The Editor’s Letter
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 firstname.lastname@example.org) 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!