You would now need to be at least in your late sixties to have any real memory of the two very contrasting national festivals which, in the decade after the Second World War, marked Britain's long and painful emergence from the shadows of the war years. The 1951 Festival of Britain was a last flicker of the idealistic spirit of a "People's Britain" which had brought about the Labour landslide of 1945: intended to renew those hopes of a brighter future which six years of rationing and austerity had all but extinguished.
Two years later, by the time of the Coronation in 1953, the mood of the nation had radically changed. With the Conservatives back in power under Winston Churchill and the return of a modest prosperity, the pageantry of this second national celebration-the feudal pomp of Westminster Abbey, the Queen of Tonga waving from her carriage in the rain and street parties across the land-seemed like the triumphant re-emergence of a more traditional Britain.
The centrepiece of the 1951 festival, as Barry Turner records in Beacon for Change, was the exhibition on the South Bank of the Thames: a score of futuristic structures in metal, glass, concrete and plastic rising from the rubble of the Blitz, on the site now dominated by the London Eye. I recall the excitement with which so many of us in that wet and dismal summer caught our first glimpse of "modern" architecture. Floating above it all was the Skylon, a slender tapering cylinder nearly 300ft high, with below, like a giant flying saucer, the Dome of Discovery, then the largest dome in the world.
Such eager anticipation, however, soon turned to bemusement at the rather sad banality of most of the exhibits within (although I still fondly recall "the world's longest sheet of plate glass"). For us young schoolboys, our happiest experience of the festival was being allowed to escape up river to Battersea Pleasure Gardens, full of playful fantasies such as Rowland Emmett's Far Tottering and Oystercreek miniature railway and above all a funfair, complete with Big Dipper.
Turner provides a workmanlike account of how all this came about, largely under the inspiration of Gerald Barry, a former editor of the News Chronicle (a liberal newspaper later swallowed up by the Daily Mail). Supported by Labour's Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison, Barry recruited around him a team of progressive — minded young architects and designers who for months battled with appalling weather, red tape and a chippily unionised workforce to get the exhibition finished just in time for its ceremonial opening by King George VI at a service in St Paul's.