DESIGN / FEATURE
“Commonwealth countries, new and old, declined to present themselves as grateful recipients of Britain’s supposed ‘gifts to the world’”
hole cut into the Dome of Discovery to empty its interior. Hopes remained of retaining or re-siting the more celebrated buildings, but negotiations stalled on costings and price.
The festival’s insularity has also been overstated. Concerted efforts to involve the Commonwealth were made, promoted by ministers such as Ernest Bevin who hoped to demonstrate Britain’s commitment to self-governance. These attempts foundered on the ineptitude of organisers, but also on the refusal of Commonwealth countries, new and old, to present themselves as little more than grateful recipients of Britain’s supposed ‘gifts to the world’. This trope remained prevalent in displays, with parliamentary democracy, the English language, railways, free trade and football offered as examples. That their spread was, at best, a by-product of colonial exploitation, passed unmentioned.
Thanks to Brexit, crude right-wing takes on the festival are now emerging from commentators such as Dominic Sandbrook, chiming with ludicrous fantasies steeped in imperial nostalgia around standing alone, taking back control, island races and global reach. The Festival of Britain was staged at a parallel moment of national fragility over national and international identity, economic and social struggle and cultural disorientation. Its attempts at a ‘united act of national reassessment’, in the words of its official guide, may have been archaic, partial and class-ridden but, when compared to our current discourse, its regard for tolerance and diversity, and its belief in the power of the arts, deserve credit.
Writers who might, one hopes, appreciate at least some of these virtues have long preferred to take childish delight in the incessant repetition of mantras drawn from the yellowing pages of Frayn, Forty and Banham, and have used the opportunity provided by May’s recent announcement to do so once again. This may be cathartic but, like much journalism in the age of instant news, such ritualised iconoclasm, delivered with unwavering belief in its own moral authority, does not allow much in the way of subtlety, balance or self-interrogation. Instead, it produces polarisation.
The trauma unleashed by Brexit, and the bizarre prospect of a new national festival to mitigate against this self-inflicted wound, should not be used as a prism with which to view the Festival of Britain. A few months after its closure, its director, Gerald Barry wrote that its role was to ‘assert the strength and value of the democratic way of life at a time when it was being subjected to sharp strains and challenges’. Call me naïve, but that seems like an ambition to be celebrated.
ABOVE Workmen breaking up one of the plaster figures from the group ‘The Islanders’ by Siegfried Charoux, 19 March 1952
I M AG E S
I C A L P R E S S AG E N C Y / G E T T Y
/ TO P
M O N T Y F R E S C O
I M AG E