Thursday 1 February 2024

Darkness Falls from the Air, by Nigel Balchin

Nigel Balchin was a civil servant and government/business advisor who wrote popular novels on the side. In the early days of the Blitz, middle-class characters, occupied by their jobs and affairs, carry on visiting their favourite restaurants, conveniently sited in basements. There isn’t much of a plot, and I kept expecting a mandarin to be found brained by a Remington typewriter, mystery to be solved by Bill Sarratt, the central character and narrator.

Bill and his wife Marcia are in a three-way relationship with “writer” Stephen, who plays the tortured artist for all it’s worth. At least, Marcia is having an affair with Stephen, but it is played out practically on her own doorstep, and the three keep meeting over dinner.

Meanwhile Bill is frustrated by his job. He has plans to simplify the way things are run in wartime (the “Area Unit Scheme”), but nobody will listen. Instead they hold endless pointless meetings and try to stab each other in the back. (Balchin was employed by the Ministry of Food.)

In these parallel scenarios, something is slightly “off”. Like the films Nashville and Waking Life: it looks like reality but has a dreamlike quality. The endless conversations over hors d’oeuvres and round boardroom tables add up to nothing. 

Marcia and Stephen see Bill as a thinking machine, but of course he’s as emotional as the rest of them. He has a slangy, contemporary style: people have a thin time, they’re fed up, they’re told to pipe down and stop gassing. “This sort of thing” (which we "can't have") is usually an expression of emotion. “Anyhow I vote we just stay here,” says Marcia as the first bombs fall. 

Bill’s colleagues come out with several of Jeremy Bentham’s political fallacies: “But you mustn’t try to change the structure of society overnight. I agree in principle. But it’s got to come gradually.” Bill comments: We had the usual shattering exhibition of cold feet that we always got when someone wanted to do something... We organize our peacetime Civil Service on the basis that there’s only one sin – to do something.

He writes and speaks with wit – or what we’d now call snark. “Did I tell you about my bomb?’ said Luigi. ‘No,’ I said. ‘And you aren’t going to now. Otherwise I shall show you my operation.'

‘How far is your life a settled policy and how far is it an accident?’ said Stephen suddenly. ‘Go on,’ I said. ‘There’s an explanatory footnote to that, isn’t there?’ Another character “looked like a painting by somebody who couldn’t draw and had a nasty mind”.

Yes, there are “problematic contemporary attitudes”. Don’t we know by now that people thought differently in the Bad Old Days until we came along to put them right? We should be pleased to find evidence of how wrong they were. Bill slaps his secretary’s bottom and suggests she wear her hair behind her ears (height of wartime fashion). He thinks he can tell if someone’s Jewish just by looking at them, including a friendly taxi driver. A gay coterie is introduced just to be guyed.

Clive James revisited Balchin’s work in depth.  I was disappointed to learn that most of the novels repeat the same basic plot. The Small Back Room was made into an excellent film, and Balchin wrote the script for The Man Who Never Was. He claimed to be influenced by the Icelandic Sagas, in which you were told only what people said or did, and had to work out what they thought from that. “Kingsley Amis would vehemently deny any direct influence from Balchin, but it remains true that Balchin helped create the audience which read Amis in the Fifties,” says James. I'd love to read his How to Run a Bassoon Factory, published under the alias Mark Spade. And did John Le Carré lift Bill’s surname for his spy college?

The Darkness falls in the shape of death-dealing German bombs. I’ll be haunted for ever by the last chapter.

Reviewed by Moira Redmond at Clothes in Books.


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