As a young girl, Queenie Buxton visits the British Empire Exhibition. The trip is organized by the Butchers’ Association, and Queenie goes with her parents, who are butchers, and most of their employees. To their dismay, Queenie’s younger brothers have to stay home with one of the hired girls. Mother orders two of the employees, Emily and Graham, to watch Queenie, but they spend most of the time flirting.
The trip to the Exhibition contrasts Queenie’s prosaic working-class childhood—outings organized by trade organizations, babysitters for little brothers, flirting teenagers—with the pomp and grandeur of the British Empire. For ordinary Britons, life is enlivened by the knowledge such spectacles provide: that they are part of a powerful nation that exercises dominion over vast groups of other people.
Amid crowds of sweating people, Queenie, Emily and Graham visit different exhibits, which are themed according to different countries in the British Empire. In “Canada,” they see a butter sculpture of the Prince of Wales, and eat apples in “Australia.” By the time they get to “Africa,” they’re tired, and Graham needs a toilet, but they can’t find their way out of the recreated African village. As they watch a woman weaving, Graham announces loudly that these people aren’t civilized and don’t understand English.
The different exhibits in the exhibition allow British spectators to feel connected to their colonies, while at the same time eliminating their complexities and reducing them to stereotypes. Childhood experiences condition the adult behaviors displayed later by characters who judge colonial citizens exclusively by stereotypes and can’t understand why doing so is wrong.
Suddenly, Queenie sees a tall black man. It’s the first black person she’s ever seen, and she’s scared. Graham jokes that she should kiss him, and Emily laughingly eggs her on. However, the man smiles and offers, in perfect English, to shake Queenie’s hand instead. He gives Graham directions to the bathroom, but Graham can’t find it and urinates behind a trash can.
Contrary to Graham’s assertion, not only do the “Africans” speak English, they’re more civilized, according to British norms. It’s the black man who behaves politely and knows how to navigate the fairground, while Graham is rude and eventually reduced to exposing himself in public.
Later, Father declares the man Queenie met must have been a prince, since only rich and powerful Africans know how to speak English. Father takes Queenie on a specially constructed railway to a lookout point from which she can see the entire Exhibition. Queenie is dazzled by the spectacle, and Father says, “you’ve got the whole world at your feet.”
While the ironic contrast between Graham and the African man seems obvious, Queenie’s father’s insistence on viewing him as the educated exception to a horde of savages shows how deeply ingrained his conception of himself as inherently civilized is, as well as his conviction that it’s his society that correctly defines the norms of civility.