In these cynical times, when long-distance travel is the norm and the world is at our fingertips via the internet, it’s hard to imagine the excitement that World Fairs used to generate for hosts and visitors alike. The first World Fair (or Exposition Universelle et Internationale, to give it its correct name) after the Second World War was held in Brussels in 1958 and was designed to show that the shattered continent of Europe was getting back on its feet.
So the world came to a park just north of the Belgian capital, dominated by the fair’s symbol, the Atomium, a huge metal recreation of the unit cell of an iron crystal, perfectly in keeping with the era’s faith in science as the saviour of the modern world.
Expo 58, as it was catchily shortened to (another symbol of the age), has a particular resonance for me as my father had designed a small exhibit in the British pavilion and took me, aged ten, and my older brother to the fair for our first trip abroad. We stayed for a week with the family Dad had been billeted with during the war after the liberation of Brussels in 1944. I think the year he spent there as a staff-sergeant in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers was the happiest of his life; he was thrilled to be back. My brother and I enjoyed ourselves too: we discovered the Tintin books, in French of course (they were as yet unknown in Britain), but I didn’t like the mysterious gassy bottled water (we were warned off the tap stuff) and was terrified by the speed at which Belgians drove.
But the fair was wonderful, a window on a world I knew only through books (we didn’t have television at home). I was mesmerised by the scantily dressed samba dancers at the Brazilian pavilion, a far cry from suburban Surrey, and can still taste the ice cream that curved out of taps at the Italian pavilion, of a creamy richness that bore no resemblance to a Walls cornet. The park was packed with happy visitors every day, an atmosphere I thought I’d never experience again but which came flooding back at the Olympic Park during the London Games last year.
The Cold War being at its height, however, Expo 58 was dominated by the massive pavilions of the United States and the Soviet Union. I vaguely remember the US pavilion was full of consumer goods, the Soviet one of tractors and threshing machines. It’s the Cold War theme that dominates Jonathan Coe’s amusing comic novel based on the fair, the latest example of the current fascination with the 1950s exemplified by David Kynaston’s splendid social history series and television series such as Call The Midwife.
Coe’s hero is Thomas Foley, a young copy-writer at the Central Office of Information, who lives with his dull wife in a dull house in the dull London suburb of Tooting: all very Fifties, at least as seen through today’s spectacles. He is plucked out of his discontented security by his civil service masters to manage the Britannia, a pub that formed part of the British pavilion at Expo 58 (I don’t remember it but I was only ten). Rather like my father’s experiences a decade or so earlier, Foley’s time in Brussels is a blissful escape from the tedium of postwar London. He falls in love with a Belgian girl who is an Expo guide, but he also becomes embroiled in Cold War espionage, under the benevolent watch of a comical pair of British agents, Mr Radford and Mr Wayne, who appear to owe something to Tintin’s detective friends Dupont and Dupond (later anglicised to Thomson and Thompson).
The plotting is pretty thin and predictable, both in terms of spy story and romance, but Coe has done his homework about Expo and the Fifties and his elegant and witty writing style keeps the reader interested to the end. He does a good job in capturing some of the idealistic atmosphere that pervaded the era and is perhaps the main factor in the revival of interest in it.
I caught a glimpse of the Atomium recently, rusting away in the distance, as our train to Amsterdam left Brussels. These days the Brussels world fair is to be found in the halls and corridors of the European Commission and Parliament, and the idealism of Expo 58 has long been replaced by the ruthless conformity of the European Union.