Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

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Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

The Festival of Britain back in 1951 and subsequent World Expos were before my time but I am finding that the 1950s are an attractive era to read about – a curiosity about what my parents did before they had me perhaps?  Add in my predisposition to enjoy any Coe novel and despite such high hopes Expo 58 didn’t disappoint. Coe has given us a glorious and light-hearted novel filled with romance, intrigue and 1950s optimism, but tinged with enough melancholy to make it a really good book to read. His lightness of touch and impeccable research bring the era and its characters vividly to life. Let me tell you a little about it…

Thomas Foley is a mild-mannered civil servant working in the backrooms at the Central Office of Information (COI) producing leaflets promoting Britain abroad. Thomas is at first irritated when he is picked to be the COI’s eyes and ears at the Britannia Pub, at the heart of the British pavillion at Expo ’58 – the world fair to be held in Brussels.  The suits are still debating what should go into the British exhibit.  Sykes is proposing a history of the British water closet, and Gardner, the architect is supporting him…

‘…Sykes has put his finger on it. We all do them Sir John. Even you! We all do number twos. We may not like to talk about them, we may not even like to think about them, but years ago, somebody did think about them, he thought about them long and hard – if you’ll pardon the expression – and the result was that we can now all do our number twos cleanly, and without embarrassment, and the whole nation – the whole world! – is a better place as a consequence. So why shouldn’t we celebrate that fact? Why shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that, besides conquering half of the globe, Britons have also fought a historic battle against their number twos, and emerged victorious?’

He sat down again. Sir John stared across the table at him coolly.

‘Have you quite finished, Gardner?’ Taking his silence as consent, he added: ‘Might I remind you that at the entrance to this pavilion, which you propose to deface with this obscene display, visitors will find a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen?’

Gardner leaned forward. ‘And might I remind you, Sir John, that even her Majesty,  even her Majesty…’

This assignment will mean six months away for Thomas, away from his wife Sylvia and young baby Gill, and understandably he’s a little scared of telling her. He’s also not sure for himself either but decides to wait until after a first visit to the site.

From the moment he is met at the airport by one of the Expo hostesses, Anneke in her smart uniform, his mind begins to change. By the time he’s seen the Atomium, the gleaming construction representing the crystal structure of iron, at the Park’s entrance, let alone the Britannia Pub itself, which has been designed to emulate a yacht club rather than an olde worlde pub, he is won over.

The British pavilion will also highlight the country’s eminence in nuclear physics with a replica exhibit of the ZETA machine, which, it is hoped, will provide all of Britain’s future energy needs by harnessing nuclear fusion.  Due to the sensitive nature of this, the spooks pay Thomas a visit to get him to keep his eyes and ears open for them too.

Thomas finds himself torn between duty at home, and excitement in Belgium, and it’ll take the rest of the novel to all these things out.  The nearest parallel I can draw to this novel is Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which also has an innocent abroad, needing that new experience to ultimately show the truth in his relationships back home. Expo 58 provides a wonderful backdrop to Thomas’s self-exploration.

The research that Coe has done made it seem totally real – for Expo ’58 really happened, the Atomium exists, as did the ZETA machine… and the Britannia Pub (left).  I would have loved to have shown you the Atomium – which inspired Coe to write this novel, but they’re rather strict about copyright of its image.  It is a magnificent structure though, now fully restored.

Although the Cold War was well under way, like the Festival of Britain before it, Expo 58 seems suffused with a spirit of optimism – although not everything turns out well. In Coe’s novel it is fun to see all the different nationalities getting along so well together in the name of international friendship, masking all the information-gathering about each other and spying going on in the background – that also felt very true.

Thomas is such a gentleman. Stifled in his marriage at home, you hope that he will manage to let go a bit. Will he, won’t he be tempted by the sweet Anneke, who is a total opposite to his wife? This is one of the central more serious themes of the novel, and you can’t help but feel for him.  Thomas and Anneke are surrounded by more comic characters, from two MI6 chaps straight out of Tintin, to the larger than life Russian Chersky, and not forgetting the drunken bar manager Rossiter, who used to have a pub in Abingdon (where I live, though Rossiter’s pub is fictional).

The supporting characters may be stereotyped, but at its heart this is a comic novel and the set pieces with them are great fun. This book was a blast to read, perfect in its evocation of the age and sense of place, humorous through and through yet able to bring you back down to earth when needed.  I loved it and it’s an ideal summer read.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.

Jonathan Coe, Expo 58 (Viking, 2013), Penguin paperback June 2014, 288pp.

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