Among Jonathan Coe’s novels Expo 58 is a particular favourite here, alongside The Rain Before It Falls. The two books seem to fit together, in terms of being in a minor mood, but there is a link also in terms of family. Thomas Foley, the ‘hero’ of Expo 58, is the brother-in-law of Rosamond in The Rain Before It Falls. She refers to him briefly: “A nice man, an interesting man. You should get him to tell you about his life one day, if you ever meet him. He was a dark horse, Thomas. There was more to him than met the eye.”
Thomas, one suspects, is a character Jonathan is very fond of. He is described in passing as being a quiet man, “that was his distinguishing feature”. He is a handsome devil, and “gentleness and humility were the qualities which first struck people upon meeting him and it was only later (if at all) that they would begin to suspect a certain self-assurance, bordering on arrogance, lying beneath them. In the meantime, he was most often described as a ‘decent sort’ and ‘the unassuming dependable type’.”
When we first meet him Thomas is working in London for the Central Office of Information, as a junior copywriter. He has been working on words for the literature to promote a new World’s Fair to be held in Brussels. Because of his ability with languages (his mother is Belgian and fled from the Nazis), and being a steady sort of a chap, he is sent to help manage part of the British contribution to Expo 58, which is a pub where the landlord goes by the name of Mr Rossiter, naturally.
Thomas apparently looks to some like Gary Cooper (about whom Jonathan was commissioned to write the text for an illustrated biography), and to others like Dirk Bogarde. Somehow in the book the Dirk side wins out, and it is easy to imagine him at his diffident Simon Sparrow best playing Thomas in a film version as the innocent abroad, caught up in a comical mess of espionage and romance, fraught with the sort of misunderstandings and incorrect conclusions which underpin several of Jonathan Coe’s books and tend to have dramatic consequences. And perhaps in the film Shirley Eaton would play the romantic role of Anneke, the Expo hostess.
Dirk Bogarde, in a still from The Singer Not The Song, appears on the cover of a collection of él singles, and there is a case to made for the 1960s Dirk, with all his complex contradictions, being something of an él patron saint, with his roles in the Doctor films, Victim, The Servant, King and Country, Darling, The Accident, Sebastian, and in particular as Gabriel in Modesty Blaise. In an ideal world perhaps the memoirs of Mike Alway would be as universal as the various volumes of Dirk’s memoirs once were, when every charity shop had copies of A Postilion Struck By Lightning. This is not simply idle musing, as it is easy to imagine when Jonathan was writing about the British Pavilion at the exposition he thought often about his beloved old copy of the first él compilation London Pavilion.
There is a lovely passage where in Expo 58 James Gardner, the real life designer of the British Pavilion, moans about “this bloody British antipathy to anything new, anything modern, anything which smacks of ideas rather than boring old facts.” It is an underlying theme to the book: the stuffy old English stuck in the mud, while the witty, progressive Belgians are celebrating a new world of hope and optimism, embracing electronic music and musique concrète, Stockhausen and Xenakis while the Brits are still burbling on about Elgar.
In this way, with events have panned out since the book’s publication, Expo 58 has been transformed from a slight, historical entertainment into something of a protest, a strong case for Europe (and the wider world) moving forward together, in the positive, persuasive way that our top politicians were not in the approach to that referendum. Even the exposition itself becomes a cipher, something written out of history to a large extent, which in the form of the Atomium stands as a symbol of progress in Brussels just as self-serving types use the city as a synonym for bloated bureaucracy and partisan interference.
It is interesting how what we love growing up affects our outlook on the world: our lives are shaped by what love when we are young. As a teenager Brussels seemed an incredibly glamorous place, and that had a lot to do with Les Disques du Crépescule, the label run by Michel Duval and Annik Honoré in Brussels, which issued some inspirational records, often with beautiful abstract artwork by Benoît Hennebert.
Among these were three of the most powerful shaping forces, the singles of ‘Shack Up’ by A Certain Ratio, ‘Sorry For Laughing’ by Josef K, and ‘Life In Reverse’ by Marine. The Marine single was particularly important, being by a Belgian group, who looked very cool, and who absorbed into their ranks the divine Sarah Osborne as singer, then split and the main faction became Allez Allez. Sarah became Sarah Gregory, a name which uniquely unites Betty Boo, The King of Luxembourg, Carl Craig and Goldie.
And then there was the British offshoot of Crépescule, run by Patrick Moore (or, rather, the writer Philip Hoare), which put out the Pale Fountains’ debut and the reinvention of ‘The Boy From Ipanema’ by Antena. Crépescule quietly put out other Antena records, including the mini-LP, Camino Del Sol, and through Island the glorious single or manifesto ‘Be Pop’. There were plenty of other great Crépescule moments too, like a French Impressionists single, Richard Jobson’s poetry, and some great compilations like the From Brussels With Love cassette, and The Fruit of the Original Sin LP.
If many Crépescule releases passed by unnoticed here, that did not diminish the sense of style and taste, the aesthetic appeal of the label at its classy, pretentious best, working as a civilising force, always appealingly elegant and cultured in a way that was pleasingly different to the usual scruffy, scrappy, messy aesthetics of the UK pop underground. This may seem a long way from Expo 58 and Jonathan Coe, but there are links via the Crépescule adoption of the early él and Louis Philippe being a member of The Arcadians (a perfectly él name) who recorded for the Belgian label.
If the idealised notion of a Brussels, of the wider world of pop and art and literature, is a sort of hankering after a lost domain that maybe never was, then that is totally at odds with the admirable sentiments of James Gardner about embracing modernity. But then that kind of encapsulates the conflict of ideas that haunts us as the world reels out of control. If a romantic view of Brussels and Crépescule is a sort of update of the ‘Old Europe’ Alfreda Benge wrote about and Robert Wyatt sang of, then so be it. It is a dream that will never end, and it can shape the future.