Paperback revolution

We've all picked up a Penguin in the 70 years since Allen Lane launched cheap books for the masses. John Walsh recalls their seismic impact on our cultural life
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The Independent Culture

The first Penguins I ever saw were Aunt Maud's thrillers. My aunt's mouse-scented, spinsterish home in Putney seemed to breathe self-denial. The crucifixes, the umbrella-stand full of walking sticks, the fusty sofa cushions, the willow-pattern plates on which she served cold tongue and radishes - it all spelt "No Fun" to my five-year-old eyes.

The first Penguins I ever saw were Aunt Maud's thrillers. My aunt's mouse-scented, spinsterish home in Putney seemed to breathe self-denial. The crucifixes, the umbrella-stand full of walking sticks, the fusty sofa cushions, the willow-pattern plates on which she served cold tongue and radishes - it all spelt "No Fun" to my five-year-old eyes.

It was an impression confirmed by her library - a glass-fronted bookcase entirely filled with green-spined Penguins. They looked terrible. I, who was having trouble deciphering The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, felt my worst suspicions about grown-up books confirmed. The covers were plain to a painful degree: two horizontal bars of lime green, sandwiching a plain white oblong. The lettering was grim and unsmiling and, despite the promise, printed sideways, that we were in the territory of "Mystery & Crime," the titles were hopelessly unpromising. Murder by Burial (wake me up when it's over) by Stanley Casson. The Franchise Affair (yawn) by Josephine Tey. Trent's Last Case (snore) by EC Bentley.

Poor Aunt Maud. It was as if she'd been sentenced to a lifetime of bread and gruel. I pictured her spending evenings alone on her chilly sofa, fingering her amber beads, turning the desiccated pages of Margery Allingham's No Love Lost (zzzzzz) with a noise like dead leaves. I felt positively tearful on her behalf.

Now, one can retrospectively envy Aunt M, and applaud her taste in crime classics. She was an early adopter of the first Penguins, one of the generation of low-income, early-school-leaver, independent-minded, aspirational hobby-readers to whom the sixpenny paperback arrived in 1935 as a boon and a blessing. An Irish nursing sister in south London, she could rarely have afforded full-price hardback books at seven shillings and sixpence (37.5p in today's money); it made more sense to borrow books, at twopence a throw, from the Travelling Library, a lorry equipped with shelves of middle-to-lowbrow titles that came and parked beside Putney Common once a month.

The trouble with the library was that you had to take what was left after the pushier locals had got the cream. Her choice would have been limited to post-war pulp romances and sturdy Victorian swashbucklers by W Harrison Ainsworth and GA Henty. To a connoisseur of the whodunit, it was no choice at all.

So when the first 10 Penguin paperbacks were published, to find that two of them were newish crime books (The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L Sayers) would have delighted my bookish relative. Multiply her by three million, and you have the secret behind the publishing revolution that was Penguin Books.

It's 70 years since Christie and Sayers nestled alongside the likes of Hemingway, André Maurois and Compton Mackenzie on booksellers' tables across the nation, and today the company - despite suffering a disastrous 2004, with the collapse of its warehouse supercomputer and the freezing of its distribution - is going ape with celebration.

On 12 May, they bring out Pocket Penguins, 70 small-scale books, each of 50 pages or so, featuring new work by fashionable young writers (Nick Hornby, Zadie Smith, Hari Kunzru, Jonathan Safran Foer and, er, Jamie Oliver) and snatches of the writings of evergreen stalwarts from the Penguin archives (Flaubert, Borges, Homer, Freud and Chomsky). The same day sees the publication of Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane by Jeremy Lewis, a biography of the man who transformed the country's reading habits by branding cheap books with the rudimentary image of the flightless seabird, Sphenisciformes. Also launching that day is an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum called Penguin by Design, and a book of the same name about the jacket designs, subtitled A Cover Story 1935-2005.

You could accuse Penguin of opportunism or sentimentality in bringing out the party poppers and feathery squeakers for the 70th birthday. Cynics might note that they made a similar fuss for their 60th birthday (I still have some of the 60 "Penguin 60s" that marked the occasion, tiny, bite-size mini-books featuring, say, two chapters of Nabokov's Speak, Memory or three from Marianne Faithfull's saucy rock'n'roll memoirs).

But inspired branding has always been Penguin's trademark, and they want to make readers feel an anthropomorphic frisson about the company's reaching, at 70, the end of its biblical span of life. For the first readers of Penguin books are now dying out. Fifty- and sixtysomethings have begun looking down the long bookshelf of their life and marvelling at the part played in it by these battered, colour-coded rectangles of cultural empowerment.

When they started life, Penguins were both a retail phenomenon and a social watershed. In 1935, the publishing trade was struggling to emerge from recession, and the conventions of bringing out books were pretty rigid. First-run hardbacks cost between 7s 6d and 12s 6d. When sales were flagging, the "cheap edition" would come out, a pocket-sized reprint for 2s 6d or two shillings. Elsewhere, there were dozens of cheap editions of literary "classics" around: World Classics, Collins Pocket Classics and the famous Everyman's Library, handsome small hardbacks selling for a shilling.

And there were paperbacks. As Jeremy Lewis reminds us, in his masterly life-and-times of the Penguin founder, paperbacks were commonplace long before Penguins came along (they can be traced back to Aldus Manutius in the 16th century). But they were mostly trashy, low-caste works, tatty reprints of "the most rubbishy thrillers and romances, printed in double volumes and with lurid covers to match".

Allen Lane, then the managing director of The Bodley Head, threw all these publishing conventions up in the air and started something different. He was sure a market existed for mass-produced sixpenny paperbacks, nicely produced with clean modern designs, a combination of out-of-copyright classics and modern works whose paperback rights could be bought cheaply from rival publishers.

The original idea, he maintained, came when he was standing at Exeter railway station en route home from visiting Agatha Christie and her husband, and looked at the wretched material on display at the bookstall. Finding nothing he fancied reading, he decided to make up the deficiency.

It's more likely that he got the idea from a bookish office junior, HAW Arnold. He also pinched the idea of colour- coding different genres of books (novels, crime, travel, biography) from an Anglo-German operation called Albatross Verlag. He and his associates worked out that they could sell these books at sixpence and still make a profit, provided they sold 17,000 of each. It was a huge gamble - and it worked.

Because Allen Lane had made a great discovery. He had spotted an unguessed-at market for serious books, a post-war, lower-middle-class groundswell of aspirant culture-vultures, an army of enthusiasts for a newly democratised England. George Orwell wrote about them, not entirely approvingly: "[Theirs] is a rather restless, cultureless life, centring around tinned food, Picture Post, the radio and the combustion engine. It is a civilisation in which children grow up with an intimate knowledge of magnetos and in complete ignorance of the Bible. To that civilisation belong the people who are most at home in, and most definitely of, the modern world, the technicians and the higher-paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists."

All of whom, as Jeremy Lewis says, had increasing disposable income during the 1930s, increasing leisure time - and an indefinable drift towards acquiring middle-class habits, including the habit of reading. It's significant that, in the early days, Penguin books had trouble getting their usual bookshop outlets to subscribe the new paperbacks in large numbers. Their fortunes began to take off only when they picked up an order for 63,500 copies from the buyer at the haberdashery department of Woolworths.

As the new audience bought the sixpenny titles hand over fist - 150,000 copies were sold in the first four days; a million in the first four months; three million by the end of the year - the eclecticism of their interests was fed by the spread of the Penguin empire into non-fiction books, under the Pelican imprint.

Even Allen Lane himself was puzzled. "Who would have imagined that, even at 6d, there was a thirsty public anxious to buy thousands of copies of books on science, sociology, economics, archaeology, astronomy and other, equally serious subjects?" Or even Hydroponics by C Isabel Hilyer, Explosives by John Read and Microbes by the Million by Hugh Nicol? And the war made otherwise unexpected bestsellers of Aircraft Recognition and Goat Husbandry.

A traditional Englishman's library, snugly embedded with leather-bound copies of Aeschylus and crepuscular with three-decker Victorian novels, would never have allowed such shockingly prosaic works to besmirch its shelves; it would never have given room to paperbacks at all. But Penguin Books did something spectacular to the post-war reader: it gave him or her an instant library by virtue of its coloured livery and the dependability of its titles.

A Penguin copy of Dickens's Little Dorrit could sit beside the Penguin copy of Lionel Davidson's The Night of Wenceslas without the owner feeling ashamed to be caught owning the latter. Something about the cool, orange spines, the take-no-prisoners blackness of the Penguin Classics covers, the louche aubergine tint on the "Essays and Belles Lettres" jackets, reassured you that you were in safe hands. Individually, the books carried an invisible stamp of quality, a literary seal of approval, a secular nihil obstat. Together, they formed a rainbow coalition on the brick-and-plank shelves of your bedsit or student hovel. They told the world that you were, if not necessarily an educated person, at least a well-integrated one.

Readers who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies can measure their life in Penguins. The first ones I owned were the chilling science-fiction novels of John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Midwich Cuckoos), their mysterious cover-graphics summoning up a world on the slide, with their curiously bland photograph of the reclusive author on the back.

At school, the Penguin edition of Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars was pored over for high-class smut (mostly about Tiberius and his minnows) just as much as Lady Chatterley's Lover. Virgil's Eclogues stayed imprinted on our minds for two reasons: the effete youth leaning against a tree on the jacket; and a silly class joke, which went as follows:

Latin teacher: "Non nostrum inter vos tantas componere lites. Hmmm, tricky. What does your Penguin say, Booth?"

Booth: "It says 'Quack quack', sir..." (Collapse of 30 14-year-olds.)

The publication of Penguin Modern Poets No 10 in 1967 should, theoretically, have caused no more stir than any other of the tripartite slim volumes under the PMP heading. It featured three light-weight but attractive Liverpool bards, Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten. But the book's designer, Alan Spain, included the words "The Mersey Sound" in a groovy, King's Road font and transformed it into something like a favourite LP. Everybody carried it around, as if wearing a badge, and tried to write surreal urban poetry about having sex on a bus and dying "a youngman's death".

Looking today at the Penguins that meant the most to us, one name sticks out: Germano Facetti. Frequent buyers of Penguins became familiar with it, repeated on the back of, it seemed, almost every famous novel, like a mantra: "The cover, designed by Germano Facetti, shows a detail from..."

Facetti, who had worked in Milan as a typographer and in Paris as an interior designer, transformed the Penguin image from linear severity and puritanical simplicity into a series of pictorial coups. He signed up the brilliant, wayward Alan Aldridge - the man behind much memorable Sixties psychedelia - and Romek Marber, whose "Marber grid" defined the look of the mid-Sixties novel jacket, with its avant-garde graphic illustrations to Rabbit, Run and The End of the Affair. But, more than anything, he chose the pictures on the covers of the books you read at the most bookwormish period of your life and, through some synaesthetic sleight of hand, made the book and cover a single entity in your head.

Years after first encountering Virginia Woolf, for instance, it is impossible to separate the character of Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse from the visual image of the woman in the red skirt on the cover. Long after Katherine Mansfield's celebrated swipe at EM Forster ("Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain't going to be no tea") Facetti produced, for Howards End, a cover image taken from Edward le Bas's Interior, showing a glum young woman becalmed among teacups and chintz sofas. The same author's A Room with a View came with a beautiful Dufy drawing of cypresses (though inappropriately French, rather than Italian) glimpsed through a window - a perfect image of Mediterranean light and freedom that would have stirred Lucy Honeychurch's cloistered heart.

For Orwell's Animal Farm, instead of a childish barnyard scene, he chose Miro's The Tilled Field, depicting horses, cows and dogs in spiky, Cubist disarray. Readers of Kafka's The Trial were prepared for the headache-inducing paranoia of the narrative by the sepia jacket image of a blank, unyielding mountainous stronghold (Ruins by Lotte B Prechner). Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin - where the Sally Bowles of Cabaret first appears - is enriched by a George Grosz drawing of a rapacious landlord, a shower-capped poule de luxe and a selection of prison paraphernalia.

These were marvellous, eye-opening images that - no matter how incidental their relevance to the text - brought you face-to-face with art movements and painting styles that had rarely been seen outside European galleries. The jackets hinted at a richer cultural context that inspired you to find out more, as if you'd bought a painting without meaning to and become obsessed by it.

Sometimes you suspected Facetti of pretentiousness, and sometimes he just seemed plain wrong. Putting Leger's Mechanical Elements on the cover of Brave New World suggested that it was a futuristic novel about robotic technology, rather than a dystopian vision of baby farms and "feelie" cinemas. I never understood why Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury should feature an empty field with a windblown crucifix, in a novel full of vivid (and un-Christian) characters.

But none of this mattered a jot when you were young and building up a serious library. Penguins were the dernier cri of book style, even when there was nothing pictorial on the cover at all. (The Catcher in the Rye appeared in a sexy gunmetal blank because Salinger stipulated to all his publishers that there should be no illustration on it, anywhere, ever. Ulysses came out to noisy razzmatazz in 1969, with the cover (designed by Hans Schmoller) displaying just the title and author, in white reversed out of a black background: a stark emphasising of the pre-eminence of the word.

They were, as far as we were concerned, the real Western canon of literature, and we fell on each new consignment of Penguin Modern Classics with glee. Today, inspecting my shelves, I cannot explain or deny the frisson of excitement I get simply from looking at the grey-and-white spines of Camus's The Outsider, Norman Douglas's South Wind, Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé, Ronald Firbank's Valmouth and Other Stories. Forgive me if I give the spines a quick sniff - a warm, sweet, toffee scent with a fugitive whiff of cigar-box and pencil shavings.

It's the smell of cultural acquisition, of the time when you first opened up to the world of letters and the universe of benign influences that made you the person you became. Whatever technological mess Penguin have recently got themselves into, and however much you may hate the covers of their new Modern Classics editions of Robertson Davies, that's something for which three generations of readers will be eternally grateful.