Funny how familiarity breeds contempt. When I first saw the poster ‘Keep calm and carry on’ on the ancient oak door of Blo’ Norton Hall, I nearly swooned at the genius of it. It was perfect. What wise advice: remain calm as you rush out to Waitrose/the dentist/the vet/the train station/ the Farm Watch meeting; carry on even though it’s the third trip of the day to fetch folks who couldn’t manage to take the same train, you’ve seen the vet a dozen times about the dog’s ear infections (at £50 a visit) and Farm Watch hasn’t deterred the vandals who dumped two dozen rimless tyres on the sugar-beet pad. The poster became my mantra and I ordered a dozen at a time from Barter Books, the secondhand bookshop in Northumberland.
In 2001, the owners found an original poster in their attic, framed it, hung it by the till, and, after checking with the Imperial War Museum that it was out of copyright, began reproducing it for their customers, who also loved it. I framed copies to sell in my shop, sent rolled-up copies to friends in America and hung one in my kitchen. When I saw a canvas bag with the slogan printed on it, I bought it for friends celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. I could hardly bear to give it away. Part of its beauty was the knowledge that the original was produced by the Ministry of Information in 1939, and was intended to go up all across the land within 24 hours if Britain was invaded. Who wouldn’t be moved by the elegant understatement of the rallying warcry, the icon of the crown, the stiff upper-lipiness and Dad’s Army innocence, simplicity and goodness of the message?
And then something happened. Call it the morphic resonance of merchandising. Almost overnight, T-shirts, coffee mugs, cufflinks, doormats, tea towels, biscuit tins, dog beds and nappy sacs were shouting ‘Keep calm and carry on’. You couldn’t escape. Then, the parodies appeared. I confess that I bought one for my son when he left for university-‘ Work hard and be nice to people’-but that was back when the slogan still evoked the courage of a people who brewed tea as bombs fell.
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Slowly but surely, the all pervasiveness of the slogan began to get on my nerves. The poster in the kitchen came down and I quietly boycotted all objects that alluded to it (although if a mug with ‘Work hard and call home’ had appeared, I might have relented). I found it particularly galling that most of the ‘Keep calm’ stuff that occupies our lives is now made in China, an insidious invasion we’ve lacked the courage to resist. But if I felt superior by having a ‘Carry on’-free zone, I learnt of another little drama that changed everything. Enter Mark Coop, who tried to register the slogan as a trademark in the UK, failed, and then succeeded in gaining an EU trademark.
He calls his company Keep Calm and Carry On Ltd, supplies John Lewis with all his products and has enforced his trademark through eBay, the online retail site, which felt legally compelled to stop selling all ‘Keep Calm’ products not produced by Mr Coop. Frankly, it’s hard to keep calm when someone takes a piece of British history-a slogan and artwork he neither created nor invented -and decides to make his own. Heck, before you know it, he’ll try to take out a trademark for ‘God save The Queen’! It’s now in the hands of trademark lawyers, who are attempting to overturn the EU decision, but Mr Coop is pushing to get the trademark established in the USA and Canada. I carry on by bwatching a three-minute film by bBarter Books (Google ‘YouTube keep calm and carry on’). I’ve also retrieved my poster from the attic, but I’m unlikely to keep calm as long as Mr Coop is still carrying on.