The genius who gave us Penguin

ALLEN Lane was the publishing industry's equivalent of easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou - a man who shattered the status quo by making books more affordable.

ALLEN Lane was the publishing industry's equivalent of easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou - a man who shattered the status quo by making books more affordable. But who remembers him? Steven Russell speaks to his champion

IT'S odd - and a bit scary for us mere mortals who arrogantly hope our influence will live on - how high achievers can so easily be forgotten after their passing.

Childhood memories, for those of us of a certain age, include images of orange and white paperback books our parents owned - standing on the shelves like soldiers, their spines faded by sunlight.

Our eyes were drawn to the neat and cute logo - originally the work of Edward Young, but redrawn eight times by German-born typographer Jan Tschichold before he was happy with the icon.

You may also want to watch:

They were, of course, Penguin books.

Although paper-bound books had been around for hundreds of years in various guises, Penguin Books founder Allen Lane popularised the paperback format in the 1930s. The price brought them within reach of ordinary folk who could not afford hardbacks, and he insisted on publishing only quality writing.

Most Read

But more than 35 years on from his death, and with rival publishers having copied his formula for success, his contribution to the joys of reading has tended to be overlooked.

Jeremy Lewis hopes to change that. He's written a biography of Lane and is giving a talk to Suffolk Book League this week, where he will sing the praises of a tycoon he reckons was an ideal mix of mercenary and missionary.

Penguin was seven years old when Jeremy was born. Those books became part of the fabric of his childhood in Sussex and London. Writing later about the Penguin empire that became a national institution “has been like revisiting a dimly remembered country, long gone but still familiar”.

Jeremy, 64, tells the EADT: “My parents had Penguins lying around, being reading types, and certainly they were part of the furniture. When I went to university in the early '60s, it was probably the beginning of the end of the Penguin monopoly era, but one looked out every month to see what new books were on offer and was aware that if it were a Penguin it would be the work of a good writer or novelist.

“Then, if you wanted to know about Tchaikovsky, or the Stuarts, or the Ancient Greeks, you would think of the Pelican books in their lovely blue - and now sadly discontinued, of course.”

For folk who grew up in the 1950s and '60s, “Penguin seemed to be one of the benign monopolies that shaped our lives, along with the BBC and the National Health Service: a unique, unchanging institution, without rivals or compare”.

Lane's story is set in a publishing industry that seems amateurish by today's standards: one fuelled, it appears, by copious intakes of alcohol - whatever the time of day.

Despite all the ingredients for a colourful yarn, however, Jeremy found the people at Penguin surprisingly unreceptive when he floated the idea of a biography.

“They were rather sniffy at first. 'He's a figure from the past. No-one wants to know about Allen Lane,' they said. So I forgot about it for a couple of years. When I decided to fight for it again, as it were, I went to the top woman and she liked it.”

Allen Lane was born in the autumn of 1902 in Bristol. In 1919 he went to the publishing house Bodley Head as apprentice to his uncle, John Lane, who had started the company. Allen was actually born a Williams, but the family changed to Lane to maintain the sense of a family firm - John Lane having no children to take over the reins.

Allen Lane became managing director in the mid 1920s, after his uncle died, but later had disagreements with other directors about James Joyce 's Ulysses . Parts of it described basic bodily functions in rather graphic language, and some directors were scared they'd face legal action.

The genesis of Penguin Books can be found, according to legend, in a weekend spent in Devon visiting Agatha Christie (although Jeremy Lewis points out that isn't necessarily the case). It's said that, during his return to London, Lane could not find anything to read at the Exeter station bookstall, save reprints of Victorian novels and popular magazines. Whatever the truth, it is clear he identified a need for good-quality, modern fiction that could sell at rail stations, bookshops, and in shops like Woolworth's. They needed to be about the same price as a packet of cigarettes and light enough to slip into a pocket.

Penguin paperbacks - novels, crime stories and biographies, by talented writers such as Christie and Ernest Hemingway - were first published in the summer of 1935. At a time when hardback books cost seven or eight shillings, Penguins cost sixpence. Colour-coding made it easy for buyers to identify genres: fiction was that distinctive orange, crime was green, and dark blue signified biography.

Penguin became a separate entity at the start of 1936. Behind the early-days distribution of books from the crypt of Holy Trinity Church in Marylebone Road lay a success story: in a year, Penguin sold three million paperbacks, sending shockwaves through hardback rivals.

Lane and his brothers, John and Dick, didn't rest on their laurels. In 1937 the Pelican imprint brought to the shelves its first original work - paperback content having been published previously, and more expensively, by other houses.

Pelican had the same emphasis on good writing delivered at an affordable price. It concentrated on more serious issues of the day - generally in the fields of politics, history and economics.

Penguin Specials also appeared - some titles very timely, with the clouds of war gathering. Aircraft Recognition, for instance, proved a popular buy, while What Hitler Wants notched record sales.

There were lighter moments, such as the quirky Penguincubator: a paperback-selling machine that first went into service in Charing Cross Road.

Penguin Classics made its bow in 1946, with a translation of Homer's The Odyssey. On a personal front, Lane married Lettice Orr in the summer of 1941, where they enjoyed a guard of honour of cardboard penguins. The Lanes would have three daughters. In 1952 he was made a knight.

The 1960s were eventful. The Penguin range widened to take in some rather down-to-earth subjects, such as handbooks called Venereal Disease in Britain, and The Case for Family Allowances.

In the mid-'60s Lane survived a boardroom coup. He was later found to be suffering from bowel cancer and had to retire from the publishing house he loved. He died in 1970.

Penguin was bought the same year by the Pearson group and, of course, is still around today, though Jeremy Lewis rues the changes over 30 years. “Penguin would lose its unique identity and become no different from any other corporate publisher. The flashes of orange would fade from covers and spines, and Pelican Books vanished; Tschichold's penguin and the Penguin Classics lingered on as reminders of what seemed like a vanished age.”

As someone steeped in publishing himself, Jeremy appreciates Lane's legacy. After graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1965 he worked in the publicity department of Collins, was a junior editor at Andre Deutsch, and went on to AP Watt and Oxford University Press before a decade at Chatto & Windus, where he became a director. He has been the part-time commissioning editor of the Oldie magazine for nearly 10 years.

Lane, he says, wasn't a touchy-feely man, nor an arty intellectual. But he had a good nose for the spirit of the age and shrewd business sense that identified what customers wanted; a contradictory character “in that he was both affable and cold, ruthless and cowardly, loyal and fickle, but - like many of those who found and run business empires - he was an uncomplicated, single-minded man, more interesting for what he achieved than for his insights into the human condition and seldom afflicted by the ambivalence and indecisiveness endemic among writers and intellectuals”.

Jeremy says Lane was genuinely idealistic in insisting on worthwhile material. “He always wanted to give people the best. If you look at more modern lists, there is quite a lot of garbage. He was very keen to bring good stuff to those who hadn't been to university” - which makes him, “in an age of dumbing down, an exemplary figure”.

Although not a political creature, Lane was also “a terrific influence” on the social attitudes of post-war Britain through his “vagely leftish belief in a welfare state”.

Jeremy writes that the publisher was “one of the eminences grises who moulded the world in which I grew up, giving voice to the ideals that were made manifest by the post-war Labour government, prevailed through the 'Butskellite' consensus, and were only called into doubt with the rise of Mrs Thatcher”. (Butskellism was the paternalistic political consensus of the 1950s: a mixed economy featuring moderate state intervention to promote social good, particularly in education and health.)

Having said that, Jeremy's not convinced he and Lane would have been bosom buddies, had their paths crossed.

He cheerfully admits to being one of those reflective literary types, which probably wouldn't have dovetailed with the publishing tycoon's more decisive approach. Lane wasn't a great reader, either.

“One might not have found him terribly interesting for himself. I admire him very much and would have enjoyed spending time with him at a boozy lunch,” he chuckles. “We would have ended up in a corner gossiping about work and mutual friends, I imagine, rather than having a profound connection!”

The paperback edition of Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane, is published by Penguin Books at £9.99.

Jeremy Lewis's talk at the Suffolk Book League is at Museum Street Methodist Church in Ipswich on July 6, starting at 7.30pm. Doors open 7pm. Admission is £3 for members and £5 for non-members. Further details:

The kind of (now slightly patronising) advert that appeared on railway station platforms:

Wherever you go - take a Penguin Book

Penguins, taken on the train

Elevate and entertain

Pelicans, as you'd expect

Suit the adult intellect

Puffins, on the other hand

For the growing mind are planned


IN the swinging sixties, Penguin was caught up in the battle between the old order and modern thinking. It was charged under the Obscene Publications Act after publishing the first unabridged version of 'Lady Chatterleys Lover , but was cleared. The company sold about two million copies in six weeks before Christmas, 1960, and another 1.3 million the following year.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter
Comments powered by Disqus