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Icon of the month: KCCO

Bex Lewis


Posters are ephemeral items, intended to be displayed for a set time and a set purpose, then disposed of. But as difficult financial times took hold over the last couple of years, a long-forgotten (and unused) wartime poster started appearing. You'll have seen it advising you to 'Keep Calm and Carry on'.

During the war a shared sense of national identity had to be mobilised in Britain, to create 'active citizens'. The conflict itself was sold at the time as 'the people's war', defined later as a 'potentially inclusive, democratic sentiment'.1 As the posters themselves drew on familiar historical myths, so the war created the idea that 'we all pulled together' to achieve victory. As we again hit difficult times, we look back to when 'we' made it through in the past, and it encourages us to keep on.

The poster was originally designed in 1939, before war broke out, as one of a trio. The slogans were created by civil servants but there were high ambitions that the series would be distinctive, with a clearly recognisable typeface, unsubvertable by the Nazis. The other two posters in the series ('Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory' and 'Freedom is in Peril') were released when war was declared. 'KCCO' was held back to be used in the event of invasion or mass bombing. By the time air raids began, however, we can but assume that the poster was seen as the wrong kind of message, and so was never used - likely pulped.

Our understanding of this poster then is very much tied up with its recent rediscovery. Although it had been available in archives, it was not regarded as significant until someone at the Barter Books shop in Northumberland saw the potential.

Having found the poster in a box of auction goods, the shop started to sell copies. Sales were slow but steady until the recession hit. In February 2009, a spate of stories hit the national press: we heard that Gordon Brown had it pinned up on his wall. Katie Price, Rupert Grint and James May were all spotted wearing the t-shirt. With the power of the internet, the story ran and ran, hitting the international press and spawning all over the internet. The image now decorates endless t-shirts, mugs, key fobs, walls - and much odder items, such as the US 'brown bags' used for lunches, and even making its way onto German walls.

Some take the view that to 'Carry On' could mean continuing with the same bad habits, but emphasis on 'Keep Calm' implies being flexible enough to adapt - even an encouragement not to lose one's temper. Nevertheless, various subversions have also become popular, most famously 'Now Panic and Freak Out' and 'Get Excited and Make Things'.  

Several variations on the theme were seen at the recent Greenbelt festival, including 'Keep Calm and Eat More Pies', 'Broke is the New Black', and a new T-shirt design from the Christian clothing company The Word Is... that says 'Keep Calm and Pray On: Phil 4:6' ('Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God', if you were wondering).

Where some have pointed at a kind of existential emptiness in the original, such reinvention offers a constructive variation of the theme, reminding people in times of crisis that they are not alone, have something to hold on to, and can trust in God to provide deeper meaning and identity. Arguably though, such reinvention is not necessary, since the slogan itself points to one of our own:  'Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.' Doesn't it just. But keep calm and carry on. 

Bex Lewis


1  The Right To Belong: Citizen and National Identity in Britain 1940-1960, Ed by R. Weight & A. Beach (Tauris).