The man who was Penguin

Allen Lane didn't just invent the paperback book; he also created the first automated warehouse. Oh, the irony! Can Penguin obliterate last year's distribution woes with its jazzy 70th birthday celebrations? Mark Bostridge reports
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The Independent Culture

Did you know that Penguin books were once available from a "Penguincubator", a slot-machine dispenser in the Charing Cross Road? That Penguins are licensed to publishers around the world for translation into 62 languages, from Afrikaans to Welsh? Or that while held by kidnappers in solitary confinement in Beirut, Terry Waite sketched a penguin as a way of asking his captors for good books to read - and was understood?

Did you know that Penguin books were once available from a "Penguincubator", a slot-machine dispenser in the Charing Cross Road? That Penguins are licensed to publishers around the world for translation into 62 languages, from Afrikaans to Welsh? Or that while held by kidnappers in solitary confinement in Beirut, Terry Waite sketched a penguin as a way of asking his captors for good books to read - and was understood?

2005 marks the 70th anniversary of Penguin Books. The first 10 paperbacks, selected by its founder Allen Lane and priced at sixpence a copy, were published in August 1935. Bound in bright colours, coded by genre, they comprised a mixture of biography (blue), detective fiction (green) and novels (orange), by contemporary writers including André Maurois, Dorothy L Sayers and Ernest Hemingway. Against the general nervousness and suspicion of the book trade, which believed that the new scheme would fatally undermine the market for hardbacks, Lane had started a revolution in book buying and reading. The ubiquitous Penguin - in 1936 it was estimated that a Penguin was bought every 10 seconds - ensured that book-owning ceased to be the preserve of the upper or educated classes. In the course of the next three decades, Lane and his cohorts would demonstrate the breadth and diversity of Penguin's publishing, its commitment to the finest design and its championing of free speech.

This summer Penguin is celebrating its birthday with an array of publications and events. A Penguin Festival takes place in Bristol (18-21 May), the city of Allen Lane's birth. The V&A's display of some 500 of Penguin's iconic book covers (8 June-13 November) is accompanied by Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005 (Allen Lane £16.99), in which the graphic designer Phil Baines examines the evolution of the company's cover art and use of typography. Seventy "Pocket Penguins", all at £1.50 each, and reminiscent of the Penguin 60s which clogged up the bestseller lists a decade ago, are designed to provide "a gateway to the wealth of the list". They encompass an enormous range of Penguin authors - from Michael Moore to Jamie Oliver (well known as someone who never opens a book), Marian Keyes to Homer, Zadie Smith to George Orwell - and the covers have been produced by 70 leading designers, including Peter Saville, D-Face and David Shrigley.

The timing of the anniversary might be seen as rather awkward, coming as it does less than a year after the company faced some of the worst publicity in its entire history. A heady dose of celebration is just what Penguin, and its parent company Pearson, needs to divert people's attention from the nightmare of their malfunctioning warehouse. The new state-of-the-art distribution centre, opened at Rugby in 2004, offered robotic technology to move books from shelves to 30 lorry bays and thence into bookshops. But the software failed and chaos rapidly ensued. Books weren't reaching bookshops; editors stockpiled copies of their titles in their offices, making deliveries to shops themselves by taxi. The knock-on effect of what was widely perceived as a disaster has been mixed: while Penguin's UK market share had dropped at the end of 2004 from what it had been a year earlier, overall its UK sales were up. Although the Society of Authors threatened legal action on behalf of writers because of Pearson's incompetence, this now seems unlikely.

Ironically, it was Allen Lane himself who had introduced the first automated warehouse. Yet more than anything else, Jeremy Lewis's Penguin Special: The life and times of Allen Lane (Viking £25), the highlight of the birthday publishing programme, reminds one of a gentler era in the book world, in which twin values of idealism and ingenuity were promoted, and the taking of decisions was helped along by a generous intake of alcohol. Lewis is a prime candidate to describe this vanished age. He worked for many years in publishing, at Andre Deutsch, Oxford University Press and Chatto & Windus; and his book Kindred Spirits is a wonderfully humorous memoir of his time spent working under two of the last great publishing warhorses, Norah Smallwood and Carmen Callil, and of that twilight world before big corporations and their accountants invaded the British publishing scene.

Allen Lane is perhaps a less engaging, more impenetrable character than the two other great publishing figures of his day, Victor Gollancz and Stanley Unwin. He didn't possess a major defining characteristic, like Gollancz's crusading intensity or Unwin's nonconformist conscience. However, in terms of achievement, Lane probably outweighs them both. Within a decade he had established Penguin as a national institution, comparable to the BBC, Sadler's Wells or the Old Vic. Penguins were followed by Pelicans (to "suit the adult intellect") and Puffins ("for the growing mind"), and by a host of other initiatives: Penguin Specials, alerting readers to the dangers of Nazism, Penguin New Writing, the finest literary magazine of its time, the Buildings of England, Penguin Classics, and so on. Yet Lane himself was once described as "a very simple man who has perceived a simple truth, out of which he has made a fortune - that people will choose the best, if they can afford it". The books, he explained, were designed to provide "another form of education" for "people like myself who left school when they were 16".

When friends and colleagues described Allen Lane, they usually referred to his steely blue eyes, his well-manicured appearance and expensively cut suits. They also remarked on his reserve, "the cold little shutters" that "would close upon the light in his eyes", and which made him difficult to know intimately. Lewis has ingeniously surmounted this difficulty by turning the problem on its head: writing the story of Penguin in which Lane is, naturally, the leading figure, and by choosing not to concentrate on his personal life - the breakdown of his marriage, for instance - except where it impacted on the welfare of the company. The result is a book that is both hugely enjoyable to read and surprisingly riveting in its account of how a great publishing house operated over three decades, from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s.

Lewis is helped by being almost incapable of writing a dull paragraph, and by his ability to sniff out a good story. There's the wonderful image of Nikolaus Pevsner, driving round the wilds of Middlesex, just after the war, researching the Buildings series, in a Wolseley Hornet lent him by Lane. An inspector from Scotland Yard later reported that several country-house owners had notified him of a suspicious-looking character with a German accent who turned up at their properties with a tape measure in his hand. Lane had made his mark as a young man by publishing James Joyce's Ulysses under the Bodley Head imprint, despite fears that the company would be prosecuted under the obscenity laws. In 1960 he spearheaded another campaign, this time to publish an unexpurgated version of Lawrence's steamy Lady Chatterley's Lover, a test of the recent, more liberal Obscene Publications Act which had placed a new definition of the public good on the statute books: that the work in question had to be considered in its entirety, not simply on the basis of some indecent passages. Lane was certain he could win, and his biographer gives a rollicking description of the trial in which the prosecution's case was handled so ineptly. Mervyn Griffith-Jones, asked how he decided whether or not to prosecute, replied: "I put my feet up on the desk and start reading. If I get an erection, we prosecute." Lane was acquitted and sales soared to three million.

By the 1960s, Lane was finding it increasingly difficult to adapt to changing trends in the book trade. He was resistant to colour covers and the new aggressive style of marketing symbolised by his chief editor Tony Godwin's promotion of Len Deighton's Funeral in Berlin in which a chartered aircraft, decorated with the book's motif, flew a planeload of journalists to Berlin where they were given a tour of the Berlin Wall by Michael Caine, star of the film version. Lane's own brand of autocracy came to a head in a struggle with Godwin for control of Penguin, which climaxed in an extraordinary episode centering on the publication of Siné's cartoons, which Godwin had championed. Lane's hostility to the cartoons was based on their crude mockery of the Catholic church, and one night he arrived at the Penguin warehouse and ordered that all "those bloody Sinés" be burned.

Lane died in 1970, and the day after his death the merger of Penguin and Pearson Longman was announced. Three decades on, Penguin has inevitably forfeited something of its unique identity in the corporate world. Those faded orange covers remind us of Allen Lane's vision and a world we have lost.

To order a copy of 'Penguin Special: The life and times of Allen Lane' by Jeremy Lewis for £22.50 (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897