It’s been a while since a new Jonathan Coe novel has lived up to my, admittedly, high expectations – they’ve been too far into ‘state of the nation’ territory, lacking the humour that made What a Carve Up! and The Rotters’ Club so appealing – but Expo 58 is a return to form. Set in Belgium, it follows the exploits of Thomas Foley a copywriter at the Central Office of Information seconded to oversee Britain’s showpiece pub at the eponymous festival celebrating the achievements of the shiny new post-war world.
His bosses grumpily mutter about ‘those bloody Belgians’ and their dreadful food, but Thomas, married with a young child, scents an adventure and that’s just what he gets. He’s a little unsettled by Wayne and Radford, two gabardine-mac wearing spooks who give him a hilarious vetting in a coffee bar, and wonders about the funny clicking noises on his phone but he’s looking forward to a break from his humdrum suburban life. He arrives to find that he’s sharing a room with the amiable Tony, a scientist in charge of Britain’s great hope in the nuclear fusion race, the ZETA-machine. Apart from the tipsy landlord and his surly barmaid, Shirley Knott (think about it), all goes well at the Britannia which soon becomes the international draw the festival was set up to be. The editor of the Russian news-sheet flatteringly seeks Thomas out for his copywriting skills, an American customer soon overcomes his annoyance at Shirley’s tardy service and becomes a regular, and, of course, Tony is frequently to be found at the bar.
This being the Cold War there are spies everywhere although Thomas is too naïve to notice until Wayne and Radford appear on the scene with a little job for him. Part of the fun is working out who is spying on whom, although there are some pretty heavy hints dropped along the way, and Wayne and Radford fill us in very satisfyingly at the end of Thomas’s time in Brussels. It’s a very funny novel, a romp which at times reads like an Ealing Comedy: Coe’s portrayal of upper class 1950s Britons is particularly sharp. There’s the odd anachronism – loft-living in 1950s New York? – but I’d hardly have noticed had I not been handing it over to H who’s been doing his best to keep his covetous mitts of it. Just the ticket to cheer up those of us plunging headlong toward the great British winter.