Friday, 22 March 2013

22/03/13 - Keep Calm, Keep Calm, Keep Calm

Keep Calm and Carry On – five words that were inspiring and rather sweet a decade ago, but now feel over-exposed and irritating. So where did the phrase come from, and why is that unique typeface/layout ubiquitous today, everywhere from the framed poster on the wall in Judd Apatow’s ‘Girls’ to the nasty mugs on your local souvenir stand?

Well, it all began in the spring of 1939. The British government’s Ministry of Information commissioned a series of propaganda posters, to boost morale and keep everybody smiling during what would turn out to be rather difficult times. They were to feature a uniform aesthetic, all sharing a common typeface that had to be unique and eyecatching, and feature no more than two colours. The crown of King George VI was to be the only graphic device used in addition to the text.
There were three final designs that went to print, each with the crown at the top and a bold slogan beneath, the first of which read:

The second read:

The third, of which over 2,500,000 were printed, is the one you know:

The first two designs were distributed across Britain in September of 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War II, and were pasted to shop windows, train stations, bus stops; anywhere possible in order to infuse a little spirit and positivity into the lives of the troubled Brits. The third design was kept in reserve, with the aim of rolling it out in times of invasion or other terrifying crisis. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was the big one, the mental back-up when it seemed that all was lost. It’s difficult now to envisage just what a powerful and potentially life-altering safety-net those five words represented.

However, the poster was never officially distributed, and remained unseen by the British public. At least, that is, until a copy was found in Barter Books, a bookshop in Alnwick, Northumberland, several decades later. Barter’s owner, Stuart Manley, discovered the poster among a box of dusty books that he’d bought at auction in 2000, and his wife Mary was so taken with it that she had it framed and hung up by the shop’s till. It was such a hit with the customers that the Manleys began printing and selling copies, along with those of the other two slogans – ‘Your Courage…’ in blue, ‘Freedom is…’ in green, and ‘Keep Calm…’ in red. There was something about the simplicity of the image and the all-pervading positivity of the sentiment that resonated with the public, and the popularity of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ ballooned rapidly.

And this is where we find ourselves today, surrounded by a glorious, wonderful retro icon that has, rather unfortunately, found itself constantly bombarded by the twin cannons of pastiche and over-exposure. You can buy pretty much anything you can think of with ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ emblazoned across it – t-shirts, tea towels, mouse mats, wallets, tablecloths, keyrings, bumper stickers, a Stereophonics album, you name it. It’s everywhere. However, the true indignity that this historic message has suffered is the endless, relentless mangling of the sentiment for comedic purposes – and by ‘comedic’, I mean ‘funny if you’re a bit of a simpleton’.
Keep Calm and Eat Cake. Keep Calm and Drink Wine. Keep Calm and Rule Britannia. Keep Calm and Carry On Being Awesome. Keep Calm, It’s Your Birthday. Now Panic and Freak Out. Keep Glam and Rock On. Stress Out and Throw a Vase. Keep Calm and Call Batman. Keep Calm and Love One Direction. Keep Calm and Buy Shoes. Keep Calm and Support Arsenal. Don’t Keep Calm, Get Angry and Save Lewisham A&E. McFly presents the Keep Calm and Play Louder tour. ENOUGH ALREADY!

It was a beautiful thing, a representation of good old British stoicism and stiff-upper-lippedness, of putting the kettle on while the bombs fell. And now it’s been hijacked by the cretinous and represents little more than a flawed and faltering sense of humour. For shame.

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