Expo 58

Thursday, 14 November 2013


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 that 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.


© Ian Hughes 2012