Charterhouse Chronicle Anthony Symondson
FIE. I 1 years ago the Festival of Britain brought the nation with a bang out of the despondency of the war and its depressing aftermath. The name was chosen by Herbert Morrison and Clement Attlee. I was 11 then and to this day I have not forgotten the thrill and excitement of being taken to the South Bank to see an entirely new world, as foreign to anything 1 had previously known. The festival brought crowds from all over the country to war-scarred London, 8.5 million from May to Septemher, in one of the wettest years on record, yet I don't remember a drop of rain. It ended the bleakest decade of London's modern history.
In an age of austerity the festival was a relief from blackout, housing shortages, rationing, queues and clothes coupons and dated from a time when Labour policies were committed to a version of socialism concerned with a betterment of the quality of life in its widest sense and not merely with quesfions of economic power and material improvement. Part of the Labour agenda was the evolution of a people more intelligent and rich in culture.
Sir Hugh Casson said that bringing the festival into being was a battle between the herbivores and the carnivores. The herbivores were men in their 40s, led by Sir Gerald Barry, editor of the News Chronicle, who would have been undergraduates in the early 1930s. In 1945 Barry wrote an open letter to Sir Stafford Cripps, president of the Board of Trade, proposing a great trade and cultural exhibition to commemorate the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and to show the world the excellence of British design. Officers and gentlemen, steeped in paternalistic philosophy, they were representative of the new post-war technocracy who were convinced that their class would have to do the job, and the job was "not only to protect and care for the ordinary man but to make his drab existence worthwhile". They believed that "there must be a revolution; but it must be guided by persons with training and knowledge". How we enjoyed the results.
The carnivores were the Beaverbrook press, backbench Conservative MPs, and the increasingly vocal Nottingham Housewives Association, the Peggy Woolleys of their day. Lord Beaverbrook was a myopic Canadian philistine who campaigned for the sale of the national art collections to settle the national debt. He pandered to the provincialism of the English mind on The Daily Express, and sniped against the extravagance of spending £11,300,000 on frivolity during the run up to the festival. This suited Barry's purpose. He considered that it was a natural culmination of the battles of the previous 20 years for social improvement and would embody the hopes of a brighter future.
Barry believed that pleasure was the basis of civilisation and he wanted the festival to be a lesson in enjoyment for people who had lost the knack of it. "The English enjoy themselves sadly" was one of his favourite quotations, taken from the Due de Sully, and he shared the view that the art of public rejoicing was becoming a lost art. In Casson, Barry found the ideal collaborator and, as Alan Powers has observed, "the cohesion of the buildings on the South Bank demonstrated a unanimity of feeling among architects and designers about the means by which pleasure and enjoyment could be achieved as an architectural goal".
Morrison was the personification of the left-wing London County Council. He was dubbed "Lord Festival" and said the British people deserved a collective pat on the back. Twenty-seven acres of bomb-blasted Victorian warehouses and mean streets were cleared at the side of County Hall, and the festival offered colour, light, flair, innovation and the excitement of the new. It was a tonic to the nation. There was the Dome of Discovery full of science, the Skylon which symbolised the upward thrust of the occasion, the Sea and Ships Pavilion which celebrated Britain's maritime supremacy, the Country Pavilion full of tractors, prize-winning cows and hives of bees, Transport full of buses and railway engines, Power and Production full of industry. My favourites were the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion which represented history and the English spirit, the lateGeorgian Shot Tower full of dangling balls, and the Centenary Pavilion commemorating the Great Exhibition with a display of Victorian wax dolls representing the opening.
You could watch documentaries and films in the Telekinema through 3-D Polaroid spectacles. Miraculously, it seemed to me, fountains played through flaring gas jets. There was modern sculpture including the Water Mobile which made people laugh in the way they did in those days, and restaurants, cafes, kiosks and snack bars suited to all pockets. And in the evening cockney matrons and their husbands in hats and coats would circle the open air dance floor with the young, dancing hatless in demob suits and flared skirts, to the music of leading bands. The Battersea Pleasure Grounds offered elegant fun and were an antidote to the seriousness of the South Bank. What a contrast it was to the Millennium Dome.
England was still a Christian country and the churches were full. Dr Fisher was Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Griffin Archbishop of Westminster. St John's Waterloo Road, was the festival church, plainly restored after bomb damage by Thomas /Ford with a mural by Hans Fiebusch and good classical furniture. I remember being taken to a concert by the choir of All Saints, Margaret Street, in Roman purple cassocks. The two monuments to the festival are the Royal Festival Hall and the Lansbury Estate, built on a human scale in Poplar, designed by the LCC's Architectural Department. It developed a humane ideal
of a neighbourhood rebuilt on a real piece of London once characterised by foreboding, gloom and despondency. In the centre is the monumental Catholic Church of Ss Mary and Joseph, by Adrian Gilbert Scott. Derided at the time, it is now listed, seen as a model of liturgical planning, and the high altar remains beneath a baldacchino.
If you want to recapture this event read Festival of Britain, edited by Elain Harwood and Alan Powers, and watch Brief City, a 20-minute documentary produced by Richard Massingham, directed by Maurice Harvey and Jacques Brunius, with commentary by the first Charterhouse chronicler, Patrick O'Donovan, and Hugh Casson. They are available from the Twentieth Century Society (020 7250 3857).You won't be disappointed.