Keep Calm and Carry On

Keep Calm SignI recently purchased a new mobile phone; generally speaking, I’m not one of those people who needs to replace his handset more often than he replaces his socks. However, I managed to save a fair amount of money on my monthly bill in the process and thanks to its wi-fi connectivity, now I am never far away from the internet, which is a state that warms the cockles of my heart.

Still, switching over does raise problems; I think most phones are designed to come with wallpaper and ring tones that are destined to irritate the user. I won’t go into the horror of a snippet of D-grade sitar music that was supposed to pass for a message alert, nor will I describe the bland seascapes that the manufacturer apparently believed would have mass appeal. It is all engineered, perhaps, so that one is compelled to spend more money in order to get the phone’s aesthetics into a pleasing state. While ultimately this was not my selection, I did linger on one candidate for the wallpaper image: it was a reproduction of a famous British World War II poster which read simply, “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

This motto has become ubiquitous as of late. Earlier this week, during another of my strolls across the campus, I saw a student wearing a t-shirt with precisely the same legend. In April, the Daily Telegraph revealed who the hardest working member of Parliament was: it was Philip Hollobone, MP for Ketttering. Perhaps strangely, his photo revealed that he had the exact same poster in his office. I’ve seen it in other offices; I’ve even seen it recast as a bumper sticker.

Given its prevalence, one wonders what is the source of its appeal. After all, we’re in an era in which such ideas are subsumed by the notion of taking another pill or doing bungee jumping as a remedy to all ills; we would rather pretend to leap to our deaths than simply to sit quietly and do nothing outrageous. Just “keeping calm and carrying on” in light of contemporary mores seems archaic, passe. Perhaps it is merely the force of nostalgia that gives it its potency. Way back in the day when such posters were there to encourage the British public to do its duty, all there was apart from the occasional pint of ale to swallow day-to-day woe was comforting words.

However, there is more continuity for “keeping calm and carrying on” than there is for modern hyperactivity. Even during the Seige of Harfleur in Shakespeare’s Henry V, King Henry tells his troops:

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man. As modest stillness and humility…

These days, we expect a hero not to preach stillness of any kind; rather like Superman, Batman or the X-Men, immobility is reserved for moments of sleep; one is either up and about with the blood pumping, flinging oneself into action or shut down entirely. There is no halfway state, there is no pause for contemplation.

If we take the point of view of the Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek, and suggest that symptoms are messages arising from the subconscious, we perhaps should take the new-found prevalence of “Keep Calm and Carry On” as the collective psyche trying to tell us something. We have been through a period in which hyperactivity has not only been proven to be out of character, but also it’s been shown to be dangerous. We have had bankers and traders working in the City of London on 24 hour schedules, tossing back caffiene as readily as they sucked up greed. We have had frenetic buying and selling of property, passing cash and deeds hand over fist. The London Underground has been packed with miserable travellers going back and forth to their jobs, pushing themselves onward, spilling out days until the brief respite of holidays. But those holidays too require bundling oneself onto a bus or train and then flying out to some hot country where one dances through the night till one chokes on alcoholic soft drinks. And now, even the Government seems to think that a period of modest stillness is unbecoming; in order to prove his worth, Gordon Brown feels the need to throw out initiatives (such as electoral reform) like birdseed, hoping that the public will peck at the miniscule morsels of change and find them to their liking.

But perhaps the answer to many of our problems lay in something in simple as “keeping calm and carrying on”. The economic crisis is not the end of the world: things will rise as well as fall. Be patient, be persistent, be not possessed by panic: keep calm and carry on. The political crisis will end one day, though perhaps in a way that is not to Labour’s liking. Labour, however should not try to compensate for a lack of popularity by being overexcitable. Keep calm, be deliberate, and carry on. On a more personal level, when one is faced with a breakup or personal crisis, the answer is not to be found in booze or nights out or wallowing in bad relationships. Let the tide roll in, let it roll out again. Keep calm and carry on. Not every day is meant to be filled with sunshine or success, nor are they meant to be filled with complete tragedy; as Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If” stated:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

In other words, no matter what, keep calm and carry on.

Perhaps the phone wallpaper, the MP’s office poster, the bumper sticker and the young man’s t-shirt indicate we’re more ready for this message than we have been for quite some time. No doubt when economic recovery comes, we will hear the refrains of “Happy Days are Here Again” accentuated with a techno beat and feel tempted to let the pulse race and the acid house dance of modern life continue apace. But this would be to ignore the lesson of our times, and to set ourselves up for yet another fall. It may be more dull to be self-contained, rational, and peaceful; however it was this attitude that got Britain through the extreme of a war. It would be wonderful if it could get us through the rigours of normality.

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