Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Penguin at 75

Allan Lane invented the paperback in 1935, as he saw the need for good books, published in paperback to reach a wide audience. Ere long you could buy Penguins for 6d in Woollies. Except the paperback book started the previous century. Nor was Penguin the first to sell serious paperbacks to a mass audience. I have a 1902 paperback of Britain for the British (which then meant something different from the current meaning) by Robert Blatchford. I don’t know how many copies that book sold but his Merrie England sold two million. The publisher was Clarion, a socialist movement which sold books off vans and at propaganda visits to small towns (the Flashmobs of a century ago). Among the paperbacks listed inside are The Art of Happiness by Robert’s brother Montague (under the attractive pen name Mont Blong) and the essential Does Municipal Management Pay? I suspect that hundreds of copies of the latter are still under someone's bed. But Penguin did bring serious paperbacks to a mass audience - colour coded books for different audiences. Many’s the home that still has a shelf of orange (fiction) and green (crime). Other related imprints developed - Puffin, Penguin Classics, Pelican.
Penguin took part in one of the most important trials of the last century related to censorship. DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the focus of the trial that heralded the changes of the 1960s, the prosecutors being shown to be out of date by asking if this was a book “you would want your want your wife or servants to read”. When I became a grown-up book buyer around 1970, Penguin had a reputation as being radical (ironically at around the same time it lost its independence) and what would now be called cool though my Penguin copy of The Kon-Tiki Expedition is only a few inches away from my Penguin Obsolete Communism: the left wing alternative by Danny Cohn-Bendit. Around that time Penguin, always good on design, was famed for the “Marber Grid”, the cover design thought up by Romek Marber. Five Leaves recently published Marber’s Holocaust memoir, No Return, under our Richard Hollis imprint. Hollis himself was a designer at Penguin, his books including Ways of Seeing by John Berger. The Cohn-Bendit book mentioned before was a Penguin Special as was Protest and Survive by EP Thompson (1980), perhaps the last book to have a symbiotic relationship with a mass movement.

In 1983 Penguin shocked the book trade by paying a million pounds for the sleepy old family firm of Frederick Warne, publishers of a lovely series of hardback Beatrix Potter books. But by then the Penguin Group was part of a conglomerate which owned Royal Doulton China as well as the Financial Times and it was the merchandising that interested them. Meantime there were other publishers moving into Penguin territory. Picador had Ian McEwan and a host of high quality fiction for the literati, with King Penguin struggling to keep up. On the other hand, Penguin published Satanic Verses, which brought the firm many problems, including an attempt to set fire to the then Penguin bookshop in Nottingham.

The bookshop chain has gone, but Penguin is still with us, with a good list and a better backlist, though without its former cachet. There are times when a publisher catches the moment - Victor Gollancz did with his Left Book Club in the 30s and the 40s; City Lights with the Beat Poets and Virago with its feminist writers. All, interestingly, had immediately identifiable livery. But moments, like movements, pass and Penguin’s current best selling books include yet more Fry and Oliver. Whatever my current concerns, I’m grateful to Penguin editors for publishing so many of the books on my shelves. AS Neill’s Summerhill, Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, Lawrence’s The Rainbow, those old green Dashiell Hammetts…

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