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Keep calm and…

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2009 at 11:25 pm

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The simple five-word message is the very model of British restraint and stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on.

In 1939, with war against Germany looming, the Government designed three posters to steady the public’s resolve and maintain morale. These featured the crown of King George VI set against a bold red background, and three distinctive slogans – “Freedom is in Peril”, “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory”, and “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

Two-and-a-half million copies of “Keep Calm” were printed, to be distributed in the event of a national catastrophe, but remained in storage throughout the war.

The message was all but forgotten until 2000, when a copy was discovered in a box of books bought at auction by Stuart Manley, a bookseller from Northumberland.

“I didn’t know anything about it but I showed it to my wife. We both liked it so we decided to frame it and put it in the shop,” explains Mr Manley.

“Lots of people saw it and wanted to buy it. We refused all offers but eventually we decided we should get copies made for sale.”

Sales remained modest until 2005, when it was featured as a Christmas gift idea in a national newspaper supplement.

“All hell broke loose,” says Mr Manley.

“Our website broke down under the strain, the phone never stopped ringing and virtually every member of staff had to be diverted into packing posters.”

Rescued from obscurity after 70 years, the Ministry of Information’s appeal for calm has risen to cult status. Mr Manley’s store, Barter Books in Alnwick, receives an average of 1,000 orders a month from around the world. Customers include 10 Downing Street and assorted embassies. The design has been reproduced on T-shirts and coffee mugs, shopping bags and cufflinks.

It has also spawned imitators. One company has given it a twist, replacing the original slogan with “Now Panic and Freak Out”.

To some, the world in 2009 seems as uncertain as it was in 1939, even if modern-day anxieties focus on redundancy and recession rather than bombs and the Blitz. Perhaps this is why the message still seems so relevant.

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