The Oxford series 20th Century Classics is an odd one. Even the connoisseurs of fiction forced to concede, though with shifty glances to side and floor, a nervous twitching of the spectacles, lips silently rehearsing their own pet loves - the aristocratic elbows of Enid Bagnold, the provincial thighs of E.H. Young; the adolescent limbs of Llandudno’s wartime masterpiece: Jampot Smith - to their ignorance of Paul de Vries’ The Mackerel Plaza, A P Herbert’s The Secret Battle or Robert Graves’ Seven Days in New Crete. The series suggesting the eccentric tastes of a few editors (or a single one); a small bookcase of curiosities rather than a canon of classics; the classic defined as a book of exceptional depth, that is well-written, appeals to a wide literary audience and is sanctified by literature’s establishment.
This book is exemplary. An exceptionally interesting novel about a British military research establishment during the Second World War; Sammy Rice belonging to a special unit that invents new weapons. Sometimes the inventions are its own, more often it develops ideas from the other services; while it also looks at suggestions sent in by ordinary citizens; these overwhelmingly hopeless. The unit - only in this war could it exist - is a cross-breed that in reflecting its creator’s personality - Professor Mair has deep and wide-ranging scientific interests - mixes together a university ethos with the military’s stricter, more bureaucratic mentality. Belonging to neither to the military nor to the civil service the unit stands alone; it is outside the political battlefield, where the various services fight for resources and esteem. Not quite fitting it, lacking a clear specialisation, the unit doesn't feel a hundred percent professional; the whiff of the amateur lingering in the atmosphere. Its position anomalous its existence is therefore precarious.
They try to do much. Spreading themselves over a large number of projects they do not dedicate enough time and energy to a single big idea; the only sure way of putting ideas onto the production line. Nothing is ever completed. Everything is half-finished; this place closer to a seminar than a study; an experimental laboratory rather than the factory floor. The section needs professional management. R.B. Waring, an ex-salesman, is brought in to provide it. An adept at political games, he ably sells the unit; but this is a risky strategy, as we shall see; for the expectations he creates are not what his staff can deliver; we think of two headlands separated by a large bay… In an office what you make other managers believe is what really matters; appearance more important than the work, until, that is, the work itself is put to the test; the cleverest politician delaying D-day until… until, thank Christ, it never happens; that rococo palace seen from afar never revealed as just another pile of rocks, its decorations mere sea spray. It is not what you do that counts. Within institutions individual sections have their own personalities that over time become more important than their ostensible function; while over this same time their original utilitarian purpose is displaced by the desire for status and self-aggrandisement, habits and the easy life.
Waring makes a splash by overselling the effectiveness of the Reeves gun. The minister likes the idea, and Waring tries to use this enthusiasm to raise the profile of the unit; the tactic backfiring when he overpraises the weapon to whose who must commission it. Cornered by the clever questioning of a service chief Sammy Rice reveals the reality behind the figures: the gun isn’t ready; at present it is merely an interesting concept. Rhetoric must surrender to honesty; the politician to the academic and technician. A mere intermission in the political play. Professor Mair, intoxicated by the discussion, which he mistakes for a university seminar, doesn't realise this; he is not worried that Rice has contradicted him or that the powerful Easton has been humiliated; unaware of the meaning of this drama, Mair doesn't realise that he is performing in a theatre where reputation is more important than the facts of the case. Of course he will lose his unit. For sure, Waring is the culprit, selling work he doesn't understand; but then an adman will always underestimate the danger of exposing a team to the intense scrutiny of powerful rivals keen to find faults; compelling evidence that proves this team is inefficient, even superfluous. Bureaucrats are experts in murder. It is easy to discover faults and kill an idea than give it resources and support. And for sure the unit does look inefficient; with little ever seeming to be completed, its members appear to prefer playing with ideas than actualising them into things concrete and workable.
Rice is a recognisable type. Believing in his own integrity he tries to avoid the office politics. But this is weakness not strength; his partner Susan arguing that he uses such integrity as a prophylactic against the taking of responsibility, with its hard choices: to get things done we have to do politics, its diplomatic feints and mercenary compromises requiring us to give up the utopian beliefs that protect us from the world, and preserve us within our own egoism. Idealism: a car we rent to drive away from life. Here is an accurate albeit simplified description of a character that can’t quite finish anything. There is something missing in this man. Rice does do good work, although little is original; his ability is to develop existing ideas and those belonging to others. Yet this doesn't satisfy him. He wants something more. At the end of the novel he tries to defuse a bomb just by himself; but he has a disability and is tired….
This episode on the beach with a booby-trapped canister is a carefully constructed metaphor for Rice; his strivings, his true nature, his incapacity. A colleague does the groundwork, which he then takes up and…almost completes. After discovering Stuart’s mistake, through a lucky accident - a pebble’s slight damage to the paintwork reveals the location of the fuse - Rice lacks the strength to remove the canister’s cap: there isn't quite enough in him to finish the job. Always he needs the help of others. He is no genius. Rice is a capable but limited technician; but this is not enough for him, he wants more than that, he wants to be perfect, a magician, a hero. It is not possible. His metal foot symbolises his deficiency; while offering a psychological explanation for his obsessive, self-transcendent desires. Rice wants to live the older, heroic ideal of soldiering, but that is incompatible with the institutional machine that runs this war; victory against Germany dependent upon large bureaucracies which denature the individual man.
So many initiatives are quashed by bureaucrats. A carefully tended gravel path leads to the edge of a crumbling cliff… Rice should know and accept this fact. He can’t. Is the war to blame? By increasing the pressures to produce quick technological fixes, thereby defeating the enemy both inside and outside the department, is war increasing the number of failures, leading to a sense of uselessness, of fatigue? It is true for our hero. Under this pressure Rice’s limitations are being exposed, and he must face the truth that he is neither an original thinker nor a master finisher; he is a second rate technician only. This is especially hard to accept, since he is both clever and independent.
One solution to the bureaucratic problem is the scattergun approach, where many ideas are developed at the same time, with the hope that at least a few will be successful. Such an approach reflects Professor Mair’s character, who curious about many things always has numerous projects on the go; the majority hibernating in filing cabinets awaiting his return. Such behaviour, a typical feature of creativity, is reasonable in a university department in peacetime. War changes the rules. A wartime institution is less relaxed; there are reputations to be made, careers to prosper, and quickly quickly. Everything has to be done - and seen to be done - now, this minute; haven’t you finished yet? Come on, come on! Activity, or at least its appearance, is the essence of such a time. Bureaucracy trumps research. And there are good reasons why this must be so. Bureaucrats need fast results because in war the top personnel do not stay around for long, each new leader keen to sink their predecessor’s ideas and float their own. Come on! Come on. We must sail tomorrow… Uncertainty and instability is the consequence. Rice’s unit devastated by a change of minister, who replaces Mair with man who has no understanding of their work: he is an organic chemist who wants to use the team - even though they have no expertise in chemistry! - to develop his own research interests.
This is a curious book. It captures the political nature of all large institutions, where human relations, especially at the top, are often more important than what these institutions actually do. Pinker loves removing people he doesn’t like; he argues they are incompetent, but, really, he is exercising a particular kind of power, that of Iago, the shadowy official who manipulates events from behind the scenes, and rejoices in the hero’s fall. Schadenfreude: it is the trousers and skirt of office feeling. One is competing all the time. A senior civil servant despises anybody in the military: of course they are stupid: they are resisting his directives! If it wasn’t for the armed forces he’d win this war within a few weeks….
It is surprising that this novel isn't better known. The Small Back Room a carefully contrived allegory about the British state that embodies a future myth about the British executive that many years later was blamed for Britain’s relative economic decline; Whitehall, believed arrogant, detached and prejudiced against technical specialisation, was said to be run by amateurs who had mismanaged the economy.1
We do not see the enemy. They leave only deadly traces, such as the booby-trapped canisters that occasionally kill people; mostly civilians. On the beach Sammy Rice is fiddling with a symbol. Dropped from out of the sky, with the target hard to predict, these bombs kill the unwary. Unexploded they lie as a traps for the skilled professional paid to defuse them. But these professionals need help; without the assistance of Strang Rice to remain helplessly sprawled out on the beach; the canister by his side live and dangerous. In an office even Rice must play at politics; his intervention on the Reeves gun creating the conditions for the professor’s fall and the unit’s demise.
He had no choice. He had to act. But he lacks the necessary skills to succeed. It is a flaw in the technician. Lacking the talent of a diplomat, Rice does not have the flair of the creative genius, the inner dynamo of the warrior; always he will need outside direction, the ideas of those with intuitive insight, the leadership from those who know how to lead. Technicians are clever, resourceful and practical; but they require organisation, must be given a purpose, be injected with inspiration; be managed, at least to some degree. Without a charismatic leader only the institution can supply the vision and the means of production. It is how thought is turned into science, science into technology; bureaucracy’s greatest success.2 But it grinds into sand the soul of those who have a spark of independence, of art.
(Review: The Small Back Room)
1. The locus classicus: Whitehall, by Peter Hennessy.
David Edgerton, in his brilliant Warfare State (which uses The Small Back Room as evidence) challenges the conventional picture; arguing that throughout the twentieth century Britain was a major power whose state industry - managed by the military - has been consistently belittled or ignored; thus even during the Second World War it was the civilian scientists, brought in from the outside, who were given the honours, though the most eminent didn't actually do any research - they sat on the coordinating committees. The important inventions done by scientists and engineers who were already employed by the armed services. Professor Mair agrees: by fifty these big name scientists are past it. No more creative work for them.
2. For what actually happens during this transformation see Adam Curtis’ Pandora’s Box.