Expo 58 is the title of Jonathon Coe’s 10th novel. That in itself is unsurprising really as the story is set in Brussels during the World Fair of 1958 and is heavily rooted in factual history. The British were unsure on how best to depict what it means to be British and even whether to focus on looking to the future or back to the past. Eventually they decided to dedicate part of their exhibition to science to demonstrate the innovative and construct a working British pub to portray the social side.
The protagonist, Thomas Foley, an ordinary civil servant writing public information literature is chosen to oversee the pub, the Britannia. Although his father ran a pub and his mother is Belgian by birth he is bewildered as to why he has been chosen for the task. His superiors presume he can speak the language which he can but only slightly. However there are several references made to his good looks and similarity to the film heart throb of the time Gary Cooper that point to a more likely reason for choosing him as the plot progresses.
Thomas is at first reluctant to leave his new wife, Sylvia and baby daughter, Gill, but soon finds himself wishing for some excitement and a change of scene and surprises himself by agreeing to the scheme. Once he arrives in Belgium he soon finds his head turned by Anneke, the hostess assigned to meet him at the airport on his first visit and later by Emily, the beautiful actress come hostess, sent there to demonstrate the novel idea of hoovering to wealthy German housewives, in the American tent which the mischievous Belgians have thoughtfully placed next door to the Russian tent.
He soon starts to enjoy the lifestyle, the freedom of being away from home and the novelty of living in a new place, under the eye of the futuristic Atomium, a structure representing an iron atom that was built by the Belgians to showcase the fair. In fact Thomas soon begins to fall in love with the idea of living in a place that appears to be more interested in looking and moving forwards than the Britain he is familiar with.
Thomas often seems bewildered by the attitudes of those around him, the drunken pub landlord, the overly efficient barmaid Shirley, the suspiciously wealthy Andrey Chersky, a Muscovite journalist sent over to produce a weekly newspaper about the fair, and especially by the secret policemen who keep popping up at odd intervals. At first Thomas is happy to take them all at face value but, as the weeks go on, he increasingly suspects their motives, for being there. Thomas is forced to explore his own attitudes and changing values and begins to question whether the life he leads is the sort of life he wants to lead forever. As he does this he becomes an increasingly identifiable and likeable character.
There are some wonderful elements to this novel, not least the increasingly suspicious and icy correspondence that passes between Sylvia and Thomas as he suspects her of becoming far too friendly with the overly helpful and familiar next door neighbour, Mr Sparks.
There is some good humour too, although I found some of the jokes contrived and farcical they do add to the sense that they are conveying the different attitudes and values of the time. There were some jokes in the novel that really did make me belly laugh which is never a bad thing, and is something that I personally find lacking in many novels. It certainly is not a laugh a page though and is serious enough to be taken as a credible account of the times. I didn’t find it dark enough to be considered a thriller but it is entertaining, and well paced with an intriguing plot that insists you carry on reading and, as with the best of stories, the characters are as intriguing as the plot.
There is an old expression that if you want to know where you’re going you have to know where you’re coming from and Expo 58 is the kind of story that helps to explain that. It is a novel filled with cultural signifiers that illustrate how ordinary middle class Englanders existed in a grim post war Britain where sherry (gripe water for the children of course), tinned food, salt n’ shake crisps reigned supreme with little more than a walk in the park and a roast dinner to look forward to at the weekend.
There are plenty of social signifiers thrown in too, demonstrating how people thought – cigarettes are good for you, German’s are not to be trusted and nor are the Russians. This is a story that goes a long way towards explaining why, as a nation, Britain is still so suspicious of Europe, keeping one foot in but making sure the other stays well outside. That may not have been what Coe set out to accomplish but he has certainly achieved it and partially explored what it is to be British today.