Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Keep calm and party while we still can

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Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

What's your favourite riff on the popular "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters? The list keeps growing, in a spontaneous public punning poetry project, a real world meme.

"Keep Calm and Carry On Knitting" keeps the vintage British cuppa-in-a-crisis feel of the red original. So does "Keep Calm and Carry On Eating Muffins", used to advertise a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, while "Keep Calm and Carry Wand" references a more recent British icon.

"Keep Calm and Carry Noms" is possibly better advice in an emergency than the original - "noms" being internet LOLcat slang for food (after the sound Cookie Monster makes eating on Sesame Street). The "Keep Calm and Cary Grant" poster shows the actor pursued by biplane, as in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.

According to WWII propaganda poster expert Dr Bex Lewis, the original poster was designed by Britain's Ministry of Information in 1939, but it was never distributed as it was to be used only in the event of a German invasion of Britain.

Since its rediscovery in a Northumberland bookshop in 2000, the poster's growth of popularity has been attributed not only to what Kevin "Love Marks" Roberts calls its "distinctive and handsome design" but also to the ongoing and increasingly desperate financial crisis. This perhaps explains some of the more consumerist adaptations such as "Keep Calm I've Kept the Receipt" and the fabulously decadent "Keep Calm and Party On" with its Titanic orchestra overtones of "... while we still can".

The range of merchandise the poster has inspired shows that, just like weaponry, war propaganda products are a good industry to invest in, in troubled times.

Not only have T-shirts, mugs, cufflinks, deck chairs and bags been produced, but also oven mitts, placemats and cards.

But is the poster really just a bit of fun? I took it as amusingly ironic at first - it's such an authoritarian, paternalistic pat on the head: "there, there, you just keep going and we'll look after the scary stuff you don't understand. Of course we have your best interests at heart".

Yet they're rather serious about the message in Britain, even if its delivery is comic: a copy was hung in the 10 Downing St strategy unit, and Alain Samson, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics told the Guardian that the words are positive and reassuring in a time of cynicism. If this is the case, then this is propaganda that's kept its power, and the words are lulling us into a false sense of security. I'm not suggesting we all "Now Panic and Freak Out" as the (also popular) blue response poster of 21-year-old wunderkind designer Olly Moss exhorts us. I can get behind the "Keep Calm" bit but the "Carry On" worries my inner radical.

My least favourite version of the message is "Keep Calm and Carry On Shopping". Carrying on with the credit card and the mortgages in the same way as we have been doing is head-in-the-sand stuff. One could turn renegade instead, with the motto that has the Jolly Roger in place of crown: "F*** Everything and Become a Pirate".

But really, I'd like us to "Keep Calm, Have a Good Look at Things and Decide What Needs to Change".

Now to make it catchy and witty, and fit on a T-shirt.

- NZ Herald

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