The Emblem of Austerity Nostalgia

 

Owen Hatherley

THE EMBLEM OF
AUSTERITY NOSTALGIA

 

I can pinpoint the moment when I realised that what had seemed a typically, somewhat insufferably, English phenomenon had gone completely and inescapably global. I was going into the flagship Warsaw branch of the Polish department store Empik and there, just past the revolving doors, was a collection of notebooks, mouse pads, diaries and the like, featuring a familiar English sans serif font, white on red, topped with the crown above the legend, inEnglish:

KEEP CALM

AND

CARRY ON

Aside from the horror film–like feeling that I was being chased wherever I went by an implacable enemy, I was chilled by the proof that this image had finally entered the pantheon of truly global design ‘icons’. As an iconic image, it was now there alongside Rosie the Riveter, the muscular female munitions worker on the US World War II propaganda image; as easily identifiable as the headscarved Lily Brik bellowing ‘BOOKS!’ on Rodchenko’s famous poster. As a logo, it was nearly as recognisable as Coca-Cola or Apple. How had this happened? What was it that made the image so popular? How did it manage to grow from a minor English middle-class cult object into an international brand, and what exactly were people saying when they were saying that they were carrying on?

My assumption was that the combination of message and design were inextricably tied up with a plethora of English obsessions, from the ‘Blitz spirit’, through to the cults of the BBC and the NHS and the 1945 post-war consensus. Also contained in this bundle of signifiers was the enduring pretension of an extremely rich (if shoddy and dilapidated) country, the sadomasochistic Toryism imposed by the Conservative–Liberal coalition government of 2010–15, and their presentation of austerity in a manner so brutal and moralistic that it almost seemed to luxuriate in its own parsimony. Some or none of these thoughts may have been in the heads of the customers at Empik buying their printed tea towels; they may have just thought it was funny. They might have liked it as an example of the slightly dotty retro-Englishness that made them buy those DVDs of Downton Abbey with their overdubbed Polski Lektor. However, there are few images of the last decade that are quite so riddled with ideology, and few ‘historical’ documents that are quite so spectacularly false. It is important to record that the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster was never mass-produced until 2008. It is a historical object of a very peculiar sort. By 2009, when it had first become hugely popular, it seemed to respond to a particularly English malaise, one connected directly with the way Britain reacted to the credit crunch and the banking crash. From this moment of crisis, it tapped into an already established narrative about Britain’s ‘finest hour’ – the aerial Battle of Britain in 1940–41 – when it was the only country left fighting the Third Reich. This was a moment of entirely indisputable – and apparently uncomplicated – national heroism, one which Britain has clung to through thick and thin. Even during the height of the boom, as the critical theorist Paul Gilroy spotted in his 2004 book After Empire, the Blitz and the Victory were frequently invoked, made necessary by ‘the need to get back to the place or moment before the country lost its moral and cultural bearings’.[2] ‘1940’ and ‘1945’ were ‘obsessive repetitions’, ‘anxious and melancholic’, morbid fetishes, clung to as a means of not thinking about other aspects of recent British history – most obviously, its Empire. This has only intensified since the financial crisis began.

The ‘Blitz spirit’ has been exploited by politicians largely since 1979. When Thatcherites and Blairites spoke of ‘hard choices’ and ‘muddling through’, they often evoked the memories of 1941. It served to legitimate regimes which constantly argued that, despite appearances to the contrary, resources were scarce and there wasn’t enough money to go around; the most persuasive way of explaining why someone (else) was inevitably going to suffer. Ironically, however, this rhetoric of sacrifice was often combined with a demand that the consumers enrich themselves – buy their house, get a new car, make something of themselves, ‘aspire’. Thus, by 2007–08, when the ‘end to boom and bust’ promised by Gordon Brown appeared to be more than abortive (despite the success of his very 1940s alternative of nationalising the banks and thus ‘saving capitalism’), the image appeared for the first time. It’s worth noting that shortly after this point, a brief series of protests in 2009–11 were being policed in increasingly ferocious ways. The authorities were allowed to utilise the apparatus of security and surveillance and the proliferation of ‘prevention of terrorism’ laws set up under the New Labour governments of 1997–2010 to combat any signal of dissent. In this context the poster became ever more ubiquitous, and peculiarly, after 2011, it began to be used in what few protests remained, in an only mildly subverted form. The ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster seemed to embody all the contradictions produced by a consumption economy attempting to adapt itself to thrift, and to normalise surveillance and security through an ironic, depoliticised aesthetic. Out of apparent nowhere, this image – combining bare, faintly modernist typography with the consoling logo of the Crown and a similarly reassuring message – spread everywhere.

I first noticed its ubiquity in the winter of 2009, when the poster appeared in dozens of windows in affluent London districts like Blackheath during the prolonged snow and the attendant breakdown of National Rail; the implied message about hardiness in the face of adversity and the Blitz spirit looked rather absurd in the context of a dusting of snow crippling the railway system. The poster seemed to exemplify a design phenomenon that had slowly crept up on us in the last few years to the point where it became unavoidable. It’s best described as Austerity Nostalgia. This aesthetic took the form of a nostalgia for the kind of public modernism that, rightly or wrongly, was seen to have characterised the period from the 1930s to the early 70s; it could just as easily exemplify a more straightforwardly conservative longing for security and stability in the face of hard times. Above all, though, the poster was the most visible form of a vague nostalgia for a benevolent, quasi-modernist English bureaucratic aesthetic. Yet its spread, and its political adaptations, managed to create a sort of ironic visual authoritarianism, in direct correlation with an entirely un-ironic intensification of repression and police violence. After the unrest of 2011 fizzled out, the poster seemed to become a self-satisfying declaration of the refusal to resist austerity, and instead offer a commitment to plod glumly on in an increasingly intolerable situation. However, its main affect was not about the present as such, but about a remarkably distorted idea of the past.

Unlike many forms of nostalgia, the memory invoked by the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster is not based on lived experience. Most of those who have bought this poster, or worn the various bags, T-shirts and other memorabilia based upon it, were probably born in the 1970s or 80s. They have no memory whatsoever of the kind of benevolent statism the slogan purports to exemplify. In that sense, the poster is an example of the phenomenon given a capsule definition by Douglas Coupland in 1991: ‘Legislated Nostalgia’, that is, ‘to force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess’.[3] However, there’s more to it than that. Even someone who was around at the time, unless they’d worked at the department of the Ministry of Information that actually designed the poster, would never have seen it. In fact, before 2008, few had ever encountered ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ displayed in a public place. It was designed for the Ministry of Information in 1939, but the poster’s ‘official website’, which sells a variety of Keep-Calm-and-Carry-On tat,[4] mentions that it never became an official propaganda poster. Rather, only a handful had been printed on a test basis. The specific purpose of the poster was to ‘stiffen resolve’ in the event of a Nazi invasion, and it was one in a set of three. There were two others in the series, which followed the exact same design principles – a slogan in a sans serif font with resemblances to (but not, in fact) Gill Sans, centred on a block-colour background, with the crown above. The others were:

YOUR  COURAGE

YOUR CHEERFULNESS

YOUR RESOLUTION

WILL BRING

US VICTORY

And:

FREEDOM IS

IN PERIL

DEFEND IT

WITH ALL

YOUR MIGHT

Both of these were printed up, and ‘YOUR COURAGE …’ was particularly widely displayed during the Blitz, given that the feared invasion did not take place after the German defeat in the Battle of Britain. You can see one on a billboard in the background of the last scene of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1943 film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, when the ageing, reactionary but charming soldier finds his house in Belgravia bombed. Of the three proposals, ‘KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON’ was, for some reason, discarded after the test printing, and it never found its way to public display. Possibly, this was because it was considered less appropriate to the conditions of the Blitz than to the mass panic expected in the event of a German ground invasion. One of those few test printings of the poster was found in amongst a consignment of second-hand books bought at auction by Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland, who then produced the first reproductions. Initially sold in London by the shop at the Victoria and Albert Museum, it became a middlebrow staple when the recession, initially merely the slightly euphemistic ‘credit crunch’, hit. Through this poster, the way to display one’s commitment to the new austerity regime was to buy more consumer goods, albeit with a less garish aesthetic than was customary during the boom. This was no different to the ‘keep calm and carry on shopping’ commanded by George W. Bush both after September 11 and when the sub-prime crisis hit America. The ‘wartime’ use of this rhetoric escalated during the economic turmoil in the UK; witness the slogans of the 2010–15 coalition government, from ‘We’re All in This Together’ to ‘We’ve maxed out our credit card’. The power of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ comes from a yearning for an actual or imaginary English patrician attitude of stiff upper lips and muddling through. This is, however, something that largely survives only in the popular imaginary, in a country devoted to services and consumption, and where elections are decided on the basis of house price value, and given to sudden, mawkish outpourings of sentiment. The poster isn’t just a case of the return of the repressed, it is rather the return of repression itself. It is a nostalgia for the state of being repressed – solid, stoic, public-spirited, as opposed to the depoliticised, hysterical and privatised reality of Britain over the last thirty years.

At the same time as it evokes a sense of loss over the decline of an idea of Britain and the British, it is both reassuring and flattering, implying a virtuous (if highly self-aware) consumer stoicism. Of course, in the end, it’s a bit of a joke: you don’t really think your pay cut or your children’s inability to buy a house, or the fact that someone somewhere else has been made homeless because of the bedroom tax, or lost their benefit, or worked on a zero-hours contract, is really comparable to the Blitz – but it’s all a bit of fun, isn’t it?

 

 

NOTES

[2] Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (Routledge, 2004), pp. 96–7.

[3] Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (Abacus, 1997), p. 47.

[4] See the ‘official’ website of this copyright-free image, at keepcalmandcarryon.com/history/. It also usefully features a link to a 1997 academic dissertation on the subject – ‘The Planning, Design and Reception of British Home Front Propaganda Posters during the Second World War’, by Bex Lewis, who notes that Herbert Morrison’s slogan ‘GO TO IT!’ was a far more popular poster at the time. It was not in a sober sans serif, and featured no crown. See drbexl.co.uk/1997/05/the-first-posters/, and from her thesis, on Keep Calm … itself, drbexl.co.uk/2009/04/the-original-historyof-keep-calm-and-carry-on-phd-extract/, accessed 11 May 2015.

In: Owen Hatherley, The Ministry of Nostalgia (London, New York: Verso, 2016), pp.14-22

With thanks to Owen Hatherley and Verso.

 

 

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