When I first read Owen Hatherley's excellent new book, The Ministry of Nostalgia—which launches a muscular attack against "Keep Calm and Carry On" culture—my initial response was: "Well, this is pretty interesting and funny, but surely he's missed the boat by a few years with this?"
The bright red poster, initially designed by the government during the run up to the Second World War in order to persuade British subjects not to descend into violent anarchy if there was bombing by the Nazis, took on a new lease of life after being rediscovered in 2000. By 2009, the simple, eye-catching design had become ubiquitous after being adopted wholesale by the British public. It was impossible to avoid this cute "make do and mend" sentiment given that it appeared on postcards, T-shirts, tea towels, shopping bags, and mugs, as well as in countless parodies and internet memes, with it even ending up the name of a Stereophonics LP. But surely the fad peaked several years ago?
When I was researching this feature and actually went out of my way to look for it, I was dismayed to discover that, if anything, Keep Calm and Carry On seems to be healthier than ever—even if you don't see it on T-shirts so much any more. The design is still to be found crammed into the racks in Hallmark shops; it is all over iPhone covers on sale at the market near where I work; tourist tat shops are full of it; it's on sales notices in clothing shops, and it still crops us as parodic stencil graffiti, as well as being incorporated into the design of flyers and ads. (All of this is probably down to the fact that the poster is long out of copyright, meaning it can be reproduced by anyone.)
If I was in any doubt, less than 24 hours before my interview with Hatherley, the UK government launched its Clean for the Queen campaign, which featured Boris Johnson, and 70 other MPs, crammed into bright purple T-shirts featuring a very familiar font and crown logo. So it seems that the best part of a decade after it first became popular, Keep Calm and Carry On shows no sign of fucking off and dying.
Isn't it just a poster, though? Well, yes and no, the argument goes. The poster on its own isn't much more than an irritating fad, but it represents one small facet of a bigger trend.
Hatherley, who has made a name for himself writing about modern architecture and pop culture, argues convincingly that the recent popularity of the poster design is a symptom of a wider cultural shift that has happened in the UK since the financial crash of eight years ago. He terms this trend "austerity nostalgia" and has noted examples of it in London architecture, in the cookery of Jamie Oliver, in affluent men dressing like Victorian strongmen and affluent women dressing like Rosie the Riveter, in TV shows such as Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife, not to mention the music of Public Service Broadcasting and Mumford and Sons.
All of this might sound like a first world problem—and, to a certain degree, some of it is. But when you consider the worst aspects of austerity nostalgia—the fetishization of brutalist architecture and the construction of blocks of dour-looking new-build flats for foreign investors and buy-to-let bastards—it really isn't. The fact that one-time social housing designed for the working classes has become seen as desirable property to those with plenty of money, and that newly-built blocks of flats in cities are designed to look affordable, while actually being anything but, is wreaking terrible social damage in the UK.
With this in mind, how much longer are we supposed to keep calm? And how exactly are we expected to carry on?
VICE: How relevant is Keep Calm and Carry On and austerity nostalgia in 2016?
Owen Hatherley: It's really odd—I first wrote about the Keep Calm and Carry On poster in an essay in 2009. Then I had the idea for this book. But in the length of time it took me to actually get around to writing it—six years—I presumed the design would go away. But it didn't. And it's clearly not going to go away. There was one thing that I chanced across last week that confirmed that austerity nostalgia is not going away, and if anything, I've been under-exaggerating this phenomena. And that was the clothing label, Workhouse England. I find the idea of a fey clothing label producing designs based on what the inmates of a workhouse would have worn in the Victorian era mind-boggling. The workhouse was basically a centralized concentration camp for enforced labor, and the idea of a fucking clothing label using this as a way of describing the authenticity of their historical roots is incredible.
It made me think, "What next?" In their world, anything that acts as a sign of their authenticity is good—it doesn't matter what it is, even the workhouse. And rather than it being presented as a time of grim poverty that people should be glad we've escaped from, it's become part of our wonderful national narrative. It's bonkers. I was trying to work out if these people actually know what a workhouse is... and I'm still not entirely sure they do.
Austerity nostalgia tends to present itself as if it's to do with rectitude or morally correct behavior—the British stiff upper lip and all of that—but actually it's completely hysterical and has no sense of historical perspective. It doesn't have a sense of decency, even. And this sense of hysteria and narcissism from people pretending to be decent and moral is sort of what the book is about.
When did you first become aware of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster?
I think it was winter of 2008 or 2009, when there was really heavy snow, which caused the train system in London to collapse. I walked from Greenwich to Blackheath, and everywhere I looked, in the windows of the houses, there seemed to be this poster. It looked like it was from the period of the war, and I thought, "Why are these people comparing the lack of trains running from Greenwich to Charing Cross with the idea of the Nazis bombing London?" And then a few months later, it was also constantly invoked during the tube strike.
What do you know about the history of the poster?
It was originally produced by the Ministry of Information in 1939. The government had this belief that aerial bombing of the UK would cause mass panic and looting. They believed that society would break down, like in the film Things to Come. The predictions at the time were that aerial bombing would kill millions. They didn't want people killing and eating each other when society broke down. But when the bombs started falling, even though people were really pissed off, society didn't collapse. And by modern standards a lot of people did die during the Blitz, but by the standards of World War II, the figures weren't that high, really. Probably more people died in one day of the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union than died in the entire Blitz. So because there wasn't this outbreak of panic, people didn't need calming down and so the poster didn't go into mass production.
There were three posters in the original series. The second one was "Freedom Is in Peril—Defend It With All Your Might," and people were just like, "What the fuck does that even mean?" And then the third one said, "Your Cheerfulness Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory," and that just really really annoyed people. Mass Observation reports show that people just found it incredibly patronizing. "YOUR cheerfulness will bring US victory? Oh right, fuck off." They saw it as a case of them and us. And that, for most people, was how they experienced the war. People were really, really annoyed with how "their betters" behaved during the war. In Southampton, the city council absconded. The members went and hid in the New Forest in nice big houses and just left the city to get on with it. The RAF basically had to run the city in their absence. Liverpool was perhaps the only place where it was actually touch and go as to whether or not it would have collapsed into mass rioting. People were pissed off during the war. There was no, "We're all in this together." There was no, "Blitz spirit." In some respects, that was what the general election of 1945 was about [Clement Attlee's Labour Party won by a landslide victory despite Churchill's leadership during the war]. It was a case of, "You've made us suffer for the last six years, or even longer if you count the depression, and now we're going to get our own back."
The poster pretty much disappeared after the war, but an original copy of it turned up in Barter Books in Alnwick in 2000. The people there started making copies to sell in the shop, and it pretty much spread from there.
So what happened with the poster after it was rediscovered? The people at the bookshop probably didn't have any ulterior motive other than selling a few posters, did they?
No, I don't think they did. I think what's interesting is how quickly it was between it cropping up in this little bookshop in Northumberland and the V&A design museum in London clocking it and saying, "Ah, that's going to do well." The bookshop thought, That's cool, let's photocopy it. The V&A thought, We're going to make a fucking mint off this.
A lot of people like public information posters and tube design from that era—I've got an Imperial War Museum poster with a dazzle ship on it in my front room—but what is it about Keep Calm and Carry On that's made it spread like wildfire?
I have exactly the same Imperial War Museum poster in my front room. I suppose it's the lack of specificity of Keep Calm and Carry On that's made it so popular. The tube posters have a bit too much information on them. Posters that say, "Move to Reigate" or "Come to Dollis Hill" do look a little bit silly. But with this all you have is the slogan in the BBC typeface—it's actually a slight modification on the Gill Sans font—and the crown on the color red. That's it. And that's why it travels. It is completely ubiquitous. You see it all over the world. I've seen it in Eastern Europe, Western Europe, southern Europe, the US, New Zealand... so everywhere I've been in the last six years I've seen this poster.
What are the best mutations or parodies of the poster you've seen?
There are so many it's hard to know where to begin. I know my least favorite parodies are the ones that say something like, "Get Angry and Flip Out." No. Don't try to parody it. Just leave it alone or it will eat you, ultimately. The only one I really like is white lettering on black with the crown replaced by the ISIS logo that says, "Keep Calm and Support ISIS." That had a certain shock effect that was quite effective, but then ISIS is really well branded.
I can remember seeing the cover of the Stereophonics album Keep Calm and Carry On in 2009, and saying to myself: "Well, that's it. Now that even the Stereophonics are involved, this thing will die a death." And yet, here we still are in 2016... it's like a cockroach after a nuclear war.
I originally thought it would be just a meme ,and after a while, it would disappear, and years later no one would be able to understand it any more than they can understand I Can Has Cheezburger? or Ceiling Cat now. But here we are eight years later, and it shows no signs of going away.
So, Keep Calm and Carry On doesn't exist on its own—it's part of a bigger cultural shift that's been happening in the UK over the last seven or eight years, which you call "austerity nostalgia." What is this?
I think austerity nostalgia is something that has existed in the UK for a long time, but it really, really seemed to kick in properly with the financial crisis. And it predates the austerity measures of the Conservative government. Austerity nostalgia had already been around as a really big thing for two or three years before they were all elected. I've got a few theories for why this is. One is maybe it's a kind of chastened consumerism, which says, "OK, there has been a financial crash, and we feel guilty about it, and we're now going to consume in this different way." It's essentially saying, keep calm and carry on shopping, but shop in a less bling-y, less flashy way. And the other is we are suffering a nostalgia for certainty, stability, and rectitude. The rhetoric is all about togetherness—even though we're not in it together.
How did this period of austerity nostalgia first manifest itself?
There was a long period from the mid-90s to the late 2000s of conspicuous consumption and displays of wealth, but after about 2007, this stopped, and the really obvious evidence of this can be seen in new architecture in London. Essentially, luxury flats stopped looking really, really fancy after this period. You stopped having loads and loads of glass; you stopped having sweeping roofs; you stopped having bright colors; you stopped having crazy angles. If you go to the Olympic Village, in Stratford, in eastern London—which is one of the first examples of this kind of austerity architecture—everything's very, very simple and austere, and is built from brick and stone.
But in every other respect, it's exactly the same as it ever was. Nothing has changed in housing in London since the 90s. Next to none of it is social housing; it's owned by private investors, and the individual flats tend to get used for buy to let. These flats are smaller than they ever used to be and more expensive than they ever used to be. Only the aesthetic has changed; only the image of them has been altered. There is no more futurism and showing off in this architecture—just an image of security, stability, and blending in. This is totally a reaction to the economic crash. Everyone knows that the financial sector destroyed the world economy, and that's why all of this is necessary. So we've shifted from having a whizz-bang aesthetic to an aesthetic of austerity, even though it's got nothing to do with actual austerity as it's been practiced in the past. So when you have a shift towards people deciding, "Well, we can't show off at the moment," they tend to reach into the past because that's how culture works at the moment. It's much easier to reach into the past to find something that already exists than it is to invent something new.
So if you've got this false contrition for the financial mess being expressed through this architecture that's springing up all over London, it's pretty offensive and ironic that some of the only people who can now afford to live in these areas have decided to dress like impoverished Edwardian chimney sweeps and 1950s female welders.
[Laughs] Yes. I find this fashion for men dressing as navvies that's going on at the moment really baffling. And like with a lot of these things, it's very syncretic and borrows from all over the shop. You will get the odd obsessive, like Billy Childish, who will actually live as if it were still the 1940s, but most people take a bit from this era and that era and this other era. And a lot of what they're into is stuff that just didn't exist before, like craft beer. It's interesting that it's not real ale; it's craft beer. There is very little connection to the actual continuity of this stuff—it creates a new reality. And you get additions that have absolutely nothing to do with it whatsoever, such as piercings. So you get this hybrid of respectable Victorian gentleman, plus Edwardian navvy, plus fetishist with piercings—so it's completely random in many ways.
One thing you point out about these fashions is that, piercings notwithstanding, there seems to be a cut off period in about 1963—which is an interesting date for a lot of cultural reasons. Why is that?
There are two ways you can look at this: 1963 is either the moment at which British culture becomes Americanized, or it's the moment at which there is mass immigration. And it's probably because of both. Morrissey could never seem to decide what upset him most about the mid-60s; was it mass immigration, or was it Americanization?
I was trying to work out earlier what musical act was most like a Keep Calm and Carry On poster, and for a while, I thought it was Mumford and Sons. But actually, now I think it's Public Service Broadcasting. I think there's a hot space in hell reserved just for that band.
I was totally unaware of them until very recently, but I saw one of their videos and was like, "My God, this is really, really shit—this is spectacularly shit." They're like the Bentley Rhythm Ace of hauntology. But actually, I think I'm being unfair on Bentley Rhythm Ace, because "Midlander" was a tune.
To be the devil's advocate for a second—surely, there must be something good about this couple-blogging, unicycle-riding, beard growing, vintage shop, austerity trend? I mean, it's better than steampunk, isn't it?
It's exactly the same thing, I think. Look, I have to admit that I like almost everything in the book, with the exception of the poster itself and Downton Abbey. I like George Orwell, Ghost Box Records, current London architecture, brass bands, Billy Bragg, Penguin Classic paperbacks, the Radiophonic Workshop, the Smiths... these things are all great. I like them all, but with a certain amount of guilt. And one of the things I think I'm saying is, "These things may be good, but they're not useful."
If you had the chance to get rid of it all, is there a particular aesthetic or slogan from the past that you'd sooner see revived?
No, because everything has already been revived. Is there anything that hasn't been revived? The first time I realized that this was happening was the first time I saw something that I had lived through being revived, and that was when the Libertines and the Kaiser Chiefs came through in 2003 or 2004. I realized that Britpop had been revived. I was like, "Hang on. This is a revival of a revival of a revival... of a revival." The Kaiser Chiefs. Blur. The Jam. The Who. It's extraordinary when you think about it.
Owen Hatherley's The Ministry of Nostalgia is out now on Verso.