By 1937 then Allen had found himself and Penguin had found its role: offering the best, in fiction and non-fiction alike, to an increasingly literate public in an increasingly alarming world. And offering these books at sixpence each, or ‘the price of ten cigarettes’ as he liked to put it. I leave the intelligent reader to sort out for herself how much of this was planned.
To summarise you might say that Penguin was fathered by Inspired Accident upon a Beleaguered Democracy. Marx argued that in a capitalist state, ‘culture’ belongs to the superstructure. It is there to legitimise the interests of the governing class. You would expect this to hold especially true in times of economic crisis, when ‘culture’ would tend to come even lower down the working man’s list of priorities. Allen was well-placed temperamentally and professionally to anticipate it, but this massive popular demand for serious literature broke all the ‘rules’.
But which ‘rules’ exactly would those be? Marx’s thinking on culture was far more complex than it is now generally given credit for. Marx himself described his work in a letter to Engels as forming an ‘artistic whole.’ He went on admiring Heine, for all their political disagreements. He was devoted to Shakespeare, Balzac and Aeschylus and was himself the author of an uncompleted comic novel. That his daughter translated Madame Bovary is not so ironic as some have supposed. Engels and even Lenin also had serious literary interests. Whatever may have been done later in their name, they themselves took seriously literature’s intricate relationship to the political sphere.
In so far as these paperbacks made very widely available the best that had been — and was being — thought and said, they performed an invaluable service. But who exactly was taking them up on the offer? It is tempting to cry Penguin up as ‘revolutionary’ and in a technical sense it may have been that, but Eric Hobsbawm has recently argued (London Review of Books, 6th August 2009) that these books were being read not so much by the mass of the manual working-class as by a growing class of the ‘aspiring and politically conscious educated’, as well as by the older educated class. Few ‘best-sellers’ from the likes of Penguin or The Left Book Club sold more than 50,000 copies. The Radio Times had a circulation of 2.4 million in 1935. We should be wary of exaggerating the impact of such books in an electorate of thirty million.
Allen in any case was surely not troubling himself much over the finer points of Marxist culture-theory. Any attempt to cast him as a crusading ideologue would be a mistake. He was not the stuff that pious memories are made of. He was above all an intuitive, an adventurer. And once his company was afloat he was in it above all for the fun. He was constantly restless for new ideas and quickly bored by them once they came. He had an uncanny, almost trickster-ish talent for spotting a bestseller or the right kind of editorial staff.
And his editorial staff are, of course, vital to this story. With little formal education of his own, and no intention of making up for it, he had to rely on the scholarship of others. He could inspire unwavering loyalty in people a thousand times more learned than he was. To give just one example of how: when E.V. Rieu’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey arrived in manuscript at Penguin in 1945, Allen’s editors informed him that before the war there had already been eight English translations on the market, none of them selling well. But he had a hunch. Were there not now millions of servicemen returning from the various theatres of war? And after all, a modern reincarnation of Homer’s wandering hero had done him proud less than a decade earlier. He published it. It rapidly sold a million copies, then two million, and is still in print. It became the first of the Penguin Classics series, which remains one of the most impressive achievements in 20th century publishing.
Allen’s attitude to other people’s erudition is for me one of the most curious things about him. He knew, as one biographer has put it, ‘rather less Greek than his chauffeur’ but there was something else he did know, which most Greek scholars evidently do not. During that first decade he gathered around him a small group of editorial staff. They were in a way eccentrics like him, but scholars, often self-taught, wayward sometimes and often hard-drinking, but intellectually formidable, politically on the left and utterly dedicated to the Penguin enterprise. The very early editorial meetings were held in a favourite Spanish restaurant, with plenty of wine to keep things cheerful. They lasted as far into the small hours as the management would permit. Those meetings were probably the happiest time of Allen’s life. As Penguin grew he always regretted the loss of that experimental, mad-cap atmosphere.
Here are some brief biographical notes on those editors: Alan Glover had taught himself Latin, Greek, Russian and Sanskrit whilst serving time in four British gaols as an ‘absolutist’ conscientious objector during the First World War. These refused not only to fight but to engage in any occupation which might assist the war effort. He was set to sewing up mailbags. Among his fellow-prisoners was a publisher for whom after the war he edited works by Flaubert, Balzac and Voltaire. He made translations of medieval devotional poetry. He worked for a time as a circus tattoo-man and his face remained always scarred from the excised markings. He had worked for Reader’s Digest, anglicising the spelling for the British editions. He had been a Franciscan tertiary and a convert to a number of oriental sects by the time he joined Penguin, as a proof-reader at first, aged fifty. By then he had settled upon Buddhism but was also the editor of a psychoanalytical journal and compiler of the general index to the Bollingen/Routledge Collected Jung. He edited the Penguin selection of Byron.
Bill Williams had been intended for the ministry as a Methodist pastor in his native North Wales, but left theological college after two years and took various teaching jobs until he found in adult education an ideal he could believe in more wholeheartedly. It was he who eventually took on the Pelican series and edited the early Specials. During the Second World War he set up the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), designed to encourage British servicemen of all ranks to discuss together in weekly meetings both the progress and ultimate purposes of the war, as well as the kind of society they wanted to build afterwards. After the war he ran the Arts Council for over a decade but remained as a co-director at Penguin for many years, editing the Penguin selections of Wordsworth, Browning and Tennyson.
He had been introduced to Allen by Krishna Menon, a solitary and an ascetic, and unlike the others also in his many university qualifications, with two degrees from Madras and three more from British universities. Menon had been, like Bernard Shaw, a borough councillor in St Pancras, was also a brilliant and feared lawyer and an ardent worker for socialism in Britain and, its logical consequence as he saw it, independence for India. Temperamentally at odds with the atmosphere at Penguin he soon left, but only after the Pelicans, which he initiated, were fully air-borne. He went on to represent the Nehru administration in senior positions all over the world.
Nikolaus Pevsner, educated at four German universities, was a brilliant young lecturer in art history at Göttingen when the rise of the Nazis forced him to leave. He edited the King Penguin series from 1941 after its original editor was killed in an air raid. These books were entirely new to the English – small hardbacks lavishly illustrated, they were modelled directly on the German Insel-Bücherei Verlag series. His Buildings of England series (based on the Handbücher der deutschen Kunstdenkmäler written between 1905-1912) was a meticulous county by county survey of the English architectural inheritance, still unrivalled for its thoroughness, erudition and approachable style. The Pelican History of Art also emerged under his exacting supervision – originally inspired by Das Handbuch der Kunstwissenschaft, the series is now owned by Yale University Press.
And there were others. Even the most cursory survey of this extraordinary mix of people reveals one curious trait they have in common, aside from their super-abundance of talent. Pevsner is a Russian-Jewish name. Glover’s real name was McDougal. Lane’s real name was Williams, which makes two of those, and a Krishna Menon. The energy and the impudence with which these paperbacks were launched in Britain certainly owed something to the complicated relationship these men had with England, or Establishment England, to be more precise. Take the Pelicans: they originated in a half-Welsh publisher’s suggestion to an Irish writer. The series was edited by an Indian at first, later by a Welshman.
I’m over-playing this perhaps: Eunice Frost and H.E. Beales were as English as their names suggest. Allen was no more a crusader for a multi-cultural Britain than he was for a socialist one. It is true nevertheless that he and this ‘movement’ of his shared one very important characteristic: a certain built-in aversion to whatever it is, in class or nationality, that cuts people off from each other. Sixty years on, the rhetoric of ‘inclusion’ is commonplace enough. It wasn’t always commonplace, and it wasn’t always just rhetoric either.
I have already mentioned the atmosphere of experiment which Allen so relished. Though the risks he took were often well-informed ones, that readiness of his to let things take off in improbable directions was clearly another of his gifts. The impish grin is something everyone who knew him seems to recall. Of all the character traits he passed on to his firm I suspect that his sense of humour was among the most telling. Cynical they certainly never were but something of the combined irreverence of those editors, even towards the ‘paperback revolution’ they had set in motion, is perhaps captured best in a note sent in 1951, by McDougal, alias Glover, to the Penguin translator of Don Quixote, one J.M. Cohen: ‘….Penguin-readers are very serious-minded and learned young men and women in quest of truth and the elusive light of pure intellectual satisfaction. You must remember that the new generation is not like our own. It doesn’t drink, it doesn’t smoke and it is existentialist. God be praised it will all be destroyed by an atom bomb in a very short time.’
Eccentrics then, but not exactly cuddly. Allen paid badly and was a compulsive hirer and firer: those closest to him took care to keep jobs elsewhere too. There was an edginess about him. A cold streak. The grandfather I got my surname from, author of the Pelican History of the United States and editor of the Penguin Selected Keats, was sacked in the most cowardly manner by my ‘other’ grandfather (the one people have heard of), and my parents suffered the emotional fall-out from this for years afterwards.
Both of Allen’s daughters married and were busy bringing up children in the sixties, at the same time as he was becoming anxious to find a successor. He continually raised expectations in the most promising of his younger editors, only to dash them. And he wasn’t one to apologise either. Tony Godwin had left school without qualifications, and in 1946 had just been de-mobbed from the Tank Regiment, when he opened an experimental shop on the Charing Cross Road. Opposite Foyles, his ‘Better Books’ was self-consciously modern, wittily advertised, with a fascia board in the style of Mondrian. Its assistants were trained to be well-informed about their stock and to sell actively. There were literary meetings and poetry readings. It was a success, other projects followed and Godwin would soon be one of London’s most influential booksellers. Allen appointed him Chief Editor at Penguin in 1960 and it looked as if he had surely now found a worthy and like-minded successor. But Godwin would be abruptly sacked under circumstances we’ll come to. As he grew older, Allen may have kept his instinct for the right kind of editorial staff but he also became capable of wasting other people’s talent on an extravagant scale.
There is another side to all this too. Just as John Lane in old age was unable to see the direction in which publishing had to go, so Allen also, in so far as his worries about a successor preoccupied him, was ignoring the bleak new facts of economic life. Penguin had simply grown too big to remain in the control of some ‘inner circle’. The intimacy of those editorial-meetings-cum-drinking-sessions in ‘The Barcelona’, the plucky little one-man-show of company legend, which had taken on the sleepy giants of the book-world and won – in short, the things he had enjoyed most about publishing – these could not really be passed on intact in the age of corporate takeovers.
From the late fifties onwards the people he had started out with were beginning to retire, others were running the offices in Australia or America. The new men were not of his own generation and for all their dedication and talent he felt this keenly. Penguin was no longer the only name in paperbacks. Television too was a new rival, to the book-format itself. The firm continued to flourish but increasingly he complained of missing something in his work.
It is ironic in some ways that the Lady Chatterley trial, along with the Beatles’ first LP, quickly came to symbolise the new liberal spirit of the sixties. Ironic because it was not really a spirit Allen felt at ease with. He realised only quite late how explosive the novel’s publication might be (see Jeremy Lewis, Penguin Special p.315.) The cultural and political dispute of which Lawrence’s book was a part had been rumbling on for decades. More than thirty years after it was written in Italy and brought out in a small edition in Florence, the novel’s frank, serious treatment of sexual love and class barriers was still perceived as threatening in the writer’s homeland. D.H. Lawrence might have been dead for more than two decades but this trial would dramatise publicly as never before the conflicts which had haunted him as he travelled the world.
We all know this now, but how obvious was it at the time? Penguin, in trying to pay the homage which was only a major writer’s due – namely, the publication of his unexpurgated works — found that its action was indistinguishable, in the eyes of the governing class, from a gesture of calculated defiance. Allen was quick to see (and seize) the unexpected opportunity which this afforded his company, but as ever this was as much down to his lightning reactions as to any forward planning. It’s as well to bear that in mind when treating of the episode for which he is most famous. He certainly rejoiced at the resulting sales of the novel, but his later attitude towards the new decade suggests that his business acumen and his underlying instincts were, even then, beginning to work at cross-purposes.
His parents had met over a shared hymn book at a Sunday service in Bristol. Every generation meets over a shared hymn book, and argues over its meaning, or meaninglessness, but with every generation the hymn book changes. Allen sensed the magnitude of the changes the sixties were bringing, and his younger editors felt themselves to be a part of those changes. ‘Better Books’, for example, the shop which Godwin had set up in the Charing Cross Road, was by now a ‘mini Arts Lab’, with stage, cinema and gallery, at the heart of the new underground scene. But Allen for his part was unable to respond as surely, to read the changes as fluently, as he had read those of previous decades. The Penguin Specials of the thirties and forties were revived and very successfully, under Dieter Pevsner’s editorship. The Modern Classics date from this period. But Lane felt uneasy with the Beat poetry and new fiction others were wanting to promote. A fastidious dresser himself, the casual look of the sixties was unlikely to appeal to him. His designers suggested a new look for Penguin too, more colourful cover designs as a response to new buying habits. Research showed that books were now being bought on impulse; they must therefore make a new kind of appeal to the purchaser. Allen dismissed the result contemptuously as ‘bosoms and bottoms’. Justified in a few cases but not in all. A new tetchiness was creeping in.
In the mid-sixties Tony Godwin bought a book of Sinè’s drawings for the company. Several booksellers refused to stock it. Allen backed them. He too took offence at the obscenity of these drawings, even at their anti-clericalism, though this concern with religion was new. Godwin refused to back down. Put to a vote, the Editorial Board backed him against Allen. One night, a month later, Allen and a long-serving member of the warehouse staff loaded all the books into a van, drove them out to one of his farms and burnt them. He then sacked Godwin. This episode is justly less famous than the Lady Chatterley trial, but it gives a fuller picture in some ways of that ambivalence towards the sixties of the man often credited with having ushered them in.
He began to visit Devon regularly and it’s worth reflecting a moment on this parting of the ways: between the turn his own life and opinions were taking and his company’s prominent place in the transgressive culture of the sixties. He would bring his two daughters with him, my mother and aunt, during holidays and take them to meet the farming cousins he had spent summers with as a schoolboy during the First World War. During the row over Sinè, Allen once objected to the book on the grounds that if any of those villagers he mixed so easily with at the pub in Devon ever saw this book he would never be welcome there again. It seems a very odd kind of argument for one of the world’s leading publishers, but his use of it is revealing.
He had not gone into publishing for the money or the status, though certainly he had enjoyed both. As Shaw put it in that first Pelican: ‘Money itself is one of the most useful contrivances ever invented: it is not its fault that some people are foolish or miserly enough to be fonder of it than of their own souls.’ Allen would not have put it like that but he would have known what Shaw was getting at and he would have agreed. Publishing had been worthwhile when it was fun and when he could feel that his work was enriching millions of lives. Or when the company expanded wildly, unpredictably. The early days had had an anarchic knife-edge quality which no amount of money or fame could compensate for. He had never wanted to be a fat cat. He had identified completely with whatever it was that had made Penguin, and therefore his own life, feel worthwhile. He always voted Labour. A Bentley and cottages in Ireland and Spain and Portugal were all very well but his firm, his life’s work, had become a stranger to him. He might own it all and still be nominally in charge of it but he couldn’t identify with it fully any more, nor it with him.
That Devon began to matter seriously again isn’t so strange. He was a companionable man who had found companionship above all in his work. He was separated from his wife and not at home in the sixties whatever the outside world might think. Personal friends were few and age was bringing with it isolation. Downstairs at the pub where he stayed in Devon he could talk to people who would, I guess, neither contradict him nor quote Ferlinghetti at him. But if I know North Devon fairly well, and I think I do, I doubt they flattered him either, which would also have been part of their appeal. They didn’t want his job anyway. Talking to a group of labourers one evening he asked them about their work. The forestry firm which employed one of them, he learnt, had recently planted up five 20-30 acre plots nearby with commercial conifers. He arranged with the forester to see one of these the next day and promptly bought all five, without even viewing the others. Whenever he was in Devon after that he would call on the forester and ask to be shown round one of these woods. He watched them grow. On his death-bed, the last time he saw his sister, he asked her to take photographs of his woods the next time she was in the South West and send them to him, but he was dead before she got there.
For those who argued, as some did, that Allen Lane’s decision to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a publicity stunt, there was evidently a side to his personality they were unfamiliar with. Of course he was a publisher through and through: in 1946 the Shaw Million, 100,000 copies of ten of Shaw’s plays, all published on the author’s 90th birthday, had been an exhilarating and hugely successful project. He now wanted to emulate it with a Lawrence Million and you could not do Lawrence without doing Lady Chatterley. He also joked with his family that he only did it to wake up his editorial staff. That there were those in the legal establishment eager to test the new Obscene Publications Act – and that they were unwise enough to see in this book their ‘occasion’ – played straight into his hands.
His defence of Lawrence, though, went deeper than that. Some might argue that Allen shared Lawrence’s uneasy relationship with English class structures, but Allen was no ‘working-class boy made good’. It was more complicated than that, as I’ve tried to indicate. I suspect it had something to do with the summer holidays of his boyhood and the way all that was becoming important again. His connection to rural Devon had, over the years, proved fortunate in every sense. Lawrence’s vision of the English countryside as a participant in his nation’s argument with itself, his siding every time with its natural order over against the industrial base of its social hierarchies: all this would surely have spoken to Allen with peculiar intensity, especially at this moment in his life. His reasons for championing the novel had nothing to do with any real wish to hurry in the age of Rock and the Pill and LSD, which he was simply too old to understand. In a way his personal intentions of course don’t matter. It is possible for such events to take on their own meaning, different from anything intended at the time. The launch of Penguin in 1935 is a case in point. And yet the meaning of an event can surely never cut completely free from the motives of those actually involved.
On his death in 1970 his ashes were interred, alongside Uncle John’s, in the graveyard of an austere and ancient monastery church near Hartland Point, on the North Devon coast. ‘Penguin Now A Sitting Duck’ ran the headline in the Evening News, as giant corporations fought for control of what he had created. ‘Book-publishing is a pretty personal business,’ he had remarked to a reporter some months earlier. ‘Very few publishing firms survive the death of their founder in recognisable form.’ But it was perhaps already some years since he had fully recognised his own firm. A year before his death a Victorian rummer with the Penguin colophon engraved on it was presented to the firm’s founder by ‘grateful staff’. Returning home from the presentation he complained that he had hardly recognised one in ten of them.
The best place to explore his achievement is, of course, and will remain for some time yet, any good bookshop. The Pelican imprint was discontinued in 1990 but the Pevsner Buildings of England, the Classics, the Shakespeares and the Modern Classics, these are as impressive as they ever were. Each came about as opportunities arose or as unlikely hunches were acted on. They are the real monument to this great improviser. In the Penguin 60s and 70s and in the Great Ideas series, he would surely have recognised both the elegance and the irreverence of his original idea. He would have recognised that idea in the output of the Allen Lane imprint, too. He would not have recognised it in the promotion of people like Jeremy Clarkson, but publishing ‘moves on’, of course, like traffic.
The woods in Devon were all sold to pay death duties but my parents bought one of them back when they moved to the village in the mid-seventies. There they set up an educational charity which allows inner-city children to spend time on a working farm. In the house where they stay there’s a ‘Quiet Room’, where there are books and comfortable chairs. There was a portrait of Allen on the wall in there at one time, though that has gone to Bristol Grammar now.
I used to go bird-watching a lot in that wood as a teenager. I have a photograph I took before the trees grew so tall and shut out all the light: a fox cub staring wildly at the camera out of early summer undergrowth. The paths in there are gloomy now, shuttered with heavy branches. By the side of the road which runs through the place there are already stacks of freshly cut timber lying ready for transport.
J. Lewis May John Lane and the Nineties The Bodley Head 1936
J.W. Lambert The Bodley Head 1887-1987 The Bodley Head 1987
C.H. Rolph (editor) The Trial of Lady Chatterley Penguin 1961
J.E. Morpurgo Allen Lane: King Penguin Hutchinson 1979
Steve Hare (editor) Penguin Portrait Penguin 1995
Jeremy Lewis Penguin Special Penguin 2005