Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Nigel Balchin

Three months ago, literary blogger John Self interviewed Patrick McGrath. It made interesting reading and I particularly enjoyed this final question:

Finally, the “if you ruled the world” question. If you could hand out to passers-by copies of one book you consider unjustly neglected, which would it be?

Darkness Falls from the Air, by Nigel Balchin. Probably out of print. Haunting story of a pair of extremely sophisticated Londoners during the Blitz, and the most perfect ending of any story I’ve ever read. Suggest a campaign to bring it back into print, spearheaded by you in your blog.

I can now recommend another Balchin title: The Small Back Room. I mananged to pick up this copy for 75p the other day, courtesy of Help the Aged:

Ten years ago I watched the Powell and Pressburger film The Small Back Room (unaware that it started life as a novel by Nigel Balchin) and was struck by the world-weary cynicism of the main characters. It was the antithesis of the classic British war film. There were no heroes (in the Kenneth Moore sense of the word), very little action and a noticeable absence of Dunkirk Spirit. This was a film for grown-ups with real people in it.

Balchin's novel is still in print, although I wonder how many shops stock it. This is a pity, as this unusual novel gives a refreshingly different perspective on Britain in World War Two - one that tallies far more with the Mass Observation accounts I mentioned in the last post.

This Penguin paperback was published in 1939 - shortly before the War began. It makes quite surprising reading because it blows away the myth of Britain as a united country, ready to fight at any cost to preserve democracy. The Mass Observation movement portrays a country that is reluctant to go to war and isn't particularly bothered about what is happening in Europe as long as it doesn't affect the price of bread. Rather like today.

After 1939, the MO accounts record people's frustration with British military incompetence (particularly the army), cynicism about Churchill's promises of victory and a general sense of fatigue and frustration. It is this Britain that features in Nigel Balchin's novels and they are a refreshing antidote to the (probably necessary) myths that were circulated during and after the War.


Charles Lambert said...

The Small Back Room was very easy to find a few years ago in remainder bookshops. I bought mine in The Works in Wolverhampton. It was published by Cassell Military Paperbacks in an edition remarkable for its ugliness, but the book holds up wonderfully.

John Self said...

Agree with Charles on the ugliness of the Cassell Military Paperbacks; I got my copy cheaply in a remainder store too. Haven't read it yet, but was very interested to look at the first couple of pages and see that Sammy's voice is almost identical to the narrator in Darkness Falls from the Air. Glad you both recommend it.

Yes, the film! A good one, but not one of Powell & Pressburger's greatest efforts, particularly considering the masterpieces that preceded it (A Canterbury Tale, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes...!). The symbolism of "gigantic whisky bottle crushing Sammy against wall = alcoholism" was a little too comic to bear. But the bomb disposal scene was nail-biting.

JRSM said...

Balchin's great: glad to see other people reading him.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

This sounds fascinating, I must try and look out both books, though I guess I always kind of suspected that the propaganda films didn't truly chime with the feelings of those on the ground.

It would be more unnatural not to want peace and reasonable bread prices.

Steerforth said...

For those of you who didn't click on Charles Lambert's name, I should point out that his first novel was published by Picador earlier this year and is getting some great reviews.