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The Polis and the Festival

In the epilogue to Unconditional Surrender (1958), there is a characteristic announcement from Evelyn Waugh:

In 1951, to celebrate the opening of a happier decade, the government decreed a Festival. Monstrous constructions appeared on the south bank of the Thames, the foundation-stone was solemnly laid for a National Theatre, but there was little popular exuberance among the straitened people and dollar-bearing tourists curtailed their visits and sped to the countries of the Continent where, however precarious their condition, they ordered things better.

It has always been easy to mock the Festival of Britain. Its sixtieth anniversary seems a good time to tease out its meaning.

J. B. Priestley did some gentle mocking in a contemporary novel, Festival at Farbridge, whose chief delight is its cast of characters, among them Rufus Grope, a lecturer and poet (I’m a Fierce Gay Anarchist), and Arthur Hatchett-Ferrers, a wealthy industrialist. (‘It may have been the Hatchett, the Ferrers, or merely the hyphen, but certainly his manner announcing his name suggested that in his opinion it was a guarantee of impeccable behaviour in any licensed vehicle.’)

Most famously, the Festival was brilliantly satirized in a 1963 essay by Michael Frayn, in which he identified two warring tribes – or, rather, one warring tribe and its docile doppelganger.

Festival Britain was the Britain of the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC. In short, the Herbivores, or gentle ruminants, who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass. And in making the Festival they earned the contempt of the Carnivores – the readers of the Daily Express, the Evelyn Waughs; the cast of the Directory of Directors – the members of the upper and middle classes who believe that if God had not wished them to prey on all smaller and weaker creatures without scruple he would not have made them as they are.

The makers of the Festival brought some of this on themselves. ‘Don’t run away with the idea that the Festival of Britain is going to be solemn,’ cautioned the Herbivore-in-Chief, Gerald Barry, editor of the News Chronicle and director-general of the Festival. ‘Not a bit of it. It will afford us all the opportunity, as occasion allows, for some harmless jollification. … But the main purpose of the Festival is, all the same, strictly serious. It is intended as an act of national reassessment. The whole of Britain will be “on show” – to herself, and to the world.’

Edification trumped jollification. It was a Festival, not a bun-fight. Even the Battersea Pleasure Gardens had an improving purpose. Improving was engraved on the heart of the Herbivore. Having fun was all very well, but it should be ‘elegant fun’, in Gerald Barry’s phrase. One of the principal goals of the Festival of Britain was a more enlightened citizenry. It was a celebration, to be sure, but it was also an education. The diffusion of knowledge and culture, taste and discrimination, ran rampant throughout.

Nowhere was the educative urge more apparent than in the Lion and the Unicorn Pavilion, designed to symbolize ‘two of the main qualities of the national character: on the one hand realism and strength, on the other fantasy, independence, and imagination’. The commentary in the pavilion was written by Laurie Lee, but many visitors must have been reminded of George Orwell’s 1941 call to arms, The Lion and the Unicorn.

If Orwell wrote the script for the Festival, visitor responses serve to underline that the South Bank was a public space, a space of appearance, as Hannah Arendt understood it. It was, in effect, a polis. In The Human Condition, Arendt writes that ‘the polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together …. It is the space of appearance in the widest sense of the word, namely, the space where I appear to others as others appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate things but make their appearance explicitly. On the South Bank, men and women made their appearance explicitly, acting and speaking together, on show to themselves and the world.

Sharing is fundamental to the polis: shared experience or shared memory is what it is all about. It is inherently public, collective. It cannot be privatised. The South Bank was the very model of the modern public sphere. Public architecture framed public sculpture. Wary visitors circled Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure, puzzling it out together, limb by limb. Moore became a kind of sculptural counterpart of the new NHS, the National Health Sculptor.

The Festival of Britain attracted over eight million visitors. No sooner was it over than much of it was demolished by the incoming Conservatives, led by the Carnivore incarnate, Winston Churchill. The site can be bulldozed – the authorities in Bahrain have recently done the same with the Pearl Roundabout in Manama – but the memory is not so easily expunged. The space of appearance is transient, impermanent. It may be constituted and reconstituted, as Tahrir Square in Cairo goes to show. The polis is the people, and the people have extraordinary resources. Hannah Arendt’s account draws on Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. It culminates in Nicias’s inspirational words to the Athenian Expedition: ‘Wherever you go, you will be a polis.’

Wherever next for the polis in the uneasy amalgam of Coalition Britain? Somewhere in Scotland, perhaps.

Alex Danchev

Published inBritish Politics

One Comment

  1. Wonderful!

    I’ve long wondered how to square my (partly aesthetic, I’ll admit) admiration for the Festival of Britain and the gentle, British modernism it ushered in. And, I hasten to add, never come up with much of a solution. An anarchist utopia in a building designed by the Smithsons, perhaps. But I fear I might lead a rather solitary life there…

    There’s definitely a mourning for this kind of polis though: the rather vogueish concept of ‘hauntology’ in music might be of interest. Though the term comes from Derrida’s essay ‘Spectres of Marx’, it’s more ‘Spectres of Social Democracy’- the music (and artwork, track titles and bandnames) conjuring up a future that we were promised but which never arrived (it is this that haunts us): a utopia with a Pelican book educated populace; blue-and-grey trains; comprehensive schoool and polytechnics; and a touch of folk custom thrown and pagan superstition thrown in for good measure.

    Releases on Ghost Box records and July Skies’ album ‘The Weather Clock’ are probably the best places to start, if anyone’s interested (early versions of the latter had a bonus EP with a track called ‘Festival of Britain’).

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