Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Nigel Balchin

Today is the centenary of one of the great twentieth-century novelists. He is described in Clive James's critical note as a popular novelist, which he certainly was, but he also painfully analysed flawed relationships and the flaws in good men. No doubt his day job as an industrial psychologist (possibly the first in the UK) before the second world war informed his best work. James reckoned that Balchin was still popular in the 1970s, but he is scarcely mentioned in the media I scan these days.

This is a pity, because his work has hardly dated. It also lends itself to radio adaptation, and one hoped that BBC would either dig out its classic dramatisation of "The Small Back Room" or make new ones.

James dismisses his later work as a decline. This may be true in terms of its intellectual weight (though "Kings of Infinite Space" is one of the better fictions dealing with the early US space programme, and also believably gets into the mind of a technologist near the cutting-edge of his discipline), but they are still well-crafted and very readable. "Kings ...", "In the Absence of Mrs Peterson" and "Seen Dimly Before Dawn" are probably the best way in to Balchin before working back to the big three: "The Small Back Room", "Mine Own Executioner" and "Darkness Falls from the Air".

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