Keep Calm And Carry On With The Clichés
When our leaders want a quick and easy way to try and boost our morale they often lazily turn to invoking ‘blitz spirit’. Predictably, the notion has been stirred up during the pandemic by, among others, the Queen, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Labour head Keir Starmer. BBC One’s recent documentary Blitz Spirit With Lucy Worsley aimed to uncover the meaning behind the platitude. As Worsley says, ‘blitz spirit’ is a ‘benchmark of Britishness – something we can call upon in times of crisis’, a jingoistic mix of stoicism, rule-following and optimism.
The phrase glosses over the fear and pain suffered during the blitz, the campaign of air raids on British cities by the German state’s forces during the Second World War. Between September 1940 and May 1941, over 40,000 people were killed and more than two million houses were damaged or destroyed. Britain’s wartime government thought that public morale would suffer without its propaganda, so the idea of ‘blitz spirit’ developed. And it’s lasted through the decades, despite the myths around it being exposed in many books and articles before this latest documentary.
‘Blitz spirit’ has connotations of everyone pulling together amid the bombing, but society’s divisions meant this couldn’t happen. One way that people were literally divided was through their nationality: at the start of the war, 27,000 foreign nationals living in Britain (80 percent of whom were Jewish) were arrested and held in camps amid suspicions of spying. Another division was by wealth: not only were people in poorer areas more likely to be hit by bombs, but the most well-off had better safeguards than the shoddily-built public surface shelters. London Underground stations were a preferred option to these, although the government banned their use as shelters until angry crowds persuaded the authorities to open the gates. Despite the protection they offered, the stations soon became overcrowded and unhygienic. As the Socialist Standard reported in November 1940, ‘while one reads of cocktails drunk in comfortable deep shelters by well-to-do people, one sees the crowds of poverty-stricken with their bundles besieging the shelters and tubes, and the appalling conditions under which multitudes of people spend the greater part of their time in the Underground stations have to be seen to be believed’. The cocktail drinkers were using shelters in places like the Savoy hotel, where the Communist Party organised a protest against the disparity of provision.
The ‘blitz spirit’ myth has endured by its folk memory ignoring the uncomfortable details which go against its narrative. It has also been manufactured through several striking images from the war, all of which are distortions of what really happened. Photographs (and reports) printed in newspapers were subject to strict rules to avoid revealing the extent of the destruction. Those published were carefully selected to manage people’s perceptions, such as the image of St Paul’s Cathedral untouched while smoke drifts around, proudly displayed on the front page of the Daily Mail. The picture was held up as a symbol of London’s ‘indomitable spirit’, but it had been cropped to downplay the damage to nearby buildings. The uncropped version appeared in a contemporary German newspaper, with the opposite intention. Another memorable photo shows a milkman casually carrying a crate of bottles over the ruins of a street. This was staged, with the photographer’s assistant posing with a borrowed coat and crate, and contrived to be acceptable to the censors. The ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ poster was one of three designed in 1939 by the Ministry of Information with the aim of raising spirits. It was never distributed and millions of copies were pulped due to the view that the slogan was patronising. The poster was forgotten about until a surviving copy was unearthed in a bookshop in 2000. In a canny commercial move, it was licenced to be reprinted and subsequently appeared on mugs, t-shirts, cushion covers and other tat as the last decade’s favourite cliché. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ is supposed to mean a patient resilience, but it really translates as ‘put up and shut up’. A sentiment which wartime propagandists realised they couldn’t get away with turned out to be profitably popular 70 years later.
Rather than suggesting that ‘blitz spirit’ doesn’t exist because of its shaky foundations, the documentary says that the idea is better expressed through the stories of how ‘ordinary people’ coped during the air raids. These are recreated by actors presenting the diary writings of six Londoners. Nina Masel went from shop work to a paid job with the Mass Observation project to record people’s experiences, until she resigned, incensed that her contributions were being turned into propaganda. Frances Faviell, an artist and socialite, received just a week’s training as an auxiliary nurse before finding herself having to treat the terrible injuries caused by the bombing. Two air raid precaution wardens are featured: Ita Ekpenyon, who moved from Nigeria to study law, and Barbara Nixon, an out-of-work actress. Also included is Frank Hurd, a full-time firefighter who was killed while tackling a burning building. The sixth person is Robert Barltrop, a teenage warehouse porter who volunteered as a firewatcher when the war started. The programme doesn’t go into his life after the blitz, when he enrolled with the RAF until a bout of tuberculosis prevented him from taking part in conflict. Rejecting the military and what it represents, Barltrop joined the SPGB in 1946, having first heard about the party before the war through conversations in his local shoe repair shop. During his many years as a member he was an editor, writer and illustrator for the Socialist Standard, and his 1975 book The Monument is a readably anecdotal history of the party.
How these six, and millions of others, dealt with the horrors of the bombing was indeed brave and often selfless, if that’s what’s meant by ‘spirit’. But the notion of ‘blitz spirit’ is different, meant to evoke a warm, patriotic reassurance during a crisis, keeping calm and carrying on without asking questions or looking beyond the propaganda. As such, it remains a useful myth for capitalism’s apologists.