Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Jonathan Coe "Expo 58"

There are, in hindsight, some things that are strange enough to be true. It may come as a surprise to learn that thirty years before Expo 88 transformed Brisbane from oversized  country town to notionally cosmopolitan city something similar was going on in the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels.

Younger readers will probably find some of the world Coe portrays here quaint, but having lived through the Anglophile Australian suburbia of the fifties a few things here that cut pretty close to the quick.

The plot line is fairly straightforward exercise in innocent abroad set against a Cold War backdrop that will probably appear surreal to those who weren’t in the vicinity at the time.

On the eve of the 11th World’s Fair in Belgium, the first to be held since the Second World War, where the intention is to show off international achievements in arts, science and technology, and develop a genuine unity of mankind, the heads of the British Civil Service are looking for the best way to demonstrate the essence of Britishness.

There’s a rather accurate skewering of the official mindset in an introductory scene where one of the head honchos in Whitehall suggests a military tattoo, and it looks like a history of the water closet will be one of the centrepieces of the British pavilion.

The actual centrepiece, however, is the imitation English pub called The Britannia, complete with a landlord who is inclined to indulge himself in the merchandise. It is, however, a Government operation, and will need a government man to supervise things, which brings us to our protagonist, Thomas Foley, thirty-two year old copywriter for the Central Office of Information.

You and I might think a man whose main gig is writing pamphlets advising people how to cross the road safely isn’t likely to be the man for this particular task, but there are two factors that seemingly make him eminently suitable for the position. Foley’s father was a publican, and his mother is Belgian. Game, set and total match for the position.

Foley comes across as a thoroughly decent chap, handsome but unaware of it, aware the opportunity he’s been presented with should be good for his career, but not quite enthused by having to leave his wife Sylvia and infant daughter Gill behind in suburban Tooting.

Part of that unease is due to the fact that his intrusive next door neighbour Norman Sparks seems keen to be sniffing around the missus in his absence.

Prior to departure Foley is approached and assessed by Mr Wayne and Mr Radford, a pair of intelligence agents who make a habit of popping out of the woodwork from time to time as the plot develops. They’re a sort of cross-talking music hall Greek chorus, dropping by with news and observations every time the espionage-driven side of the plot takes a new turn.

Not that the spy side of the deal is immediately obvious. Foley arrives in Brussels to be met by the alluring Anneke, the pretty young Expo hostess who seems to be laid on as potential bed bait. He’s also smitten by the Expo site itself, by the gigantic structure called the Atomium, the 100-metre representation of an iron atom that supposedly symbolises the connectedness of nations and by the futuristic architecture scattered across the landscape.

At that point,  it’s obvious that Foley’s suburban British existence is about to be shattered by a combination of erotic opportunity and modernity, and it’s difficult to criticise him if he’s inclined to take advantage of the opportunity. Once he’s caught up in the day to day glamour of Expo he’s going to become alienated from the realities of suburban existence, The intermittent correspondence between home and semi-innocent abroad grows increasingly distant as he begins to suspect his wife is having it off with the neighbour.

The letters do, however, contain a degree of humour as he points out some of the little absurdities he observes. The platinum blonde barmaid who fortuitously turns up at The Britannia rejoices in the name of Shirley Knott, but turns out to be something other than what she appears to be. There’s a visit from the Fifth European Congress on Fluoridisation and Prevention of Dental Decay where a delegate breaks a tooth on the crust of a pork pie and a delegate from the World Congress on the Prevention of Accidents falls down the stairs.

What doesn’t get mentioned is Foley’s increasing attraction to Anneke, and the imbroglio that follows the disappearance of Foley’s roommate, who disappears after the star in Britain's scientific crown, the ZETA nuclear fusion programme, turns out to be a dud.

His roommate in Cabin 419 at Motel Expo Wemmel, Tony Buttress, is on site in connection with the ZETA machine, and goes when it goes, which presents a problem. He’s been seeing quite a bit of American Emily Parker, an out of work actress from Wisconsin who has landed a gig in the American pavilion to demonstrating the virtues of the vacuum cleaner and similar labour saving devices.

With Buttress gone, the jovial Russian handsome; almost dangerously so pseudo-journalist Andrey Chersky who had been befriending Foley in a supposed attempt to improve his English language magazine (predictably, Sputnik) starts sniffing around the apparently impressionable Emily.

The complication in that department comes wit the news that Emily’s alleged father is a leading American nuclear physicist, and there’ll be hell to pay if she defects. On that basis,  Foley is persuaded to turn his attentions directly towards the American.

A weekend visit home delivers what appears to be confirmation of his wife’s affair with the neighbour, and from there on we’re in spoiler territory.

There are a couple of twists and turns before Foley’s job at The Britannia is finished, a return home and a quick zip through a couple of decades before a final chapter that ties most of the strings together.

As a spy story, Expo 59 almost works, and the whole affair is painted in a style that evokes the late fifties rather well. There’s a definite dash of Wodehouse, a twist of The Mouse That Roared, and enough ironic snippets scattered through the narrative to satisfy the train spotters.

I hadn’t read anything by Jonathan Coe before and based on the author’s affinity with Canterbury progressive rock I suspect I’ll be digging into his work a little further. Anyone who can name a novel after a Hatfield & The North album (The Rotters Club) has to be worth further investigation.

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