Insidiousness

In response to the worldwide epidemic of COVID-19 there is an inevitability to the words …And Wash Your Hands, replacing …And Carry On, as the coda to Keep Calm and Carry On posters. Given that news of the spread of the virus has the ability to produce widespread panic, any populist measures to get health messages across to stem a pandemic should be welcomed. However, on any mention of that original poster, I can not help but be reminded of its insidious nature.

For those unfamiliar with the origin of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, it was meant to be kept in storage and only rolled out across Britain in the event of a Nazi occupation. The premise being that we should all accept our new rulers and maintain the British notion of ‘keeping a stiff upper lip’, and simply get on with our daily lives. As an avowed anti-fascist, such a sentiment is an anathema to me.

Just how insidious the original Keep Calm poster is, was bought home to me last week when listening to Cerys Matthews interview the children’s book author Michael Rosen on her Sunday morning BBC 6music show. He was discussing his book The Missingin which he investigates his family history and those members of it who went missing during the Second World War from occupied countries, and specifically France. He recounted the tale of coming across police reports that detailed how officers of the French Gendarmerie went to his father’s uncle’s house in 1944, at 2:30 in the morning, and removed his great uncle in order to hand him over to the Nazis. He had committed no crime—he was arrested simply for the sole reason that he was Jewish.

Rosen spoke about what troubled him the most was the legality of the situation, and how these officers where just following orders. While the holocaust was an illegal act, like many other Nazi atrocities, what happened in the early hours of that morning in 1944 was legal. Given that Rosen’s relation was deported and never seen again, he goes on to say that even though the police were carrying out their duty, they were in fact conspirators to murder. This, in effect, was the French police keeping calm and carrying on. (You can listen to Michael Rosen talk about The Missing on 6music via this link—starts at around the 01:10:40 mark.)

It made me ask myself, as I listened to Rosen’s words, how the same story would have played out in Britain had we become occupied by Nazis in the 1940s. With people following the advice of keeping calm and carrying on, I suspect exactly the same would have happened. Such a depressing thought made me wonder if the poster really needs an additional line of bracketed text to make it more accurate and alert people to its insidious nature: Keep Calm and Carry On, (unless you happen to be Jewish, a gypsy, homosexual, a communist, or any other ‘undesirable’ deemed in need of eradication from society under fascist ideology, in which case you need to be very wary of a knock on the door in the middle of the night and of those who you might think are there to protect you).

Not so catchy though, is it!

Mainly Museums: PHM

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I was honoured to be asked to write something for the Mainly Museums website recently, and decided very quickly that it would be good to champion Manchester’s Peoples History Museum, (PHM), on the site. My choice was influenced by the fact PHM tells its story through the graphic accoutrements of political activity; from trade union banners to posters, from badges to membership cards, from propaganda leaflets to magazine covers. This visual telling brings the story alive of the fight for social justice, not just in the North of England, but across the UK and internationally. I would urge anyone to visit should they be in the area.

The article itself is an expanded rewrite of a Field Readings’ post I wrote about the People’s History Museum after I visited many years ago. The new version was first published on Mainly Museums website in July 2019.

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Graphic commons: Bucharest, a bohemian rhapsody

Recently I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel to Bucharest, Romania, for work. The trip was so that I could attend an art and design education fair and to talk at a couple of high schools about our courses. This was my first such recruitment trip abroad, and I’m told you often only get to see a city from a car window and in the evening before flying back the next day. Thankfully though, because of the timings of our itinerary, I managed to get a little time to myself to wander the city and soak up Bucharest’s visual culture.

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This was my first visit to Eastern Europe, and one, given the timing of the trip, that was over-shadowed by Brexit. Our host, locals and delegates from other countries all had an opinion, with none of them positive. The majority of Romanians I spoke to about it, (and Romania isn’t a country afraid of change, it could be argued), all thought Britain was putting itself in a ridiculous position.

One of the things that struck me about Bucharest from the outset, was that it is a country that is happy to wear its history on its sleeve—it is there in plain sight for everyone to see. Our hotel was very close to Revolution Square, the site of the uprising that saw Nicolae Ceaușescu toppled from power nearly 30 years ago.

Monuments to these tumultuous times have seen better days, and the local anarchists appear to show little respect for those that lost their lives fighting against the dictator. Some locals said the current government is the most corrupt in 100 years, so it appears a struggle continues. Given we were a week away from national celebrations of 100 years of independence for Romania, this is some claim given their more recent history.

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Graphic commons: Oxford streets

For many, traipsing historic academic cobbles and starring at spires, let alone dreaming of them, would define any visit to Oxford. For me, on a family weekend there recently, it was an opportunity to study its graphic commons.

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Looking for its vernacular, I mostly steered clear of high-street parades, and came away finding the city’s contradictions being easy bedfellows; hi and lo culture mix comfortably, on the streets at least. Testament to this are the highbrow events flyposted on chipboard, acting as a temporary hoardings for college concerts where no sacred wall can be damaged.

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These sat just around the corner from the usual tattered pastings I more typically photograph. Technically the same in purpose and application, each arguably despoiling/enhancing the streets, depending on your point of view. The only difference being that those on chipboard could be moved out of sight quickly. While on display though, from a visual perspective, they are exactly the same.

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Pockets of resistance were also visible. Some philanthropically recognised, others unofficially bubbling up from the underground.

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Festival of Britain benches

I have had a fascination with the Festival of Britain since I came across one of its guidebooks several years ago and wrote an article about it for Eye magazine’s blog. In my day job I have also had the pleasure of hearing Abram Games’ daughter, Naomi Games, talk to students about her father’s work, (for the uninitiated, it was Abram Games that designed the FoB logo). Further to this, I have a keen interest in modernist design principles, and in particular the work of the Design Research Unit who played a key role in the planning and organisation of the 1951 Festival. It is therefore not surprising that when driving through the Lincolnshire village of Barnetby Le Wold while on holiday with my wife recently, that my eye caught sight of the familiar logo. However, the fact it was set into the concrete of a bench by a very busy roundabout was the last place I expected to see it.

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The famous logo—the right hand rendering has faired better in the weather than the left
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Uncomfortable post-truths

In discussing 2016 election campaigns with a student recently, I mentioned that to have a true understanding of the topic, it was necessary to research publications that they might not agree with—the Daily Mail, the Express et al. It has to be said that most of the critiques I’ve read of both the EU referendum and American Presidential election campaigns do so from a liberal arts perspective.

In considering this I proffered that, unfortunately, we might have to accept that despite any feelings of abhorrence towards the UKIP Breaking Point campaign, it was in fact a brilliant piece of propaganda on their part.

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Picture source: The Guardian

Potentially it was as defining for the Brexit vote as the Conservative’s 1979 Labour’s Not Working poster, (and there are certainly visual similarities). Equally, any such controversy about UKIP’s blatant use of xenophobia only fuels the flames of such a message to those it was aimed at, precisely because it upsets bleeding heart liberals. This train of thought bought me to an uncomfortable truth that this poster, arguably, could be crowned one of the defining images of 2016.

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Punk philosophy

You could argue the need for yet another publication about punk. The ‘1976 and all that’ narrative has been told so often now that it reads like a dull pantomime with all original relevance of the story bled dry through over telling. There have been some publications in the last few years that have gone beyond this nostalgic rehash, such as 2012’s excellent Punk: An Aesthetic, but recently published The Truth of Revolution, Brother: An Exploration of Punk Philosophy (Situation Press) focusses, as the title says, on an area of the punk phenomenon that has largely been ignored.

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Ditchling Museum of Art+Craft

I’d read about Ditchling Museum of Art+Craft on the Design Week blog last year when it reopened after being refurbished. It made the design press largely because of the rebranding by Phil Baines, in which he re-drew Gill Sans for all accompanying graphics. In truth, what Baines had done more than help advise on the dressing of the museum was to shine a light on an important historical design gem. And when I realised we wouldn’t be too far away while holidaying on the Kent / East Sussex boarder last week, it went on the itinerary of possible things to do. But rather than visit after going to the Chermayeff exhibition in Bexhill on our return journey home, we decided to go on a separate day, worried that two exhibitions in one day would be too much.

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