It’s a rare thing, the intersection between Quad Royal and literary fiction, but by Jove I think we have found it.  Or perhaps I should say, by Barbara Jones!

Jonathan Coe expo 58 cover

The work in question is Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe. Now this – if you have my mindset at least – was always going to be a promising subject, because the whole novel is centred around the British Pavilion at the Brussels Exposition of 1958.  And here it is.

British Pavilion Brussels Expo 1958

The British Pavilion has turned up on here before, mainly because its catalogue was designed by, of course, Barbara Jones.

British brochure Brussels Expo 1958 cover Barbara Jones Illustration

And it’s very good.

Brussels Expo 1958 catalogue for British Pavilion Barbara Jones illustration

More of it here if you like.

Mr Coe has done his research too because, lo, here on page four of the novel is our hero (ish) flicking through this very booklet.

This afternoon, in the middle of February 1958, Thomas was checking the proofs of a pamphlet he had helped to put together for sale outside the pavilion: ‘Images of the United Kingdom’.  There was a small body of text, interspersed with attractive woodcut illustrations by Barbara Jones.  Thomas was checking the French version.

Which, as it happens, is the one featured here.

Brussels expo 1958 British pavilion brochure page spread cow

Although if those are woodcuts, I am quite prepared to eat a model Atomium.

I obviously have to tell you to read the book, because clearly anyone with an interest in post-war design and international exhibitions needs as much encouragement as they can get.

But – and I am only half way through – I have to say that it’s probably the only reason to read it, because the rest of it is well, a bit odd.  The experience is, well a bit flat and dull.  I can see that some of this might be my own prejudices; if I’m going to imagine myself at the Brussels Exposition, I’d like to be shown every single design detail that I would have noticed if I was there, please.  And I’m not, it isn’t a very visual book, which is a bit odd considering that it’s about a giant extravaganza for the eyes and senses.

I suspect thought that plenty of people would find it a bit of a cardboardy book.   I can see how this has happened.  The narrator is, deliberately, a bit of a dull chap.  Which is, in some ways, fine, because boring people should deserve to be in books as much as anyone else.  Except they don’t, because they’re not that much fun to read about.

The thin-ness of the telling is also, in some  ways, a kind of period detail.  People did publish novels just like this in the 1950s, and lots of people read them.  So perhaps it is just one giant post-modern joke on itself.

I really hope that’s true, because the alternative is, and I am beginning to consider this, that it just isn’t that good a book.

  • I can see that it might almost be better in that format than it is as a book.

    I’m a bit further on now, but still none the wiser, it’s a very strange thing. But I may also be a bit disappointed, because I loved some of his other books and so had very high hopes for a combination of him + Barbara Jones…

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