Friday, 16 May 2008

The Small Back Room

A recommendation (brought to the surface by a customer asking yesterday, in the bookshop where I work): The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin. Its central character is Sammy Rice, a scientist involved in bomb disposal during World War 2, and it has three main threads: Rice's personal difficulties (including pain from a false foot and in-part-consequent alcoholism); an indictment of the bureaucracy hampering the effectiveness of wartime scientific research; and a tense story about the attempts to understand and defuse a new type of booby-trapped bomb. You can get a preview at Google Books.

These days the 1943 book is less known than the 1949 film, which is one of my favourites from this era; it combines the classic chiaroscuro of the peak of b&w filming technique with a surprisingly bleak and modern outlook. Sammy is an unrepentant alcoholic (a situation that remains unresolved) and the film is perfectly open about he and his girlfriend, Sue, living together despite being unmarried. (The Powell & Pressburger Pages site has studio shots and reviews - the one by Adrian Danks here is particularly enlightening about its cinematic aspects, one memorable scene being the Expressionistic distortion when Rice's craving is portrayed via a giant whisky bottle that grows to fill the room).

The book focuses rather more on the technical and bureaucratic side of the story than the film, but it's nonetheless very readable. The background comes strongly from Balchin's own experience as an industrial psychologist and, later, scientific adviser to the army council. As a scientist, he's generally credited with a number of innovations, though not necessarily on solid evidence: as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography puts it, "he claimed to be largely responsible for the marketing success of the Aero and Kit Kat chocolate bars"). The Small Book Room is similarly credited for popularising the terms "back room boys" and "boffin", though the extent to which it did this is unclear: both terms appear in British newspaper ads and editorials more or less contemporaneously with the book, and the primary influence for "back room boys" was probably Lord Beaverbrook's 1941 speech, the term coming from the Marlene Dietrich song in his favourite film, Destry Rides Again. The etymology of boffin is unknown, except that it became a popular term in the RAF in the early 1940s. The original boffins were viewed as admirable: they both produced innovative techniology and, often, risked their lives by going along on missions to monitor its performance. Post-WW2 it become a pejorative stereotype, for eccentric producers of not-very-useful science, that British scientists are still trying to live down. (If you want a take on current science culture, see

Unfortunately it's too late for last month's the Radio 4 programme, Nigel Balchin: Small Back Room Boy, but the Balchin Family History site has, along with a bibliography with cover scans, a very fairly-written biography - see Nigel Marlin Balchin - that, unlike many family history sites, doesn't airbrush out problematical aspects. Balchin's life was blighted by a disastrous partner-swapping arrangement in the 1940s that led to divorce and acrimonious custody battles, then later by alcoholism. Clive James' The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin gives a detailed analysis of the works of this highly versatile writer.

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