted and replaced with his appointee, Brine, who knows absolutely nothing about their work.
  • Knollys: a pre-War friend working in a different lab, who has a whole sub-plot to himself exemplifying the utter absurdity of Whitehall life.
  • Hereward: Knollys’ boss who only signs off on ideas he’s persuaded he thought of himself.

The movie

Adapted into a movie by the famous British film-making team of Powell and Pressburger in 1949. Balchin himself worked on the script. It is long and pretty faithful to the novel but very wooden and stilted – though just about worth watching for the fine array of British character actors (Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusack, Geoffrey Keen, Robert Morley, Patrick Macnee and a very young Bryan Forbes).

Surprisingly, given P&P’s reputation for oddity and the involvement of the author, they change the ending: the novel’s puzzled irresolute inconclusion is transformed into a happy ending: Rice defuses the bomb all by himself, returns to London feeling like a hero, on the back of this success is offered a job running his own department, and his beautiful wife rushes into his arms. The perennial cowardice of film makers.

It tells you a lot about the standards of the day that it was nominated for a 1950 BAFTA Award as ‘Best British Film’.

Related links

Cover of an early American edition of the Small Back Room

Cover of an early American edition of the Small Back Room

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