Enough of this carry on

Is "Keep Calm And Carry On" an appropriate mantra for modern Britain?

Created to allay the nation's fears following the outbreak of the Second World War, the Ministry of Information's famous "Keep Calm And Carry On" posters never saw the light of day at the time. But since their rediscovery in 2000 they've become an ever-present in offices up and down the country, spawning numerous imitations and spin-offs. The motif's reinvention, from wartime propaganda piece to 21st-century motivational poster, is often explained by a resonance between today's current economic turmoil and yesterday's threat of Nazi invasion. And although the resemblance is loose, perhaps this was what the Prime Minister had in mind when he ill-advisedly aped the slogan with his “We’re all in this together” line.  

But while the public has largely ridiculed Cameron’s phrase, “Keep Calm And Carry On” seems to have won their hearts and minds. Its endurance stems from a collective nostalgia and kitsch fascination for a time, probably imagined, where old-fashioned British stoicism and resilience proved more than a match for even the greatest adversity. 

Nowadays, as with all surviving Second World War phraseology, it's trotted out repeatedly in response to the most innocuous of incidents. Queues at the petrol station? “Keep Calm And Carry On” implores the Daily Mirror. Concerned about swine flu? “Keep Calm And Carry On” advises the Health Secretary. Worried about the economy? “Keep Calm And Carry On” is the message from the Chancellor. And on and on, ad infinitum. 

And it's going to get worse. This summer looks as if it will test the patience of even the most diligent of flag wavers, as a trio of high profile events add fuel to a patriotic fire. You can almost anticipate the headlines. “Keep Calm And Carry Ma’am” commemorating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. “Keep Calm And Cawwy On” (in the Sun), cautioning a shaky start for Roy Hodgson’s England in the European Championships. “Keep Calm and Marathon” ahead of Paula Radcliffe’s big race at London 2012. So common and profitable has the slogan become in fact, that last year a bitter legal dispute ended with a merchandiser successfully registering it as a trademark.

But while there's no arguing with the phrase's popularity, isn't there reason to question its suitability? It's easy to see how a call to arms for unwavering resolve and unquestionable loyalty fits in wartime, but when the current zeitgeist involves acknowledging the mess we’re in, carrying on regardless would seem an unwise thing to do. Those, like the Occupy protesters, who feel this way, are often dismissed as boat rockers and ridiculed for having the decidedly un-British temerity to point out that continuing along a failed path is an unlikely route to success. 

Of course the elephant in the room is that much as we like the merchandise, we're not really sold on the message. More often than not, the line is used in reaction to precisely the type of widespread panic it is supposed to caution against; and with precious little irony, as we continue to boast about our reserve and make a show of our stoicism. Indeed if being calm is like being ladylike or powerful, in that those who insist they are - aren't, then Briton's must be the most panicked people on the planet. 

Whilst I’m all for British pluck, it feels like we’re laying it on a bit thick with the “Keep Calm And Carry On” mantra. When people are constantly affirming everything is OK, it’s usually a good indicator that something is up. And so far this business as usual ideology is proving an unsuccessful solution to people’s problems. Besides, with the spirit of the Blitz, the Dunkirk spirit and the bulldog spirit, I’d suggest we’re already accommodating more ghosts of world wars past than is healthy. Maybe it’s time for something new.

Cushioning the blow: a slogan for our times? (Photo: Getty Images)
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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge