Revisiting the Festival of Britain

How the age of austerity came to an end on the South Bank.

I've been revisiting my youth, touring "Museum of '51" at the Royal Festival Hall and reading Barry Turner's Beacon for Change, How the Festival of Britain shaped the modern age. The museum experience was not an unalloyed pleasure.

Did its designers deliberately recreate a museum of the period?. The captions are small, crowded, passive and often inconveniently located. The contemporary documentaries serve the purpose better but their emphasis on ordinary people, ordinarily clothed, triumphs over the extraordinary surroundings and reinforces the impression of drabness though, indirectly, reminding me of the Festival's promise: austerity would end.

Its impresario, Gerald Barry, emphasised the need for gaiety, welcoming the serious whilst eliminating the earnest. He set the tone, reprising it, a month after the Festival closed, in the New Statesman: "We tried to say our piece disarmingly with wit and an occasional dig at ourselves." Precociously post modern!

Barry had an ally in like-minded Hugh Casson, the director of architecture. The enterprise had a coherent personality, unlike the Millennium Dome at the century's end

The Festival also had a dome, the biggest aluminium structure ever built, the Dome of Discovery. It was just one of 14 pavilions. Another was originally called "The communication of ideas". "Too dull," said Casson and rebranded it "The Lion and the Unicorn" to reflect Britain's strength and imagination. It promoted, according to Turner, "an artificial national self-image ... [ becoming] possibly the most popular feature of the entire Festival".It also inspired the entire Festival which an official documentary summed up as "serious fun and light-hearted solemnity".

A third structure - one of four prominently featured in "Museum of 51", the other being Abram Games's omnipresent Britannia logo - was Skylon. A futuristic aluminium icon, 90 metres high, created by architects Hidalgo Moya and Philip Powell with engineer Felix Samuel, it had form but no overt function. The caption in the current display reads: "It did not stand for democracy, freedom or future happiness. It did not stand at all". So there.

If Skylon epitomised the Festival's whimsical side, it also symbolised the qualified victory of Barry and Casson over bureaucratic interference by authority, government or union, forever enshrined in Casson's phrase "armed invincibly against the enchantment of enthusiasm".

I witnessed officialdom in action in my vacation role of temporary turnstile operator at the Battersea Park funfair. Chelsea on the opposite bank shared a bridge with Battersea but its council opposed the idea of a festival and switched off its half of the bridge's lights one hour before Battersea.

What was the Festival's legacy? "The melding of modernist design with breakthroughs in science and technology," says Turner, "[offered] a tantalising glimpse of the future ... in the following decades grants to museums, galleries and performing arts increased fourfold .. the Festival became a blueprint for new towns." Said Casson :"for the first time in generations architecture has been talked and written about by people who are not architects".

The Royal Festival Hall endures but, unlike its Millennium counterpart, the Dome of Discovery (and the other pavilions and Skylon) went to scrap when Churchill resumed power.

The Festival would be criticised for being middle class, urban rather than rural and an odd mixture, as Cheryl Buckey puts in her 2007 book Designing Modern Britain, of "the progressive, paternalistic and anachronistic". Though "Museum of 51" could be similarly described, I emerged understanding how the Festival was both what deputy prime minister Herbert Morrison hoped it would be, "a tonic to the nation" and, what Turner terms it, "a beacon for change".

David Bernstein is an author and creative consultant. He is a former creative director of three advertising agencies

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear