Thursday 8 May 2008

loose lips sink ships

Darkness Falls From The Air
by Nigel Balchin

I'm always up for a 'lost classic' or a book which deserves a wider audience. The author Patrick McGrath in a recent interview on the Asylum site mentioned this wartime novel by Nigel Balchin who enjoyed great critical and comercial success in his day (and also incidentally penned the terms boffin and backroom boy). McGrath mentioned that it has the most perfect ending. I can't tell you how many times the ending of a novel has left me feeling let down, so naturally I couldn't wait.

I felt unseated almost immediately by the tone which was far less gritty Brits during the Blitz and more Brits thinking it's damned inconvenient now getting to the Ritz. There's lots of talk of getting tight, talking bunkum and people being a pip. But this isn't upper class guff, Balchin's novel is located firmly in the middle classes (with their unique withering take on everything, even war) with solid civil servant Bill Sarrat at the centre. Bill is frustrated at work where the dithering of colleagues and especially superiors is moving from Yes Minister territory into a far more serious area which he feels could decide whether the war is won or lost. He faces a different battle at home where his wife, Marcia, is having an affair with which Sarrat is being terribly accommodating, especially when, or perhaps because he thinks her lover Stephen is 'a perfect specimen of a spoilt child grown up'. Taking the moral high ground he thinks it is up to Marcia to decide how and when and even if to end her affair but with her caring nature she finds it almost impossible to resist those very demonstrations of childish emotion which Stephen is so keen on; the tears, the dramatic gesture, the talk of suicide. This leads to a building intensity to Bill's confrontations with his wife and after one particular scene where he is driven to slap her hard across the face and then breaks down we have this thoroughly English conclusion: '..."But anyhow I must go to the office now. It's damned late." It was well after nine.'

Balchin's descriptions of London under the Blitz aren't what I expected either. The book was actually written whilst the bombs fell and shows events from a unique humourous perspective.

They had hauled down a barrage balloon. It was a bit deflated and the tail fins were flopping down. End on, the whole thing looked exactly like an elephant in a vile temper flapping its ears. I remembered that the people who ran barrage balloons were said to get very fond of their own balloon. You could see that they would. This particular one had a lot of personality.

Or this exchange after an incendiary bomb has fallen and been quickly doused by men with sandbags.

'It was a feeble little bomb, wasn't it?'
'It didn't get much of a chance,' I said
'No. I felt quite sorry for it in a way.'

The civil service plotline isn't hugely engaging and the tone of the rest of the novel is confusing to say the least. It felt at times more like pastiche than a novel being written at the time. It isn't until nearer the end that Balchin uses his obvious skill to create a far more dangerous sounding London, one familiar to anyone who has lived there through any form of terror there in the last 60 years. I won't say too much of the ending of which McGrath is so impressed and we'll ignore the idea of a perfect conclusion but Balchin certainly wields his authority. This tale of life during wartime has its moments but its alienating tone makes it difficult to care too much about anyone.


John Self 8 May 2008 at 21:14  

"Alienating tone" - yes, that's one way of putting it! Interestingly, I picked up Balchin's subsequent novel (and probably his most famous, owing to the film adaptation) The Small Back Room, and the first pages seem to show that the narrator has pretty much the same sardonic voice as Bill Sarratt. I'll read it anyway...

Max Cairnduff 16 April 2012 at 21:32  

Just saw this one. Guy Savage over at His Futile Preoccupations is a bit of a Balchin fan, though I can't recall if this is one he's covered. I've picked up one myself now (though not this one, thankfully from your review).

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