The Festival of Britain, 60 years on

The Festival of Britain is remembered as an uplifting moment for a nation recovering from war. Iain Sinclair, who visited it aged eight, reflects on the celebrations to mark its 60th anniversary, in our age of corporate sponsorship and Olympics mania

Who could fail to be charmed by the legend of the migrating stone lions? How one couchant beast, with its imperturbable gravitas, a heraldic chunk of London itself, moved without lifting a paw, from the site on the south bank of the Thames being cleared for the Festival of Britain in 1951, to Waterloo Station with its martial trappings, and on to its present eminence alongside the decommissioned County Hall. This stocky creature, maned like Harpo Marx, and cast at the Artificial Stone Manufactory operated by Eleanor Coade at Narrow Wall, Lambeth, was produced for the Lion brewery. The great block building, more like a town hall than a reeking factory, was torn down as part of the clearance of an unloved stretch of river frontage. A necessary sacrifice for the postwar festival that would celebrate Britain's heritage, her industrial and scientific advances, by eradicating the residue of an inconvenient past. So while the great and the good, with their preternatural ability to know what is worthwhile and improving for the rest of us, formed their committees and disposed of modest state patronage, the weird, magnificent, unapproved narrative of the city wriggled and twisted, determined to remain beyond the reach of salaried explainers.

In our own time, we have chosen to exploit a climate of cultural amnesia, Google prompts in place of hard-grooved memory, to set up a chain reaction of festivals honouring festivals: as if nothing of significance happened between these accidental highlights. Decades are organised around the Orwellian preparations for programmed grand events; the promise of a virtual blue-sky future underwriting present inconvenience. The tactical destruction of unrequired historic buildings. Paranoid security operations to ameliorate terrorist threats provoked by the strident apparatus of self-promotion. There is an obvious connection, on the declining Roman empire's bread and circuses model, between political enthusiasm for public spectacles and the periods when we are least able to pay for them.

When the Tories were returned to power in October 1951, they decided that the Festival of Britain site was an expensive embarrassment, more suited to Albania. David Eccles, the minister for works, said that he was "unwilling to become the caretaker of empty and deteriorating structures". There was no O2 rescue package on the horizon. No afterlife as a tented mall, a venue for pensioned rock acts, was offered to the Dome of Discovery, that mushroom-roofed inspiration for New Labour's Millennium Dome on the East Greenwich peninsula.

Lions, taken down from the brewery roof and destined for the knackers' yard, or an architectural salvage shed run by Bermondsey wide boys, were saved by the personal intervention of King George VI. Royal princes, it is acknowledged, have a special relationship with conservation, a vested interest in preserving the fabric of London, maintaining it like a giant chessboard of family statues, a calcified zoo of colonial trophies. The festival in 1951, a soft-Soviet interlude, inspired by the visionary civic proposals of Patrick Abercrombie's 1943 County of London Plan, could afford to indulge the whims of the stuttering monarch. The stone lions were unculled. During the rescue operation, a hidden recess was found in the spine of one of the enigmatic beasts. It contained a note from the sculptor WF Wooding, who reported that work was completed on the birthday of Princess Victoria, 24 May 1837. There were also coins from the time of William IV and the traditional green bottle, in which was an advertisement for the firm of Coade. If this was too subtle a product placement, the Lambeth businesswoman made sure that her name was branded into the animal's paw.

The Southbank Centre's 60th anniversary celebrations of the original Festival, which will run from 22 April to 4 September, 2011, are sponsored by MasterCard. The global payments company, as is equitable, attach their name to the title. Their operation, they inform us in the new Festival's publicity material, "prides itself on being at the heart of commerce, helping to make life easier and more efficient for everyone, everywhere". The last vestiges of the local, the particular, as represented by the stone lions, and the pre-iconic shot tower which was allowed to stand like a forlorn industrial ghost on the 1951 site, close to the demolished brewery, are dissolved into a generic grand project that can happen anywhere at any time, according to the fluctuations of the market.

The old gods creep across London's Georgian terraces, pagan masks on keystones; sea gods and river gods produced in multiple versions by Coade. The Coade stone formula blended china clay with ground "grog" in an alchemical recipe the manufacturers tried to keep secret. River mud was enriched with shards of failed effigies and the gritty dust of redundant motifs. In this process is a powerful metaphor; rather than sweeping the board clear, the Coade bestiary reinvented itself as a marriage of earlier prototypes with the base clay of the Thames valley. Statues, and modest architectural interventions such as the stone alcoves from the old London Bridge, did not disappear; they migrated, slipping away to obscure suburbs. You could track the humped igloos that once provided shelter, as they relocated to Guy's Hospital in Southwark, to Victoria Park in Hackney, to Myddleton House in Enfield. This process of restless movement is the paradigm of a true London celebration; objects shift according to whim as fortunes rise and fall. A brewery is demolished and its trade-brand lion becomes a photo-opportunity, a stoic sculpture created by an anonymous and forgotten craftsman. Meanwhile, another brewer, Meux, acquired Christopher Wren's Temple Bar, and had it removed from Fleet Street to decorate an estate at Theobalds Park, near the M25 at Waltham Cross. Here is London as a spontaneous, unprogrammed, eternal festival, requiring no sponsorship, no overlapping agencies disguised behind portentous acronyms. It is there to be witnessed and interpreted by anyone with open eyes and the inclination to walk and wonder.

The 1951 festival, remembered as an uplifting moment for a nation recovering from the trauma of war, has become part of our communal memory, haunting certain stretches of the Thames shore, in the same way that the stone lions act as narrative triggers, leading us back to the erased narrative of the dirty industries that once occupied the creeks and marshes of the spurned south bank. Because the impulse for regeneration that lay behind the festival led to the construction of public buildings such as the Royal Festival Hall, the events that took place over one damp English summer have been assigned to London, and promoted as the instant when northbankers were persuaded to cross the river – on a rickety Bailey bridge erected by the Royal Engineers. The nationwide aspect of the festival has been forgotten or downplayed. Celebratory events took place in 17,000 towns and villages across Britain, but what we recall, and what is now being treated to a MasterCard homage of "pop-up structures, fairground rides, outdoor dancing, and eating and drinking al fresco", is the aspiring culture quarter between Waterloo Bridge and Hungerford Bridge. Nobody has found a patron to commemorate the touring show that travelled through Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Midlands, or the festival ship Campania that sailed from port to port, emblazoned with the festival's symbol.

Attempts were made to play on deep images of national, or at any rate English, consciousness. The names of Darwin and Newton were constantly invoked. The festival arranged itself around notions of "the land" and "the people"; a blessed heritage of farmers, sailors, poets, bravely advancing into the age of radar and jet propulsion. The distinguished film-maker Humphrey Jennings assembled a national portrait by collaging seaside snapshots with prospects of Beachy Head, stone circles with coal-miners and iron workers, the surreal detritus of coastal defence systems with gargoyle proles and Falstaffian ale-drinkers. "The Elizabethan journey ended," the narration says, "with the Battle of Britain."

The critic Kevin Jackson, in his biography of Jennings, follows a walk the director made with an old friend, the poet Kathleen Raine. They set off across Battersea Bridge, towards the park where the upstream element of the festival took part, that very English funfair. Jennings rhapsodises the river that dressed the events of that summer in their enduring magic. Employing a mage-like gesture of the arm, he invokes Blake's "chartered Thames" and dreams of shoals of salmon returning in such numbers as to feed the inhabitants of the city. The river was the agent of transformation. The quality of Britishness in the festival was not achieved by random manifestations in northern cities and Cotswold hamlets, but in the way that people from the provinces were drawn to a previously disregarded riverside stretch of London by a contrived public (and political) event that pulled off the trick of appearing to be improvised and liberating.

But why did the Festival of Britain feel so much better than New Labour's launch of the Millennium Dome and the present regime's construction of the Olympic Park? I was eight years old. It was one of my first trips to London. Then there was the river, which I loved straight away, the boat carrying us between the exhibition site on the South Bank, with its Eagle-comic Skylon needle, and Battersea Park with its pleasure grounds and dodgem cars. The summer show, coming out of war, austerity, rationing, was at the heart of London, not banished miles downstream.

Ealing Studios made a film about a family barricading themselves into their doomed terrace, to repel bulldozers clearing the ground for the grand project, sweeping away the last traces of the Lion brewery. There was the same compulsory rehousing found in the Victorian period, with the laying out of numerous speculative railways, and, more recently, in the evictions from Hackney Wick and Fish Island for the Olympic Park. But the bureaucrats of Clement Attlee's Labour administration relented, allowing the house to remain as a festival exhibit: the typical English home. When the Manor Garden allotment holders in Waterden Road proposed the same ruse to the Olympic Development Authority, they were expelled within weeks. By 2009 the will of the alphabet-soup quangos is absolute: more consultation, swifter destruction. Drain Victoria Park Lake, devastate the habitat of long-established wildlife and boast of your "route enhancement programme". Import tons of sand to create an urban beach, as an extravagant, playful, ironic reference to the attempt in the Attlee era to simulate the seaside excursions East Enders could no longer afford by transporting Margate to Tower Bridge, and inviting families to paddle in the oil-slicked sediment of the Port of London.

The Central Office of Information documentary, Brief City (1952), brought the Festival of Britain right back to me. The voice-over speaks of "fierce little boys filled with their secret purposes". School caps, ties, white shirts, grey shorts. The men are layered in gabardine, puffing on pipes, and the women carry large white bags as they hobble in difficult shoes. Awkward youths, not yet assigned as teenagers, sport uniform open-neck shirts under blazers with badges, as they peer intently at pistons and cogs operated by boffins who wear greasy ties under long, brown lab coats. This was a festival of doleful enlightenment, self-improving recreation. A heart-rending spectacle of obligatory pleasure taken very seriously, like National Service or a dose of cod liver oil. The diminutive, brolly-wielding Hugh Casson, chairman of the Festival Architects, wanders the site with Patrick O'Donovan, who represents the sponsors, the Observer newspaper. They smoke, they chat, ordinary figures in the crowd. There were 8.5 million visitors, but the project was not universally popular. Telephone operators at the box office were reported to answer with a brisk: "Festering Britain, here."

Casson knew what he was about and his concept was not strangled at birth by spinners, politicians, land pirates. He spoke of "leisured gaiety": kiss-me-quick hats and fairground novelties alongside solemn Henry Moore figures. Popular-science gizmos and models for New Towns tested on a compliant audience. There would be no vaunting processional ways, no grand vistas. The South Bank site was plotted like a series of rooms, opening one from another. "London," Casson said, "is a city of secret places." He wanted to conjure that sensation of coming across a country lane nestling among uniform suburbs, the hidden garden overshadowed by grim warehouses. Wren churches flanked by Italian coffee bars: the Fairway Café, the Dairy Bar, the 51.

The Thames would remain an "off-stage presence", unstressed, vital to the city's sense of itself. The view across the river to the north bank was acknowledged: as a backdrop. "We didn't want any resounding pronouncements," Casson insisted. He designed hanging walkways, stairs, passages, so that visitors would get unexpected glimpses of light on the river. Where fences were necessary, they maintained the integrity of the site, with its bright "nursery colours", against the overwhelming weight of London soot and dirt outside. When darkness fell, searchlight beams swept over dancing crowds, in serious holiday mood, jitterbugging, foxtrotting, in hats and long coats, to the sounds of a full orchestra in evening dress. Premature Europeans taking pleasure as a duty. End of an era. Captured on film, lost in the archives.

There is a significant moment when one of the mass of dancers, a woman, notices the camera, and stares, horrified, straight into the intrusive lens. Suddenly, there are intimations of another London, of the coming surveillance society. The future is visible in that one brief shot, the shocking realisation that an unguarded, intimate occasion can be recorded, catalogued, exploited in some way over which the involuntary actor will have no control. The film-makers, impeccably well-intentioned Oxbridge leftists, rigorous documentarians, flinch from this exchanged glance. Not quite censored, it is cut so briskly that we barely register it. And in that look is the end of innocence, of benevolent patronage, an era when strolling architects and plumy journalists can gossip complacently about how they have arranged a good time for the rest of us. In the shamed self-consciousness of the affronted woman's expression is the shift from mass-observers recording the behaviour of Wigan working men, furtively scribbling down pub dialogue as a social record, to blanket CCTV coverage. To London as a 24-hour film. The dancers morph into a kettled mob scanned by dozens of security-service cameras.

All of which makes the MasterCard revisiting of the original festival a complex affair. In an era of stage-managed anniversaries, nothing happens without sponsorship. History becomes whatever is deemed worthy of strategic patronage. Who will restage the Gordon riots or the Jarrow hunger marches of the 1930s? The 2011 Southbank Festival pays tactful and considered respects to the event that acted as an inspiration. And, in doing so, it becomes both a curation of the original story and an attempt to reprise the spirit of open-necked excursionism and white-handbag licentiousness. A line-up of celebrity chefs, fashionistas, novelists, rock stars, philosophers in debate with prelates, make these themed weekends an authentic mirror of the times. Ray Davies, Tony Benn, Tracey Emin, Heston Blumenthal, Billy Bragg. Tried and tested entertainers will make it a memorable show. A knees-up in a time of austerity. Something both fresh and traditional, slipstreaming another royal wedding. With the underlying motive of reaffirming the status of this transformed riverside zone as a tourist hub and the fitting "cultural quarter" for the 2012 Olympics.

The Southbank Centre's Festival of Britain 1951-2011 is from 22 April to 4 September.


Iain Sinclair

The GuardianTramp

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