Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Keep Calm and Carry On

Do you recognise this image? It is everywhere nowadays. It is a copy of the original 1939 poster meant for the British public. It was the third in a series of government-issued propaganda posters intended to boost the morale of the people as they headed into war with Germany. The posters depict the crown of King George VI and were to make use of just two colours together with a “special and handsome typeface”.*

The first two posters were as follows:

Poster #1
Poster #2

These two posters were more widely known at the time, because the third and now more famous poster was the only one never actually released for public consumption. While only 400,000 and 800,000 copies were made of the first two posters respectively, and were displayed on railway platforms and in shop windows, 2,500,000 copies were printed and circulated of the third, but were never released. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was being held in reserve for a particularly dire time, such as an invasion, which thankfully never happened.

So the poster was forgotten. It is only in the 21st century that it has become a commonplace sight.

An original copy of the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster was rediscovered by the owners of a second-hand bookstore - Barter Books - in the year 2000. The bookstore, in Alnwick, Northumberland, is housed in an old Victorian train station. The shop's owners, Stuart and Mary Manley, found the poster in a box filled with dusty old books they had bought at auction. They liked it and so framed and put it up in the shop by the till.

Barter Books is a large store and from the footage I’ve seen is compellingly full of character and charm. The old station's tea room and waiting rooms are still preserved, bookshelves are where the railway tracks used to be, and there is a model electric train that moves along a track above the bookshelves. I hope to visit one day. 

Customers at Barter Books enjoyed the poster so much that they asked to buy prints of it. A year after the discovery the Manleys began to make and sell copies. That was the start of the commercial and merchandise frenzy that now surrounds knockoffs of the iconic poster.

Certainly a great part of the poster’s appeal is the nostalgic view it offers on Brits and especially Londoners’ stoical attitude towards wartime living. I have often been moved by representations of the better side of stiff-upper-lip restraint, however mythical those portrayals may sometimes be. Such quiet forbearance is appealing in the wake of the overly confessional culture that now dominates the West and the spread of American-style melodrama.

There has been a veritable flurry of parodies of the poster, and these have helped fuel awareness of the original. Some of the funnies that I most enjoy include: 


“Keep Calm and Carry On” is such a humble piece of counsel, but there is great value to it I feel if you think about it. From all accounts many today find that the poster's message resonates with them in light of the global recession. It is an inspiring message out of history from people who showed amazing fortitude in times that were far more difficult than any most of us have ever known. The adaptation of the poster that I like best is the one that follows, and I think many living in Britain during WWII would have felt it meant much the same thing as the original:


* There is a lovely 3-minute clip called “The Story of Keep Calm and Carry On” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrHkKXFRbCI.

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