posted by Barter Books @ 1:38pm, Wednesday 4 March 2009.
The original poster on
display at Barter Books
If you haven’t seen this WWII poster by now, the one with the hot red background and the words ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ beneath the crown of King George the VIth - honestly (and I say this with no disrespect), where have you been?
As of today's date, we, alone, have sold more than 40,000 since the year 2001 when we first began to sell facsimile copies of our poster - the only known original still in good condition outside those unearthed only recently from the vaults of the Imperial War Museum in London. And ten years on, we can’t even begin to guess at how many more thousands have been sold by our copyists. Or those who have copied the copies of the copyists, if you follow me.
Now, then, if you’re like me, you’re automatically doing your sums. Let’s see … 40,000 times whatever price seems right to you for a poster, say, £10, maybe more, (some people even sell these super upmarket versions, screen prints, etc, for nigh on three figures, can you believe?) And then you come up with this gigantic figure, Wow, you must be rich!
Don’t I wish.
We sell ours for as low a price as possible considering the overheads (currently £3-60, plus postage & packing) and still make a bit. And ‘a bit’ is enough. (Besides, says my husband, keeping our price that low annoys the hell out of the copyists.) Not that I wouldn’t like more money, I mean, Christian Louboutin, here I come! But, then, what’s the point in my going for five inch heels when I’d just totter over in them and die?
Still, even as is, the poster has been a super little earner, that it’s been.
Better still, thanks to Stuart’s finding it, we like to think we’ve restored something of value to the national archive, as it were - something somehow quintessentially British that would otherwise have remained unappreciated or even, eventually, lost altogether.
As rare as the poster obviously is, you might well ask how did Stuart find it?
The story is this: he was sorting through the usual boxes of books bought at auction, boxes which you very often get along with whatever it was you bid for whether you want them or not. And at the bottom of this one box, otherwise filled with pretty useless old cloth books from the ‘40s, was this sheet of heavy paper folded in half, then folded again. And when Stuart opened it out, there it was, this poster.
Which he then brought to me, “What do you think?”
Easy. "That gets framed.”
And that was before we knew the poster's history.
All we knew is that we loved the simple graphic design - the crown of King George the VIth, together with the very British sensibility of the message. And with the whole, taken together with the age of the original box of books, instantly suggesting wartime.
Look, at a certain level, it doesn’t take genius to recognize something special. Decent cooks take one bite, stop, put down their fork, look heavenward, downgrade their chewing rate almost to zero, and start analyzing. Music lovers go for instant replay. Poetry lovers feel this little chill going up their spine. And when that something special has about it for whatever reason universal appeal, it sells itself.
What Stuart and I didn’t know was the extent to which our poster would seem to have just that: universal appeal. No idea that within ten years it would be written about in both regional and national newspapers and magazines. And certainly not, as seems increasingly likely, that it would stand a fair chance of becoming as iconic an image as the famous Kitchener poster of WWI, the one with the moustachioed English officer pointing his finger straight towards the viewer, ‘Your country needs YOU”.
Indeed, the Keep Calm poster may even have an advantage over the Kitchener: the message of the Kitchener poster is clearly all about wartime, whereas the message of Keep Calm, in spite of its own wartime origins, is dateless and universally applicable.
Anyway, we did frame it and then put it up in one of the prime spots in the bookshop, by the till.
Then, thanks to the web, we found out its history - one which we would later include with all our Keep Calm sales.
If you’re interested, here is a brief résumé of that history:
‘On the eve of WWII, the British government produced a series of posters whose intent was to convey a reassuring message from the King to his people. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was one of three posters in a particular series and though millions of copies were printed of all three, ‘Keep Calm’ never went public. The most popular explanation for this - that it was meant for distribution only in the event of actual German occupation - is probably apocryphal. Another explanation is that the immediate bombing attacks which were feared might destabilize the public never happened. And when the bombing attacks eventually did occur, the British public, without need for the posters, famously held firm. After the end of the war, some rare few Keep Calm posters escaped being pulped. One resurfaced forty-five years later in Barter Books where facsimile copies sold from 2001 on directly led to the Keep Calm and Carry on poster becoming one of the first truly iconic images of the 21st century.'
Just how that happened is this:
Over the next few months afer we put our Keep Calm poster up on the wall, it was striking how many customers asked about it. As they passed by it, we’d see them nudging each other and pointing to it.
Some even asked if they could buy it.
Many asked if we had copies for sale.
Stuart and Sarah (one of our staff members) thought that was a great idea.
I didn’t. I was too busy being Mrs Miniver (I’m like that). No, I said, making money off a time that was so terrible for so many (sound of bombers in the background) wasn’t on, it was still too soon (a mere sixty years), the time wasn’t yet, We’ll Meet Again on the White Cliffs of Dover.
So Stuart did a test run without my knowing it. He had some copies of the poster printed and sold them while I was away. (Yes, sneaky.) Then, when I came back, he showed me the actual sales figures, whereupon (how to put it?) the sound of the bombers somehow receded, Roll Out the Barrel.
In time, we began to see more and more of the copies showing up in various places around and about – an old country pub in Eglingham, a chic florist shop in Gosforth, a cricket pavilion in Bamburgh - yea, even in the very dining room, would you believe, of the most venerable Grande Dame in this whole huge county, my eyes like two plates.
And so the sales went, nothing earthshaking, slow but steady. We even had orders from various stockists, among them (we were, are, terribly proud of this) the V&A - the great Victoria & Albert Museum, perhaps the greatest museum in the world for art and design.
And then one December day in 2005, I opened the glossy magazine section of The Guardian (a top UK newspaper) to see Susie Steiner's weekly article, ‘Five Favourite Things’. And what was one of her favourite things and in full colour, too, no less? Our poster.
After which the deluge.
Since that time, we’ve had orders from both Houses of Parliament, Kensington Palace, umpteen hospitals, schools at all levels, doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs. Fashion designers have used it as part of a fashion backdrop. Someone else will soon be using it as a cover for a book. I could go on.
We kept thinking the good times were going to stop any day, the market satiated. But even when sales did go down (and they did), someone else would mention it in yet another article and sales would go up again. And then fall again. And then, like any decent yo-yo, go back up. Indeed, only two weeks ago, there was this big picture of Stuart in Newcastle's major newspaper, The Journal, holding up the poster and looking hugely happy (the sales figures, I guess, it's sure not my cooking), with the background of our Tennyson Installation clearly visible in the background, really, a super picture. Anyway, this yo-yo pattern, we’ve now got (more or less) used to it.
What else we’ve got used to: the copyists. Some would actually credit us. Others (probably most, really) would simply order a poster from us, copy it (after removing our name) and then start selling 'Keep Calm' items, themselves. (This is perfectly legal, by the way; it is long out of copyright.)
Even better, one of our copyists, in his zeal to control other copyists (don't you love it?), actually had his lawyer send us a threatening letter essentially telling us to keep off HIS patch. At which point we wrote him back saying that he could, basically, bugger off. (Excuse my English.) Friends, there are sharks out there.
Anyway, by now, the poster has been copied and recopied so many times that even the most ethical probably wouldn’t know who to credit. Not to worry. But let me take this opportunity to thank all those who did, all the more because they didn’t have to.
This is not to mention the sale of all the related products that have become, themselves, a not-so-mini industry. The t-shirts, the tote bags, the deck chairs, you name it. Even we (greed, dear boy, greed) have fallen prey. Yea, even I, (Mrs Miniver, you will remember) have designed a Keep Calm mug, please look for it, won't you?, sandwiched there between all the trilliion others, Keep Karma and Carry On, Now Panic and Freak Out, etc etc. (No, our mug hasn't made us rich, either, alas; maybe the mouse mats will do it.)
The first is that for all our research, we have never been able to find out the name of the graphic artist who designed the poster. In my mind's eye, I see him (and I think very probably, back then, it was a 'he'), labouring away, paid tuppence, probably getting to and from work on his bike (remember: this was '30s England) or else, if he lived in London, on the tube that would, itself, become soon enough a bomb shelter. Well, whoever it was, we'd so much like to know his name and give due credit.
The second is another name we'll never know: the name of the person who owned our poster. Or how, as the poster was never distributed, he or she came by it. Or what made him or her decide to keep it, fold it, put it carefully away in the bottom of a box of books destined for the attic and then, sixty years later, for Stuart to find.
But both regrets pale beside what I love.
What I love, right along with everyone else, is how that poster, itself, would be, against all odds, a survivor of the war. How that little crown represents, still, a dignity that we seem to have lost, have we? How its message – so simple, so clean, so without spin – has turned out to have meaning not just for a single people in time of trouble but for all of us wherever we live, whatever our troubles.