Magazine article The Spectator

Belgian Fancy

Magazine article The Spectator

Belgian Fancy

Article excerpt

Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe Viking, £16.99, pp. 263, ISBN 9780670923724 In 1958 a vast international trade fair was held just outside Brussels. As well as being a showcase for industry, Expo 58 gave each country the chance to present something of their own national character. What the Brits came up with was a far cry from the gorgeous opulence and spectacle of last year's Olympic opening ceremony: instead, the United Kingdom chose to represent itself by building a full-scale model of a pub.

Watneys brewery even invented a new beer for the pub and called it by the same name, The Britannia.

This is the setting of Jonathan Coe's new novel. In other hands it would be only mildly ridiculous: in his, it is delightfully funny and utterly absurd. Our hero, Thomas, works in a junior capacity for the Central Office of Information in London. Thomas is the son of a Belgian mother and an English publican, which marks him out as the perfect candidate to be Our Man at Expo 58. Nominally sent to Brussels to supervise the running of the pub, he soon becomes enmeshed in a web of espionage and intrigue. And marital deceit. For Thomas looks like a cross between Gary Cooper and Dirk Bogarde, which makes him what would today be called a babe magnet, but was then known as irresistible to women.

Thomas could be said to be a sort of anti-James Bond. He lives in Tooting with a young wife and baby daughter, next door to a stock comic character who suffers terribly from corns. It is likely that he has never tasted a Martini, nor even an olive. The only glamorous thing about Thomas is his looks. …

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