Pardon me, but I’m culturally confused. On Sunday I wound up at the final day of the South Bank’s glittering homage to all things Festival of Britain – the Museum of ’51. The Museum of ’51 is a tribute to the paraphenalia, exhibits, souvenirs and sense of the 1951 Festival of Britain, for which most of our monstrous South Bank was constructed and which was a centennial nod to the Great Exhibition of 1851. The 1951 exhibition ran all summer at the South Bank, where it dovetailed nicely into the three day Vintage Fest at the back end of July and also explained the cuter-than-cute artist-designed beach huts by the Thames, surrounded by some lovely sand for the Urban Beach. As if we needed any further reminder after the slashing winds and frightening rain of the last week – our summer is most certainly over. Yesterday they took London’s little Urban Beach sand away. Boohoo.
The Museum of ’51 is a bit of a misnomer to be mentioned here, as by the time you read this, the exhibition will have closed. All the red, pale, grey and blue badges, epaulettes and fetching ladies’ headscarves will be packed up into the box marked Post-War Fashion Errors and shelved away for another 50 years. They will be forgotten, and only brought out again at moments of feverish nationalist fervour. The Museum of ’51 ended up not being a museum about Britain or its Festival, but it was about the British. The pedestrian nature of what were the most exciting elements of the Festival of Britain in 1951 have become the most touching today : the “cafeteria” beside an imitation lake, serving a range of hearty, English fayre was probably the most exciting destination of all after seven years of rationing. The various “world zones” and “outer space” sections look like NASA let loose in the Blue Peter props department. Britain in 1951, let me remind my dearest readers, was solidly poor. The Festival was a morale -booster, an eye-opener, and something to look forward to. Children were taken on school outings to view it. Many young adults thought it slightly naff (particularly the lunar-esque structure which imitated a spaceship named The Dome) but took advantage of its eating and drinking venues despite this.
The exhibition I saw on Sunday was a riot of themed ashtrays, architectural designs, valuable video footage of excited children and early 1950s memorabilia. It was particularly touching to view the comments board, where visitors were encouraged to share their memories of the original exhibits, and their feelings on returning to the South Bank and seeing the displays today. But the Festival of Britain was designed to be of the moment, and yet future-looking. It cleared ravaged slums to build what we now know of The South Bank (only The Royal Festival Hall remains). The architectural design was intended to meet expectations of what new urban towns of the 1950s would look like. But the 1950s has rapidly shifted into near-hysterical vintage in the cultural British mindset. It is hard to think of a more historically ploughed decade for vintage dresses, furniture and cocktail cabinets than the 1950s. An exhibition that was about positivity and the age of The New Elizabethans becomes a retro-chic event, not about the future but about the hopes and aspirations of the past.
Was I confused? Yes. But I did enjoy the vintage ashtrays. And as for the 1950s living room, well, I would have moved in immediately. But they would have stopped me, obviously, as it’s not allowed. The modernist living room of the 1950s is my dream home of the future. Of course, I had just come from an arresting and surreal exhibition of Tate Modern, so that’s why my view of 1951 London was so unreal. The 1960s had it’s massive cultural movement – I think – in terms of renaissance – in the 1990s in Britain. There was a rash of Mod-ery, a plethora of guitar-heavy bands from the Northwest, and a slightly nauseating Rule Britannia nonsense that took the Union Jack flag, sewed it onto the seat of a pair of jeans, and slapped that pair of jeans on to a Gallagher’s behind. But the 1950s is most certainly having its moment. Personally I blame Mad Men. The more observational amongst you will realise that I actually never left the 1950s in the first place.
The 1950s was also the decade (at the end of the decade) when the English discovered Italy and went sort of nuts for it. All right, then, 1960 was La Dolce Vita but you get my drift. All those cappucinos! coo! All those Roman streets with ladies on motorcycles behind passionate looking, short, Italian men! How exciting must that have been to the British? The interesting thing is that whilst gender politics and social advancements in Britain have progressed with much aplomb, in Italy it is still acceptable for a man to drive around the street, park up, slap ladies bottoms, get back in the car and go home for dinner with Mummy. In that ways, perhaps, the gender politics of the post-war era are still astonishingly intact. So, that’s where you go for your genuine 1950s cultural experience. This season has brought the return of who I think of as the Coolest Man on the Telly, Francesco da Mosto, to BBC4. For those of you not familiar with Sig. da Mosto, he is a Venetian nobleman who can trace his family in Venice back to 600AD and who is also a hip architect who drives around Italy in his red Alfa Romeo Spider looking like you would expect The Coolest Man on the Telly to look. His manner is the only thing cooler than his swathe of collar-length wavy grey hair. “Eeetaliii”, he says, as he drives his car through windy, mountainous roads. “EEE-tal-ieee”, he says, illegally parking in a medieval campo in Umbria, where his shrugging-shoulder charm gets the better of the traffic police. “EEE-tal-ieee” he remonstrates – again “is what you Bree-tish warrrnnnnnt. You want to mooooove ‘ere. You want to become expirt on wine and eat goot food. You Bree-tish warnt zis!” In his series Italy Top To Toe fabulous Francesco points out that it is the Roman / Florentine EEtaliiieee that the British are enamoured with. Sicily is too spicy. Naples too southern, and dirty. But Florence? Umbria? Rome? Very New Labour friendly. I ask you : can you move in the Piazza della Repubblica in Florence in the height of spring? No. Why? Because some over-bearing, brutally intense middle class parent is shouting “Timothy! Don’t be long for gelato! We have to view the Uffizi before your pottery lesson!” whilst hordes of middle-aged men in Marks and Spencers boat shoes try to remember the Italian for psoraisis in the local farmacia.
Francesco da Mosto’s programme on Florence ended up with him heroically attempting a game of football on the banks of the Arno, stopping only to cough up last night’s cigarettes, and wearing a very short, camp and somewhat unflattering pair of shorts with the brio that only an Italian aristocrat can. Usually once a programme, Francesco’s youthful, pretty children and glamorous wife appear. He jumps out of his sports car and they ruffle his grey hair lovingly. Then he gets back in to the car again to show us some more Roman fabulousness. His programmes are a delight; mainly because they sell us not just Italy but the kind of Italian life a thirteenth generation Venetian nobleman has. It doesn’t make you want to move to Italy. It makes you want to have Francesco da Mosto’s life; which seems to involve a laidback enjoyment of all things edible and drinkable, a complete lack of pretension and a habit of standing in the vineyards of other Italian noblemen, gaily picking grapes in their Chianti vineyards and waving to them up in the castle windows. In short, nothing could be further from England. You can’t imagine Francesco da Mosto driving up the M1 and then announcing lovingly : “Nottinghammm…” or “Ashton under Lyme is one of the murrst beoootiful places in Engerland…” can you? Perhaps, no matter how lovingly we admired Roman and Tuscan elegant nonchalance, we are doomed to be a nation forever in naff headscarves looking either to the future or the south for design inspiration? God only knows what the Italians must think when they visit England. One thing is for sure – one thing we in England have that the Italians do not : we have the hope of better design inspiration, whereas I would imagine the whole world looks ugly if you’ve been brought up in Venice. Looking south, the view is lovelier from here.
Please return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every Thursday (Ermm…. tutti i giovedi. Grazie).