I have noticed that the British wartime-poster slogan, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” has spread to these shores and appears on an astounding array of items such as cards, tea towels (dishcloths), mugs, T-shirts and bedding.
I wonder how many Americans — and, indeed, British — know the history of this phrase.
According to www.bbc.uk, this poster initially was produced by the British government at the beginning of World War II — September 1939 for the British, more than two years before the United States joined. The slogan was intended to strengthen the public’s morale for the impending tough times, such as the mass bombing of major cities that was expected to come within days after declaring war on Germany.
My grandparents fought or waited stoically at home with severe rationing and other hardships during the six years this war lasted for the British. My parents were born during these years, so I have observed the attitudes to life that resulted from this period in history firsthand. Great Britain is a small, overcrowded island that is not blessed with a wonderful climate, is separated geographically from the rest of Europe and has been invaded many times (although not truly occupied since 1066 when the French Normans succeeded). I believe those facts led to the formation of the stereotypical stoic, less-demonstrative British character.
For example, going back to World War II, this stoicism was demonstrated and put to the test when newsreader Bruce Belfrage was on air in October 1940 while German bombs hit Broadcasting House — the building he was in — killing seven people. He had to continue as normal because he was not allowed to react on air for security reasons.
It is well recognized that the British usually take some pride in not over-reacting to dramatic events. Growing up, we frequently were told not to panic or fuss over small incidents. I never will forget my grandmother, a strong character, telling me when I cut my finger as a child and sobbed that, “It’s only blood, so pack it in” (English speak for “quit complaining”). Indeed, if someone gets too self-indulgent when describing some mishap, it is common to hear the phrase “leave it out” or “stop moaning,” whereas in the U.S.A., people seem to empathize more, giving responses like “I hear you, man,” or “So sorry to hear that,” or “You poor thing.”
Winston Churchill, the great British prime minister during most of World War II, encouraged this stoic approach when he said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Of course, there is a flip side to all this resilience. There generally are far fewer public displays of enthusiasm for life than in the U.S.A. The British usually do not high-five, bump fists or hug strangers. In fact, in the United Kingdom, people almost are expected to take a rather world-weary approach to each and every day.
The British glass is often half-empty, whereas the American glass is usually half-full. For example, when I first visited America with my now- husband, I was surprised when I asked how someone should be told “I’m fabulous” or “Just great, thanks.” In the U.K., if we are lucky, we hear “Very well, thank you’,” but more often it is ‘Fine, thanks,” “Not bad,” “Can’t complain” or “Mustn’t grumble” (really). This usually is followed by a detailed discussion about the weather forecast, but that is another column.
To sum it up, the British, especially the older generation, are good at just “carrying on carrying on” and not particularly noted for celebrating the small victories in life. This is just my observation, and it certainly is different to the stereotypical American personality, a nation whose Declaration of Independence gives all its citizens the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
God bless America!
Francis grew up in London, England and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009. She can be contacted at email@example.com or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.