Grandfather left us his garden gate, among other things – a pair of symmetrical dancing penguins in a wrought-iron frame. All through my childhood, under my bedroom window, its old hinges opening and closing made the same high-pitched whickering sound that they still make, Christmas and Easter. The early success of Penguin paperbacks was such an improbable phenomenon that to speak of their being ‘founded’ in 1935 is to miss the point about them almost entirely – it makes them sound a much more deliberate invention than they ever were, but there’s language for you. My grandfather, then, founded Penguin Books in 1935. He liked to say its logo was much better than a family crest because it wasn’t one, because it could belong to anyone with an inquiring mind and a very little money.
Even those closest to Allen Lane could never work out how many parts missionary he was to how many parts mercenary. Born in 1902, he left Bristol Grammar at sixteen, a thoroughly unpromising pupil, and never read a great deal. He was not specially interested in or clever with money, though he understood its value. Yet he made his name as the greatest public educator of his day, and made a vast fortune at the same time. These days Vigo Street is on a rat-run between Piccadilly and Regent Street and you almost miss the plaque on the building where he first went to work. It’s at eye-level just where the road is narrowest and there’s so little pavement you are usually minding your feet at that point, but glance up and it says that his paperbacks changed the reading habits of the English-speaking world. There is a strong case to be made for that.
His mother was from a family of North Devon farmers, and by ‘farmers’ I mean farmers, not country gentlefolk. She moved to Bristol to marry his father, Samuel Williams, a Welshman, an architect in the Municipal Valuer’s Department there. As a schoolboy Allen spent holidays with his cousins on their farms: this interested him much more than his schoolwork and he remained keenly interested in agriculture all his life, later buying and actively managing two farms of his own, as well as forestry plantations.
It was the Devonshire connection that got him his first job too. His father had wanted to send Allen to a private school, to give him the right start in life. He gave evening classes in architectural drawing in a vain attempt to raise the money. His mother, though, altogether cannier, managed to place him, much as she might have placed a bet, at the London publishing house run by a distant relative of hers, John Lane. In its heyday, the 1890s, the Bodley Head had published Oscar Wilde and Edmund Gosse, as well as one of the most fashionable literary journals of its day,
The Yellow Book, with W.B. Yeats and George Gissing among its contributors and illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. A list like that would surely have engaged John Lane’s attention to the exclusion of all else, you might think, but you would be wrong: he remained all his life besotted with Devon, his childhood home, and was never happier than when talking about it. No wonder Wilde got so irritated with him.
John Lane’s marriage was childless, so he made it a condition of employment that Allen’s surname should be changed to match his own. This was agreed to and Allen’s whole family promptly changed its name as well, a week before he left for London in April 1919. If Allen was the wager it was the whole family’s fortunes which depended on the outcome of the bet.
Allen never chose publishing or even, like his ‘Uncle’, drifted into it. He was branded into it. Ideals played no role whatsoever in his ‘choice’ of profession.
To the man he went to work for Allen was a nephew so many times removed that he was hardly a nephew at all, but he took naturally to his new circumstances and less than arduous duties. ‘The work is not half so hard as schoolworks’ he wrote home, a few months after arriving. He was excited by the capital, especially the Peace Day Parade in July 1919, which celebrated the German signing of the Treaty of Versailles: ‘The tanks were awfully good so were the motor lorries with the guns, searchlights, pigeons, mortars etc.’, he wrote to his parents the following Monday, and then, with a clairvoyant touch we’ll be seeing more of: ‘When the film comes to Bristol be sure to take the kids. The opportunity won’t occur again, until after the next war.’ He was the eldest of four, though not by much: that teasing reference to his younger brothers and sister is worth noting.
He ran errands, wrote letters, supervised the loading and unloading of stock. He proved reliable and, more importantly I suspect, personable, and was gradually entrusted with a decision-making role. He made contacts throughout the publishing world, and at every level in it, which proved invaluable later on. He was growing up too. He acquired a taste for the good life which he never lost. All through the century’s and his own twenties he flourished on a heavy diet of London and glamour girls and reckless publishing ventures. But he was living on borrowed time in a sense and one side of him later came to think of these as years which the locusts had eaten.
The Bodley Head’s glory days were in the past – forty years later another of John Lane’s authors, J.B. Priestley, recalled the ageing publisher: ‘His talk and manner contrived to suggest a retired diplomat, a connoisseur who had run through a fortune, and not at all a hard bargainer in the book trade… He must have felt his particular world had vanished – that small but influential world in which the clever ladies, coping with luncheon parties, cooed and trilled over the latest Bodley Head volume and the current number of The Yellow Book.’ It was a world which had indeed passed. That little nephew of his, watching the Peace Day Procession at Vauxhall a dozen rows from the front – ‘with one of the periscopes advertised in the papers’ – had perhaps picked up just a hint as to the kind of world that was coming next.
After just five years with the Bodley Head Allen was made a director, the year before John Lane’s death in 1925. He inherited a majority share in the company when John’s widow died a year later. He went on to make some very expensive mistakes for what was by then an ailing firm. He got it into very serious trouble backing a libellous book of ‘diplomatic memoirs’ which turned out, after publication, to have been written by an unemployed actor. He initiated a disastrous series of children’s books which only made further losses.
The clairvoyant touch was still there. Copies of Joyce’s Ulysses, imported from Paris, had been burned by customs officials in Folkestone in the early 1920s. Allen had met Joyce in 1929 and had been in New York when Random House decided to press ahead with publishing the controversial book. When T.S. Eliot, at Faber, declined to become the novel’s first British publisher, Allen made an offer on it. The other directors made him personally liable for any legal costs incurred. There were none. It was the first of his triumphs against the odds and not the last.
Young, with a firebrand’s confidence, appointed by his ‘Uncle’ John – the other directors were understandably suspicious of him and didn’t hide it. The company had lost £9,000 on a 9d. paperback series less than ten years before when Allen proposed his 6d. series of fiction re-prints in paperback, to be called ‘Penguins’. He was coolly advised that he could use the firm’s name but would have to find the titles and raise the capital for himself.
Penguin was never ‘founded’ as such. It was dreamt up as yet another rescue plan for the Bodley Head, but the Bodley Head had on several occasions been made to ache by Allen’s ‘rescue plans’ and was unwilling to try this latest one. They didn’t like Allen and they didn’t like the Penguin idea any more than they had liked Ulysses. So a new firm arose, largely by chance, as my grandfather struggled to make his tenuous inheritance work. Books that cheap were indeed a brave new idea. They were also a panic measure.
His parents mortgaged their home to pay for the experiment. His two younger brothers, John and Richard, who had by now joined him in London, contributed what they could, in time and money. He sold the paintings and the collection of books which Uncle John had left him. Within a year, in 1936, the Bodley Head had gone into voluntary liquidation and Penguin, Allen’s last-ditch attempt to save it, was on its own.
He raised the combined hackles of the publishing world by selling his paperbacks through Woolworths: ‘Nothing Over Sixpence’ ran a slogan of theirs at the time and no other publisher could or would ‘stoop so low’ as to follow Penguin into that market. Allen was not of genteel stock and was not, as I’ve indicated, in publishing for genteel reasons. But by then, as the unemployment figures soared and the Spanish Civil War raged and the Jewish refugees began to arrive, the world was proving itself not to be a very genteel place.
With his energy, realism and ambiguous background, with his intuitive inner compass, Allen often seems like the sort of publishing magnate Bernard Shaw would have portrayed if he ever had portrayed one. And it was in fact with the help of Bernard Shaw that the new enterprise found its true direction. The great man had taken an early interest in the 6d. re-prints, sending in suggestions for titles, when to one of these suggestions Allen replied that the book he really wanted was Shaw’s own Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. Shaw responded immediately. He agreed to the price offered, which was no higher than that offered to other Penguin authors. More crucially, he agreed to update the original 1928 edition with additional chapters on Hitler and Stalin. This was the first material ever actually commissioned by Penguin and it set, of course, a precedent other writers were only too glad to follow.
The book went out as the first of a new Pelican series in 1937. With the launch of Pelican a vast market was rapidly discovered for accessibly written but serious works of non-fiction – on science, theology, sociology, history, zoology, archaeology – the list was as endless as the public’s appetite was insatiable. The Penguin Specials meanwhile provided in-depth analysis of the European situation as it lurched once again towards war.
To be quite clear: Allen Lane did not invent paper-backs. They had been tried before, and successfully too. Even the famous cover design was largely borrowed, from Albatross Books, a Hamburg publisher of the day. Allen’s particular gift was to notice what other people did not and it took even him a year or more to realise what he had stumbled upon. The ‘paperback revolution’, as it is still occasionally referred to, was not ultimately about books or those paper-thin profit-margins, never mind about Penguin: it was about answers – and about people who had never needed them so badly on such a scale. It was about a world that had never spun so giddily nor cried out so urgently to be made sense of. Anyone with a paperback in their hands is holding the history of the last hundred years or so in their hands, whether they know it or not.