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“Keep Calm and Carry On” conquered the world, but it was too mundane for World War II

Designed on this day 75 years ago, the iconic poster was surprisingly not seen in public until 2001.

Image: Jack.Less on Flickr via Creative Commons

“Keep Calm and Carry On” is now one of the most recognisable slogans in British history. Its resilient message has become extraordinarily commonplace, with the phrase used to sell everything from mugs to flight bags and baby clothes. An engraving shop on my daily commute even invokes its customers to “Keep Calm and Order Signage”. Its formula is instantly recognisable, whether referring to zombies or knitting.

This pervasiveness has served to reinforce a popular view of life on the Home Front during World War II. It also obscures the complicated history of a poster that was designed on this day 75 years ago, but surprisingly was not seen in public until very recently, in 2001.

Lost and Found

The slogan was coined following a meeting between Ministry of Information officials and the Treasury on 27 June 1939. It was designed to lead a series of three “Home Publicity” posters that would be issued in the event of war and 2.45 million copies were printed in the days before World War II was declared. But its display was never officially authorised, and so never went ahead.

Only a handful of the originals survived when stocks were pulped during an extensive wartime recycling campaign. Some of the posters had been distributed to police stations for safe-keeping and were accidentally overlooked, but even these remained hidden from view for more than 60 years.

This would all change when a dusty copy of the “Keep Calm” poster was re-discovered at the turn of the 21st century. It was found in 2000 within a box of books bought at auction by Stuart and Mary Manley, the owners of a second hand book shop in Alnwick, Northumberland. The Manleys decided to display the poster it in their shop and began to sell reproductions in 2001.

Other companies followed suit and versions of the “Keep Calm” message were soon being attached to a bewildering array of products. This even led to a series of legal battles over copyright during 2011-13 (with UK courts concluding that the design was covered by Crown Copyright rules and was now firmly in the public domain).

So here we have a poster that was not even used for its original purpose during the war yet has seen mass popularity upon its rediscovery. The timeless nature of the stylistic and predominantly textual design goes some way towards explaining this. Another reason might be to do with its message of sober restraint, which chimes with expectations about the history of World War II and was appropriated by many commentators during the recent economic downturn.

And then fundamental to this are the technological advances that have made the slogan’s reproduction and manipulation so easy. It’s hard to imagine such that rapid commercialisation could have taken hold in the pre-internet age. It was the very fact that the poster was hidden until 2001 that allowed it to go viral.

A question of tone

A four-year research project on the Ministry of Information being undertaken by the University of London’s Institute of English Studies and King’s College London is shedding new light on the previously hidden parts of the poster’s history. It’s shown that the early history of “Keep Calm and Carry On” is particularly intriguing, as it doesn’t quite confirm the settled notions and assumptions of our time.

It’s now clear that the poster was the result of a compromise designed to save money for the Exchequer, and that the decision to keep the poster “in reserve” was only taken after the war had begun. So it’s something of an irony that this decision was influenced by a belief that the phrase was “too commonplace to be inspiring” and official fears that “it may even annoy people that we should seem to doubt the steadiness of their nerves”. The Treasury was adamant that the public would “resent having [the message] crammed down their throats at every turn”.

One cannot help but wonder what those who made this decision would make of the poster’s recent commercialisation. They would perhaps take comfort from the fact that effective public relations owes much to timing. So “Keep Calm and Carry On” is as much, if not more, a part of our history as it is of theirs.

Henry Irving is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

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 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories