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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit