The Edi­tor’s Let­ter

This England - - Contents - Stephen Gar­nett

At the time of writ­ing it is a word that is on many peo­ple’s lips and the sub­ject of nu­mer­ous ar­ti­cles in the na­tional news­pa­pers… aus­ter­ity, the term that has been given by politi­cians and the me­dia to de­scribe the gov­ern­ment’s pol­icy of freez­ing pub­lic-sec­tor pay and re­duc­ing ex­pen­di­ture. There is much de­bate about whether, fol­low­ing their worse-than-ex­pected per­for­mance in the re­cent Gen­eral Elec­tion, Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May (at the time of writ­ing!) and the Con­ser­va­tives will have to alter their cost-cut­ting strat­egy to win over sup­port­ers from Jeremy Cor­byn and the Labour Party: dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign they were promis­ing to hand out money left, right and cen­tre. Only time will tell.

Aus­ter­ity…it seems a strange word to ap­ply to the United King­dom in 2017 and one that I as­so­ciate more with the drab and grey-look­ing coun­try de­picted in news­reels in the years im­me­di­ately af­ter the Sec­ond World War. Look­ing around at the ex­pen­sive cars on the road, the so­phis­ti­cated mo­bile phones that most peo­ple seem to pos­sess, the ex­otic sum­mer hol­i­days many fam­i­lies and cou­ples en­joy each year, the uni­ver­sal ac­cess to the in­ter­net that is taken for granted and the wide range of food on of­fer on the shelves of su­per­mar­kets, I have to ad­mit that I see lit­tle ev­i­dence of it. Per­haps I am look­ing in the wrong place, but I’d be in­ter­ested to know what the men and women who grew up in the Eng­land of the For­ties and Fifties think of the com­par­i­son.

Long af­ter the de­feats of Ger­many and Ja­pan in 1945, the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of the war and the huge fi­nan­cial cost to the na­tion con­tin­ued to be felt. Many towns and cities — par­tic­u­larly Lon­don — bore the scars of the con­flict with ugly bomb sites of rub­ble and half-derelict build­ings, while ev­ery fam­ily in the land was af­fected by short­ages and pro­tracted peace­time ra­tioning: bread con­tin­ued to be on ra­tion un­til 1948, clothes un­til 1949; petrol ra­tioning didn’t end un­til May 1950, con­fec­tionery and sugar con­tin­ued to be ra­tioned un­til 1953 and meat un­til July 1954.

It was in 1943, look­ing for­ward to the re­turn of peace, that the Royal So­ci­ety of Arts had come up with the idea of an event to com­mem­o­rate the cen­te­nary of the Great Ex­hi­bi­tion of 1851, a spec­tac­u­lar world fair that, as well as show­cas­ing the achieve­ments of coun­tries from around the globe, had high­lighted Bri­tain’s po­si­tion as a mod­ern in­dus­trial na­tion at the head of a vast Em­pire. Taken up by the post-war Labour Gov­ern­ment — and in par­tic­u­lar the Party’s deputy leader Her­bert Mor­ri­son — the de­ci­sion was made to or­gan­ise a Fes­ti­val of Bri­tain. Rather than be­ing an in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tion, the fes­ti­val was planned as an am­bi­tious cel­e­bra­tion of Bri­tish achieve­ments in the fields of the arts, ar­chi­tec­ture, in­dus­try, sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy. It was also seen as a good way of lift­ing the doom and gloom from the shoul­ders of a weary na­tion and show­ing the peo­ple of Bri­tain that, for all the hard­ships they were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing, the fu­ture was bright and ex­cit­ing with Bri­tish sci­en­tists, de­sign­ers and in­ven­tors lead­ing the world.

Fol­low­ing the re­sult of last year’s Ref­er­en­dum and the vote by the ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple in the UK to leave the Euro­pean Union, there has been a lot of doom-mon­ger­ing among some of those who op­posed the verdict and con­tin­u­ing pre­dic­tions of the dire con­se­quences that will fol­low our de­par­ture. Ne­go­ti­a­tions are clearly go­ing to be dif­fi­cult and there is bound to be a pe­riod of un­cer­tainty, but for me the thought of the United King­dom re­gain­ing its sovereignty af­ter 45 years re­mains a glo­ri­ous and ex­cit­ing prospect and it is only be­cause of those politi­cians who took us deeper and deeper into the EU dur­ing the last four decades (either by sign­ing treaties or pas­sively sup­port­ing those who did) that the task of dis­en­tan­gling our­selves from all the ropes and chains is now such a com­pli­cated one.

Once we do of­fi­cially leave, re­gain­ing con­trol of our bor­ders, mak­ing our own laws, spend­ing our money in a way that is in the na­tional in­ter­est and forg­ing trad­ing ar­range­ments around the world, no mat­ter what some peo­ple might be think­ing I be­lieve it will be a mo­ment of great op­ti­mism and op­por­tu­nity for our coun­try and one that is cer­tain to stim­u­late the en­ter­prise, in­ge­nu­ity and in­ven­tion for which our na­tion has been known through­out his­tory. In which case, fol­low­ing the ex­am­ples of 1851 and 1951, I think we should start mak­ing plans for an­other fes­ti­val: to mark our new-found in­de­pen­dence in two years’ time and to cel­e­brate all that is best about, not only Eng­land as is cus­tom­ary on th­ese pages, but Scot­land, Wales and North­ern Ire­land as well.

I have al­ready given the mat­ter some thought and sug­gest that the “Fes­ti­val of the United King­dom” might be a good name. As for lo­ca­tion: my ini­tial idea was for sep­a­rate events to be held in the cap­i­tal cities of the four home na­tions, but quickly came to the con­clu­sion that a sin­gle, cen­tral venue would be more in keep­ing with the “United” theme, so per­haps a site in a city some­where in the heart of Eng­land might be ap­pro­pri­ate. There could, of course, be four cor­ners of the fes­ti­val ground set aside for each na­tion where ex­hi­bi­tions, dis­plays, pageants, mu­si­cal per­for­mances and stalls sell­ing tra­di­tional food and drink would cel­e­brate each coun­try’s in­di­vid­ual culture and his­tory.

A large part of the show­ground would prob­a­bly be de­voted to stands and stalls rep­re­sent­ing great UK com­pa­nies (“Made in the United King­dom”), while there would also be rep­re­sen­ta­tives from our Armed Forces (in­clud­ing a fly­past), the coun­tries of the Com­mon­wealth and, of course, at­trac­tions for chil­dren and young peo­ple: a fun fair, per­haps, and a stage for a bumper Brexit

con­cert! It might also be en­ter­tain­ing to have peo­ple dressed as Great Bri­tons min­gling with the crowds, a cen­tre de­voted to the count­less in­ven­tions and in­sti­tu­tions that the UK has given the world (with, I hope, a small space for This Eng­land and Ev­er­green!) and a sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy area high­light­ing some of the ex­cit­ing de­vel­op­ments we can ex­pect in the fu­ture. If you fancy your­self as one of the Great Bri­tons, I’ll be invit­ing vol­un­teers from This Eng­land read­ers nearer the time! In ad­di­tion, I ex­pect there will need to be au­di­tions for some­one to take the part of Bri­tan­nia — oh yes, and in due course a na­tional com­pe­ti­tion to de­sign the fes­ti­val logo.

I am sure that other ideas will present them­selves as the cam­paign pro­gresses and I would ap­pre­ci­ate any sugges­tions that you might have. In the mean­time, a look back at the 1951 event should pro­vide us with some in­spi­ra­tion. And some of you can prob­a­bly add mem­o­ries of your own (I have been told that long queues were a fea­ture!)

The main site of the fes­ti­val, which was opened on 3rd May 1951 by King Ge­orge VI, was 27 acres of derelict land near Water­loo Sta­tion on the south bank of the River Thames. A se­ries of pavil­ions housed nearly 30 ex­hi­bi­tions on a wide range of sub­jects that in­cluded “The Land of Bri­tain”, “Power and Pro­duc­tion”, “Sea and Ships”, “Trans­port”, “Homes and Gar­dens”, “The New Schools”, “Health”, “Sport”, “The Sea­side” and “Tele­vi­sion”. One ex­hi­bi­tion, “The Lion and the Uni­corn”, even ex­plored the Bri­tish char­ac­ter, with the fes­ti­val guide­book ex­plain­ing: “The ti­tle of the pav­il­ion serves to sym­bol­ise two of the main qual­i­ties of the na­tional char­ac­ter: on the one hand, re­al­ism and strength, on the other fan­tasy, in­de­pen­dence and imag­i­na­tion.” An­other at­trac­tion — one of the most pop­u­lar with the eight mil­lion peo­ple who vis­ited the fes­ti­val dur­ing its five-month run — was the 400-seat Telecin­ema which was the first in the world able to show films (in 3D) and large-screen tele­vi­sion. Vis­i­tors could watch a num­ber of doc­u­men­tary films spe­cially pro­duced for the fes­ti­val.

Dom­i­nat­ing the fes­ti­val site was the spec­tac­u­lar Dome of Dis­cov­ery (ad­mis­sion five shillings). At the time it was the largest dome in the world — 93 feet tall and with a di­am­e­ter of 365 feet. Here, ex­hi­bi­tions in­cluded “The Land”, “The Earth”, “Po­lar”, “Sea”, “Sky”, “Outer Space” and “The Liv­ing World”. Next to the Dome was the struc­ture that cre­ated the big­gest stir of all: the Sky­lon. This slen­der, cigar-shaped tower was sup­ported by barely vis­i­ble ca­bles that gave the im­pres­sion that it was float­ing above the ground. The largest build­ing, spe­cially built for the event, was the Royal Fes­ti­val Hall, a 3,300-seat con­cert hall where sym­phony, choral and or­ches­tral con­certs could be en­joyed. To­day, the Royal Fes­ti­val Hall is a Grade I listed build­ing, and the only one to sur­vive when the elec­tion of a Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment in Oc­to­ber 1951 led to the re­moval of all traces of the fes­ti­val. In the years since, there has been much de­bate about what be­came of the Sky­lon: that it was dumped in the river, bro­ken up for scrap etc. Per­haps one day in the fu­ture a team of strong men will carry it onto the set of tele­vi­sion’s An­tiques Road­show!

A short dis­tance up­river, and com­ple­ment­ing per­fectly the ed­u­ca­tional ex­hi­bi­tion site, Bat­tersea Park was turned into the Fes­ti­val Pleasure Gar­dens. Mag­i­cally flood­lit at night, and of­ten fur­ther il­lu­mi­nated by fire­work dis­plays, this was a wonderland with some­thing for ev­ery­one, a vast area of ter­races, gar­dens, lakes and grot­tos, where vis­i­tors, travers­ing the paths and emerg­ing from tree­lined av­enues, en­coun­tered band­stands, beer gar­dens, sparkling foun­tains, open-air the­atres with reg­u­lar per­for­mances, a fun fair, a chil­dren’s zoo, a boat­ing pool, a dance pav­il­ion, an aviary and nu­mer­ous snack bars, tea rooms and restau­rants. Two of the most mem­o­rable at­trac­tions were the in­ge­nious Guin­ness Clock, which was later trans­ported to towns and cities around the coun­try, and the whim­si­cal Far Tot­ter­ing and Oys­ter Creek Rail­way de­signed by Punch car­toon­ist Row­land Emett.

In ad­di­tion to the events in Lon­don, there were ex­hi­bi­tions across Bri­tain, as well as Cam­pa­nia, the Fes­ti­val Ship that took the cel­e­bra­tions to coastal venues around our is­land. Whether or not towns and cities will want to par­tic­i­pate in a sim­i­lar man­ner dur­ing “our” fes­ti­val re­mains to be seen, but if you sup­port the idea of a fu­ture Fes­ti­val of the United King­dom it would be help­ful in en­abling us to take the mat­ter fur­ther if you could write to me and say so. (Please ad­dress any let­ters to The Fes­ti­val of the United King­dom, This Eng­land, The Lyp­i­atts, Lans­down Road, Chel­tenham, Glouces­ter­shire GL50 2JA, or email edi­tor@thisen­g­land.co.uk) And please tell your friends about our cam­paign.

Dur­ing the next few weeks, in the quest for po­ten­tial spon­sors of the fes­ti­val, I will be writ­ing to var­i­ous UK com­pa­nies to see if we can put them on a pro­vi­sional list. I also in­tend to sound out a few prom­i­nent pub­lic fig­ures and ask them if they are in­ter­ested in getting in­volved, and will be alert­ing the na­tional press to our plan. Once I have re­ceived a rea­son­able num­ber of let­ters sup­port­ing the project, I will send them to the ap­pro­pri­ate gov­ern­ment min­is­ter so that he or she will know that there is an ap­petite for such a fes­ti­val. It is an am­bi­tious en­ter­prise but, with the massed ranks of pa­tri­otic This Eng­land read­ers be­hind it, cer­tainly not an im­pos­si­ble dream: re­mem­ber the im­por­tant part you played re­cently in getting Ken Dodd his long-over­due knight­hood!

Once we have left the Euro­pean Union, let’s fly the flag with re­newed vigour and show the world just what our great coun­try and its peo­ple are ca­pa­ble of! Let’s cre­ate a fes­ti­val that will be re­called in years to come as the red-white-and-blue sym­bol of the mo­ment when, af­ter a strange aber­ra­tion of nearly half a cen­tury, we shook off the rags of de­featism, re­con­nected with our glo­ri­ous his­tory and used its power and weight to pro­pel us into a bright and brac­ing fu­ture for ev­ery­one. In­de­pen­dence here we come!

The Guin­ness Clock, vis­i­tors by the Dome of Dis­cov­ery, and the fu­tur­is­tic Sky­lon.

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