The first of the post-war World Fairs was held in Brussels in 1958: I remember it well. Jonathan Coe captures the flavour of it in his recent Expo 58 [London: Viking, 2014]. One of my own tweed designs was on show in the British Pavilion and for no better reason than that I travelled over to see it and to gaze in awe at the many international stands dominated by those of the USA and the USSR, rivals in everything from industry to ideology. What did Britain hope to gain from its participation? Coe sums up where Britain was starting from.
What did it mean to be British, in 1958? Nobody seemed to know. Britain was steeped in tradition, everybody agreed upon that: its traditions, its pageantry, its ceremony were admired and envied all over the world. At the same time, it was mired in the past: scared of innovation, riddled with archaic class distinctions, in thrall to a secretive and untouchable Establishment. Which way were you supposed to look, when defining Britishness? Forwards, or backwards?
The British answer, as always, was both ways. A senior civil servant, Mr Swaine, was describing it to his colleagues, Mr Cooke and Mr Ellis, in the presence of the novel’s main protagonist, young Thomas Foley.
‘As you all know,’ he began, ‘the British exhibit at Brussels is divided into two sections. There is the official government pavilion, which is our baby here at the COI. We’ve all been busting a gut on this one for the last few months – not least young Foley here, who has been composing no end of captions and tour pamphlets and whatnot, and making a jolly fine job of it too, if I may say so. The government pavilion, of course, is essentially a cultural and historical display. We’re pretty close to the wire, now, and we still haven’t – ahem – still haven’t quite fine-tuned all the fiddly bits, but the essential . . . the essential shape of the thing is more or less settled. The idea is to sell – or should I say, to project – an image of the British character. Looking at things . . . looking at things, as I said, historically and culturally – and also scientifically. We’re trying to look back, of course, on our rich and varied history. But we’re also trying to look forward. Looking forward to the . . . to the . . .’
He tailed off. The word seemed to be on the tip of his tongue.
‘To the future?’ Mr Ellis suggested.
By Jove, it makes me proud to be British! But to crown it all and to unify the two views of Britain; perhaps the perfect expression of out-and-out Britishness was to be the pub, to be known as The Britannia, and our hero was going to . . . well that is conveniently uncertain. A publican would run it but Foley, from the Central Office of Information, would somehow keep an eye on things.
Young, more or less happily married and with a baby daughter, Thomas was, as you would expect, checked out by the Intelligence Services. In a brilliantly comic scene he is sounded out in the most obliquely British way about his politics and his sexuality. I mean, we wouldn’t want to send some Commie queer to do a job like that, would we? Which is just as well since, apart from falling for an attractive Belgian hostess, he is dropped into a farcical Cold War espionage battle between the two superpowers and used like a pawn by the British spooks. Coe perfectly captures the mood and the dialogue of that far-off time when there were Reds under, and sometimes in, the beds. Coe’s detailed research recreates the locale and the event in its late 1950s context. He is past master in period moods and modes – as witness his masterwork, What a Carve Up-! and the more recent Number 11 – and Foley’s follies and frolics are almost convincing.
Expo 58 is a complete story with a satisfying series of twists to the reader’s tail and a classic coda. Well worth reading. Thank you Jonathan!