BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Two years ago, in a Washington bookstore I first saw it, a poster that said, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” a puckish piece of World War II nostalgia marketed with as much postmodern irony as the viewer cared to supply. But apparently, it struck a chord because Keep Calm and Carry On is not just a poster but a cottage industry, imprinted on all manner of merchandise and sold worldwide as an icon of English resilience amid the Battle of Britain 76 years ago.
[1942 RAGS FOR SALVAGE CLIP]:
D is for our ‘duty’ to give up all we can
To the rag collector when he brings round his van.
Now we’ve hunted through the house, searched on every floor,
Just another little thing to help to win the war!
BOB GARFIELD: The thing is, we remember Keep Calm and Carry On even if we weren’t alive during the London Blitz. We know what it signifies - or do we?
Owen Hatherley is author of the book, The Ministry of Nostalgia: Consuming Austerity. He says the slogan was revived in Britain after the 2008 financial crash.
OWEN HATHERLEY: From then is when it completely goes nuclear. The boom, which people had been led to believe was going to go on forever, was bursting quite [LAUGHS] spectacularly, and I think it led to a certain degree of panic, leading to this kind of slightly ironic idea of like, we’re all gonna muddle through and we’re all gonna be fine and keep calm and, and so on.
BOB GARFIELD: The message appeals to what you call “austerity nostalgia.”
OWEN HATHERLEY: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: It does evoke the Blitz-era British spirit of resistance to adversity. And, as you say, it meshed at least with the prevailing political agenda. What was the agenda?
OWEN HATHERLEY: I think the agenda in the system, especially closer to 2010, was a turn to austerity. And in Britain, the immediate postwar era is generally called the austerity era.
BOB GARFIELD: Because the economy was in ruins because resources were scant.
OWEN HATHERLEY: Precisely. But what's interesting about that version of austerity was that it also was the period of the construction of the welfare state. There was a huge amount of public investment in trying to make society more equal and more fair. And so what’s kind of curious is when they opted to describe what they were going to do after 2010 as “austerity.” It was about dismantling that welfare state, but the exact same word had been used for it. You know, it was the sort of destruction of the era cloaked in the garb of the era.
BOB GARFIELD: The message from government, on both sides of the Atlantic, was to tighten your belt but don't stop, you know, spending.
OWEN HATHERLEY: Yes, there’s a couple of government slogans which kept going ‘round when David Cameron was first elected, like, “We’re all in this together.”
PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: So come on, let’s pull together, let’s come together, let’s work together in the national interest.
[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE/END CLIP]
OWEN HATHERLEY: On the one hand, people are sort of feeling guilty for what they’d done during the boom but, at the same time, this allows them to continue to spend in a way in which they can feel better about themselves. You’re kind of performing your own rectitude, in a way.
BOB GARFIELD: You refer in your book to a line from Douglas Coupland, “legislated nostalgia.” What was he getting at, and why is that relevant to Keep Calm and Carry On?
OWEN HATHERLEY: This is a kind of nostalgia that’s politically useful in a way that’s actually quite unusual. It’s quite rare to find that something that seems to be that much connected to [LAUGHS] with the interests of the state and governments as the Keep Calm and Carry On phenomenon – this may be slightly paranoid of me but I feel that it’s actively encouraged by the state. But also, at the same time, it’s a body of memories people don’t possess, not only because most of the people, you know, buying this or seeing this will not have lived through the Second World War. Probably more crucially, even those who did live through the Second World War cannot have seen it.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there’s a punchline to this story [LAUGHS], Owen, and that is that this poster, which we remember as so symbolic and so ubiquitous during Britain's darkest hour, which was to become Britain's finest hour, wasn't ubiquitous at all. In fact, it barely existed.
OWEN HATHERLEY: This is the dark secret at the heart of Keep Calm and Carry On [LAUGHS], I think. I couldn't believe it when I first found this out. The poster was one of three produced in 1940 by the Ministry of Information to put up when the bombs started dropping. One said, “Freedom is in Peril, Defend It With All Your Might” and the other said, “Your Courage, Your Fortitude, Your something-something Will Bring Us Victory.”
And then there was this third quote which was going to say “Keep Calm and Carry On.” It was thought that as soon as the bombs started to drop people would panic and that this would work as a way of sort of saying to people, don’t be so bloody silly, you know, pipe down, and wasn’t produced, I think, partly because of the fact that people didn’t panic. So the poster, which I think was already considered by researchers to be quite patronizing, was stopped. So it was never, ever on the city streets, in London or anywhere else.
BOB GARFIELD: And yet, when me and evidently about 10 million other people see a poster in a bookstore, we immediately go, oh yes, of course.
Wasn’t that a remarkable time and a remarkable bit of courage from these resilient British people in brown tweed.
OWEN HATHERLEY: Exactly. The very fact that it wasn't produced is partly because the people of 1940 wouldn’t have, so the assumption went, have welcomed it. And I think that, of course, a layer of irony goes over that, so people don’t feel patronized by it because we know, of course, we’re not really being bombed by Hitler. But, at the same time, that irony is a little bit disavowed, in that it is also a response to a crisis.
One of the big problems with the poster is that it suggests that austerity is necessary in the way that the war was necessary. Austerity, as currently practiced, is not necessary. It’s a political and economic choice. It’s not something which is some sort of force of nature we can't control. And I think the poster, as it’s currently used, has a certain amount of suggesting a resignation and acceptance of something that there’s no reason whatsoever that people ought to be accepting.
BOB GARFIELD: Owen, thank you very much.
OWEN HATHERLEY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Owen Hatherley is the author of The Ministry of Nostalgia: Consuming Austerity.
MALE ANNOUNCER: Now, don't forget, there's practically nothing you can't use for turning into something useful these days. Use your old tablecloths, underwears, ties, collars, socks. Everything is useful. So remember, be patriotic, like me.