Wednesday 14 November 2012

The Keep Calm Mystery

So now there's an album too - Keep Calm and Stay Cosy, 3 CDs of soft pop to calm you into festive catalepsy. I caught a TV ad for it last night, more than once.
What is it with the Keep Calm and Carry On phenomenon? What began a few years ago as a rediscovered, never issued propaganda poster from the Last Spot of Bother, designed to sustain morale if things got really hairy, has spread to encompass everything - stationery in all its forms, T-shirts, mobile phone covers, textiles, wallpaper, you name it. There's a book, a website, an online Keep Calm-o-matic on which all manner of variations on the theme can be forged (one of the better ones is illustrated here) - it's only a matter of time before there's a Keep Calm and Carry On theme park...
Why has this clunkily designed poster with its functional sanserif and flat Tudor crown become the popular design phenomenon de nos jours? Does it, as some have suggested, chime with the hard times we're supposedly living through, reminding us of the great British spirit of stoically muddling through? Or is it rather (as I suspect) an example of austerity chic, a product of easy rather than hard times?
The last time a 'look' take off on quite this all-engulfing scale was when The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady was published in the late 70s and its vapid watercolour style inspired a 'look' that gradually spread across the land. There were, I remember, various attempts to explain it, but none of them was convincing. These things just happen, and in time they fade away and are forgotten. All we can do is, er, keep calm and carry on.


  1. I seem to remember another spate of austerity-itis, involving the music and fashion scene, in the seventies. Or was it the sixties, eighties or nineties, perhaps it was a figment of my imagination, or the collective marketing departments.

    What I do remember was the real thing, lasting until the mid fifties,didn't need marketing, it was everwhere.

    Perhaps, as we enter the third of the dips in the, so far, triple-dipper we will see hard times again. Stuff like having to use public transport and not replace the mobile phone every 3 months. How will we cope, let's buy the cd and ride it out.

  2. It’s a good example of what Richard Dawkins calls a ‘meme’ - a selfish gene of the cultural world. The important thing about memes is not that they are useful or informative or beautiful, but that they are self-replicating because they make few demands of the agents who transmit them (i.e. us). They may have local mutations (as in the actual words on the Keep Calm poster) but their essential structure is stable and can therefore pass unchanged from host to host. In the Dawkins scheme of things we are all unwitting carriers of hundreds of catch phrases, logos, reverse baseball caps, food fads and irritating ring tones. I don’t wholly subscribe to this, but the idea that we humans exist to pollinate utter banalities is still a frightening one.

    1. Dawkins's meme theory is very popular and has a certain elegance for those who like their determinism neat. But the important thing to always keep in mind about memes, Ingoldsby, is that they don't exist.

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    3. "I don’t wholly subscribe to this"

      I think you might have done better to knock out the "wholly".

      When even Dawkins tries to wriggle away from it and the only 'academic' still espousing it is Susan Blackmore, you have to wonder why anybody would wish to see themselves attached to the theory in print.

    4. Recusant, Tom Wolfe wrote a very funny essay about all this in which he likened memes to the little people medieval peasants believed in, like fairies and Jack Frost. You couldn't see them, but they were out there somewhere, icing up your windows, getting up to mischief and taking care of all sorts of stuff you couldn't explain otherwise.

    5. Oh Peter, I love the idea of Dawkins talking about the 'little people' as the cause of all. Am I allowed to imagine him saying it in a cod Irish accent?

  3. Thanks to Ingoldsby, I finally understand what a meme is. I've been struggling with that word for ages.
    In the US lately people have been saying "Just sayin'". I have no idea why, but it does make me think of Nige's blog about our election. And I do so wish Obama wouldn't call people "folks"! Susan in NYC