In 1958 a vast international trade fair was held just outside Brussels. As well as being a showcase for industry, Expo 58 gave each country the chance to present something of their own national character. What the Brits came up with was a far cry from the gorgeous opulence and spectacle of last year’s Olympic opening ceremony: instead, the United Kingdom chose to represent itself by building a full-scale model of a pub. Watneys brewery even invented a new beer for the pub and called it by the same name, The Britannia.
This is the setting of Jonathan Coe’s new novel. In other hands it would be only mildly ridiculous: in his, it is delightfully funny and utterly absurd. Our hero, Thomas, works in a junior capacity for the Central Office of Information in London. Thomas is the son of a Belgian mother and an English publican, which marks him out as the perfect candidate to be Our Man at Expo 58. Nominally sent to Brussels to supervise the running of the pub, he soon becomes enmeshed in a web of espionage and intrigue. And marital deceit. For Thomas looks like a cross between Gary Cooper and Dirk Bogarde, which makes him what would today be called a babe magnet, but was then known as irresistible to women.
Thomas could be said to be a sort of anti-James Bond. He lives in Tooting with a young wife and baby daughter, next door to a stock comic character who suffers terribly from corns. It is likely that he has never tasted a Martini, nor even an olive. The only glamorous thing about Thomas is his looks. His lack of sophistication makes him an ideal stooge and he is soon recruited by a pair of Secret Service operatives in trilby hats and gabardine macintoshes. That Thomas is pretty clueless as to what purpose he is serving in preventing the USSR from obtaining British and American nuclear secrets only adds to the fun. Suffice to say that salt’n’shake crisps are involved.
It’s all tremendously good fun. Jonathan Coe finds certain words inherently funny: Leatherhead, Tooting, corn-plaster, gay in its original sense. Inevitably, he cannot resist including some radical ideas from the time, as when Thomas announces that he’s read that cigarettes may be bad for people; salt, too. Such comments are, naturally, met with hoots of derision. Gentle fun is poked at Belgium: ‘Surrealism is the norm here, old man. They pretty much invented it.’ But Coe’s real satirical butt — as ever — is England, which gets off very much less lightly. There are jokes at the expense of our rigid oppostion to new ideas, our racism, our inablility to say what we mean, our food.
The one flaw is Coe’s occasional cloth ear. I have never heard an American say the word ‘feeble’ nor the phrase ‘damning with faint praise’. The ghastly but now ubiquitous ‘inappropriate’, ‘conflicted feelings’ and ‘concept of transparency’ have no place in a book set in the late 1950s (nor, indeed, anywhere else). Let’s hope these get the snip when Expo 58 gets adapted for the telly, as it surely will. My money is on Julian Rhind-Tutt to play the lead.