The ubiquitous appeal to a stiff upper lip has long outstayed its welcome.
On visiting a friend’s house several years ago, I noticed a shiny new addition to her hallway wall. The strikingly simple design – bold white type on a primary-red background, topped-off with a crown – immediately grasped my attention. The text was authoritative but its message positive: “Keep Calm and Carry On” it said (as you correctly guessed). Although simplistic in every way, there was enough visual information to mark the poster as a relic from World War Two; the kind of morale-boosting material produced by the establishment’s propaganda machine during the 20th Century’s most testing times. All very stiff-upper-lip, keep-your-pecker-up, suppress-all-natural-emotion-you- weakling sentiment; reflecting the tenacious spirit that some, in less cynical or more deluded times, would say had made Britain great. So, yes, the poster had a quaint charm. It was an amusing, quirky and idiosyncratic addition to my friend’s home.
But somehow, since then, this once esoteric slogan has come to infiltrate every aspect of mainstream culture. Any excursion into the diseased heart of the average British town has become all the more life-sapping due to the ubiquity of a message that surely lost all its power to inspire or charm a long, long time ago. Advertising hoardings, shop windows, T-shirts, button badges – there is no escape. The Keep Calm… aesthetic has come to represent the dearth of imagination and independent thought in modern culture; its ceaseless popularity reflecting a herd mentality as cultivated by the manufacturers of cheap tat.
Making matters worse is the proliferation of the oh-so-funny parodies that witlessly bastardise the original message for the amusement of us unthinking drones. From the hopelessly twee Keep Calm & Have A Cupcake to the crushingly mundane Keep Calm & Play Football (somebody actually got paid for coming up with that one). Even attempts at subverting the phenomena – Panic Now and Kill Your Mother – very quickly became tired, especially after the more ‘provocative’ examples became the mug design of choice for the obligatory office ‘character’ i.e. the young British male who desperately seeks attention of others (anyone) using any lame off-the-shelf ploy available. The kind of bore who’d attend his sister’s wedding wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with French-kissing lipstick lesbians.
Although it would be absurd to compare the economic adversities that modern society faces with the cataclysmic horrors of WW2, you can see how the original Keep Calm message would resonate with a public losing sleep over job security and benefit cuts. When printed on the side of a mug, the combination of that soothing, uplifting message and Britain’s favourite liquid anti-depressant (no, not cheap lager) would seem to be the perfect comforting match. But, like any statement that is continually thrust into the mass conscientiousness, it soon becomes a hollow cliché. Similarly, in the case of the supposedly humorous parodies (Please don’t share these with me on Facebook), the joke – and it is essentially the same joke recycled over and over – has now worn wafer-thin. Of course, fads are nothing new, but even the most dedicated lover of the corny mass-produced novelty goods or mindless follower of consumer trends must surely agree that this one has out-stayed its welcome by several centuries.
In March 2011, a UK businessman was controversially granted a trademark over the use of the Keep Calm…phrase. Concerned parties have rallied against what they perceive to be the commercialisation of an iconic cultural phenomenon. My left-of-centre instincts mean that I have some sympathy with the protestors’ position but, with a certain degree of desperate optimism, my message to them would have to be: “Keep Calm and Await The Inevitable Clatter of Smashing Overstocked Mugs as They Become Landfill Sometime In The Near Future”.