Must be quick but isn’t the business of the Keep Calm and Carry On meme weird? An ironic piece of noughties forties retro has once more become serious, a genuine and helpful mantra.
You’ll remember that it became a meme in the mid-2000s, repeated on t-shirts, and bags and mugs, and taking new forms Keep Calm and Dance, Keep Calm and Call Batman, Keep Calm and Harry Ron. The new cool British, taking the mickey out of old stiff upper-lip British, and secretly quite proud of it. The slogan is genius. Even if you say it with a smirk you feel it’s true and something to be proud of.
The original poster, obviously, comes from the Second World War. In 1939 the Ministry of Information designed three posters for the ultimate national emergency, saturation bombing, starvation, invasion. The other two were Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolve will bring us ultimate victory and Freedom is in peril! Defend it with all your might.
These are less catchy and, surprisingly, none of the three was popular (according to wikipedia). There were trialled for a few months in 1939, before being cancelled, ‘following criticism of its cost and impact. Many people claimed not to have seen the posters; while those who did see them regarded them as patronising and divisive. Design historian Susannah Walker regards the campaign as “a resounding failure” and reflective of a misjudgement by upper-class civil servants of the mood of the people.‘
So few Keep Calm posters were actually issued that not many people would have seen one during the war.
In 2000, Stuart Manley, co-owner with his wife Mary of Barter Books Ltd. in Alnwick, Northumberland, was sorting through a box of second-hand books bought at auction when he uncovered one of the original “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters. The couple framed it and hung it up by the cash register; it attracted so much interest that Manley began to produce and sell copies. In late 2005, Guardian journalist Susie Steiner featured the replica posters as a Christmas gift suggestion, raising their profile still further. Other companies followed the Manleys’ example, and the design rapidly began to be used as the theme for a wide range of products. Mary Manley later commented, “I didn’t want it trivialised; but of course now it’s been trivialised beyond belief.”
Mrs Manley said that in an interview reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2013. And there perhaps she’ll be glad that time has proved her wrong. Because what started – when I first saw it – as an ironic tagline of 40s-retro fashion, like a scarlet tunic on Carnaby Street – in the middle of a decade when for many the economy, and life in general, had never looked better – has suddenly found a crisis worthy of it, and having that line flashing inside us for fifteen years Keep Calm and Carry On may have given us the strength to handle extraordinary and for so many deeply tragic times.
Or you could look at it the other way. There was something of the Roaring Twenties about the mid- to late-2000s. It was all a big party but the cracks were showing. Things just couldn’t keep getting better. The country was committed to the one of the longest wars in recent history. Keep Calm was already a meme before the financial crash and the credit crunch. Maybe it says something rather curious about fashions and the collective unconscious. That it can be curiously perceptive at tines. Clairvoyance or serendipity.
Illustration: the poster originally discovered by Stuart and Mary Manley at Barter Books, Alnwick, 2000