Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster by Bex Lewis is a small book of eighty pages, chosen because I was interested in the subject matter of course but also because I wanted to make sure I finished reading and reviewing my books before Mark and I go on holiday next week. This microbiography was also fittingly printed in microscopic print; this is so typical of British books. I wonder if the entire population of the British Isles either has eagle-eye vision or is otherwise now blind. Keep Calm had endnotes yet the superscript digits were so small I wasn’t aware that they were even there.
Lewis spent the first half of the book looking at British poster history, focussing at first on the Great War and the role of propaganda in making posters effective. I realize that she needed to establish a background for the WWII title subject but I didn’t find it all too interesting.
Lewis traced the origin of the modern “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster meme, where variations and parodies of its simple slogan pop up everywhere. “Keep Calm and Carry On” was a slogan chosen because it conveyed “a determination not to give in, it created a sense of resilience and resistance, to continue as normal, whatever happens.” The posters were “held in reserve for immediate posting should the necessity arrive, e.g. immediately following a severe air-raid”. What I found most revealing in this short book was that these posters were never officially used. When the anticipated air raids never happened, the posters were taken to the various dumps across Britain. By the time Britain was bombed during the blitz, the Ministry of Information realized “that this kind of message was inappropriate in a war in which the nation was constituted through shared suffering.” The posters’ ubiquity in the twenty-first century is doubly ironic in that they were being displayed during peacetime as well as for the first time. Why then did this poster (re)appear decades after the end of WWII?
Twenty years ago Stuart and Mary Manley of Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland found a folded poster in the bottom of a box of books they had purchased at auction. They liked it so much they framed it and put it up in their store. Customers were always asking about it so the Manleys had five hundred copies printed. They were safe to do so since the poster and slogan were not under copyright. From 2001 on, the poster took on a life of its own. Freed from the dump, it caught people’s eyes with its simple message. Nostalgic as well as promoting a spirit of stability during a time of chaos, the message resonated with audiences all over the world. You cannot go anyplace today without finding some humorous variation of the wartime message.