PENGUIN SPECIAL: The life and times of Allen Lane

by
02 November 2006

Viking £25 (0-670-91485-1); Church Times Bookshop £22.50

COMETH the hour - Penguin's 70th birthday - cometh the author best suited to give us an account of Penguin's maker. The initial question would have been: who best to pitch such a tale? It is a calamity frequent in publishing to give such a commission to off-key hands.

Jeremy Lewis has perfect pitch for such a job. He has what William Hazlitt called "gusto", meaning an infectious zest wedded to ability, which drives the work along. Lewis's easy, intuitive understanding of the economics and rakishness of publishing allows him to be colourful and scholarly at the same time, like the writers on the Pelican list. The result is a marvellous read. Here we have modernity becoming history.

As for nostalgia, this full-length portrait of the elegant little man who altered the reading habits of a nation, educated it, inspired it, entertained it, and blessed it with his long parade of colour-coded paperbacks will hurry readers young and ancient to their bookshelves, there to weep volumes. Has there ever been any publication more loved than a Penguin?

As for ageing writers, did they ever know such satisfaction as when they got a call from Vigo Street?

So who were Allen Lane and his often unlikely confederates? Those names that, in the literary world, though printed small, had a mightiness about them? And what, now that we are raking up some myths about this firm, did occur in those dark tombs beneath Holy Trinity, Marylebone, and in the cabbage field at Harmondsworth, and to Tony Godwin, who came and went so suddenly, like Puck briefly encircling the book world? We should be told, we used to demand.

Well, now we have been told, and in no uncertain manner.

Jeremy Lewis is able to present Penguin's accounts as well as an enormous range of people, so that personalities and profits (and losses, in both senses) wheel along in a lively manner. He also gives a delightful picture of the famous gentlemanly publishing done by the upper class in rickety Georgian houses, of alcoholic lunches, and the subtle clash between taste and trade.

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No publisher is an island, even now; and from the 1930s on Penguin, or Allen Lane, created a web of literature such as has never been seen before or since.

Allen Lane in fact began as Allen Williams, the son of a Welsh surveyor who worked in the Bristol Corporation city surveyor's office. The three brothers, John, Allen and Dick, stayed emotionally close all their lives.

In 1918, Allen Lane, aged 16, left grammar school to work at the Bodley Head for his uncle John Lane, whose reputation was still, when Allen was a boy, touched by the Wilde scandal. There he discovered that his uncle adored farming more than books; and he, too, eventually, found he liked farming as much as publishing. The book world, arriving in Harmondsworth to do business, would, to its discomfort, as likely find him out in the fields as in the boardroom.

In London he was a handsome, immaculately dressed, more or less permanently youthful figure, and not unlike the conventional male in the plays of the period to look at. But the coming and going of the coldness in his blue eyes was noted.

As did every publisher proper, he found himself a dragon in the form of the now legendary Eunice Frost, and eventually such historic assistants as J. E. Morpurgo, Tom Maschler, Charles Pick, and Harry Paroissien.

Naturally, the reader will be most intrigued by what Lewis calls "Hatching a Penguin", the actual birth of the sixpenny paperback in 1935. It is a magisterial chapter: in a few vivid pages we have a revolution that continues to throw off fiery notions to this day. Its social effects were enormous. The achievements of politicians and reformers generally appear minimal in comparison.

The Second World War in a way consecrated the Penguin, made it a symbol of the spirit of man. By then it had been joined by another wise bird, the Pelican. During the early days, gentleman publishers such as Heinemann and Cassell would have nothing to do with Lane, and grander authors, too, found him cheap and nasty. But when he began to sell in the hundred thousands, they changed their tune. There could never, in publishing, have been such a swift step from unrespectable to venerated as that which occurred to Penguin during the late '30s and the war years.

All this Lewis records with wit and, often, hilarity. He combines a kind of old-English good nature with sharp percipience. He is at his best with difficulties, and his accounts of the Lady Chatterley trial (which turned Allen Lane into a millionaire) and the famous Tony Godwin incident, that genius who shook the Penguin nest, are marvellously fair.

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 Some of Lewis's best information is in his descriptions of the designs, lettering, and production of the different series of Penguin publications - especially John Lehmann's New Writing; the specially commissioned translations of the classics; the political essays that educated the forces (helping, it is said, to bring in Clement Attlee's government); and Pevsner's magnificent guidebooks.

In less than a decade, Allen Lane, farmer, drinker to a cheerful extent, shy entrepreneur, transformer of British culture, had become the principal educationist of the nation. He was himself a rather lone figure, apt to go off on foreign holidays or to his farm without giving much notice, and yet retaining to the end of his not very long life a grip on the office which made him formidable and unpredictable.

He gathered around him largely non-Oxbridge types: brilliant refugees from the Nazis; men with nous and flair; women such as the secretary who, when they were wondering after which bird to name the new sixpennies, called out "Penguin" ; and eventually many of the greatest scholars, novelists, artists, and printers of the time.

All in all, Jeremy Lewis has done this unique visionary and down-to-earth publisher proud. He has to some extent penetrated his psyche; and has also depicted the strange commercial universe that the writer has to contend with, then and now.

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