Literary parties are a little thin on the ground in these autumnal, post- Booker times, but Penguin Books put on a very jolly thrash on Monday at a gallery in the depths of Pimlico. Fishy mousse things on individual spoons, crushed cranberry liquids, David Lodge, Jonathan Coe and Barbara Trapido.
It was about halfway through that one became aware of a tiny row brewing between the venerable firm's two most senior executives. It's about the Penguin logo. The fat little bird with the dangling flippers, the soup- and-fish frontage and the sideways gaze has been with the firm since Allen Lane invented the paperback 60-odd years ago. But Helen Fraser, the new- broom managing director and editorial uberfrau of Penguin General Books, thinks that it might put off some potential readers. "Hip teenagers and fans of commercial women's fiction might not expect to find the Penguin logo on certain books," said Fraser with diplomatic periphrasis. "There's a danger that the bird might give the wrong signals to those markets." In other words, it's too middle-class, too "literary", too inaccessible? "We're just trying to broaden the brand," she said. Her colleague, Anthony Forbes-Watson, managing director of the Penguin Group, does not share this view. He would like to see the logo on the cover of every Penguin book, so there. Some of the guests, hearing that the bird might be pensioned off, hit the roof. It was, they said, one of the strongest brand images in the world, along with the St Michael label and the Coca-Cola bottle. How could they? Someone brought up the Terry Waite story - how, when incarcerated in the Lebanon, he'd begged his guards to bring him English books to read. The non-Anglophone screws had done their best but ended up with works such as Diseases of the Middle Ear (6th edition, illus). Tell you what, said Terry, Look out for this little bird (he sketched a rudimentary penguin) and you'll have what I want. And thereafter he was brought only Pen ...
"For heaven's sake," said Helen Fraser, "We're only talking about it. And people made the same objections in the days when all Penguins looked identical and Tony Godwin said one day, "Hey, why don't we put a picture on the cover ..."
The new exhibition at the Royal College of Art displays a collection of flayed bodies called "The Quick and the Dead" and looks at how the anatomy and physiology of the human body has been displayed down the centuries. What is of most interest to the passing voyeur is not, however, the flensed muscles and ecorched torsos, the loving efflorescences of dissected abdomen and extruded womb - it's the poses adopted by the figures.
There's something unsettling about a human figure which, though it's had its skin removed and all its tendons are showing, is waving cheerily at you. Another figure, a naked man, is lifting the skin off his shoulderblade to show you his trapezoid muscles, flashing a cheeky grin at his spectators. Elsewhere, a fat neo-classical lady discreetly veils her breast with an arm, while the mysteries of her larger colon are on shocking display to the world.
The only puzzle is how familiar all this is - not the pictures, but the aesthetic impulse to show off your insides. It only takes a minute for a former Catholic to find the locus classicus of such exhibitionism. It's a picture of the Sacred Heart that used to hang in every Papist hallway, depicting a sad Jesus Christ indicating with a forefinger the state of his devastated aorta, from which light is streaming like a bad-taste Pearl & Dean advertisement. We were supposed to understand that it was all our fault he was in this condition, even though (said his calm, direct gaze) he forgave us. Not all the pictured eviscerations of Andreas Vesalius, Joannis Browne and Da Vinci himself can match that early, guilt-ridden exposure to the Guts of God.
The presenters of the Today programme must be getting a little tired of complaints about their apparently neurotic obsession with Westminster politics. In April this year, and again more recently, the broadsheet letters pages have been full of querulous nagging: there's still too much politics, too much spin-doctor rumour and lobby gossip ...
Yeah, but have you heard the programme lately? It sounds as if they've been trying a little too hard to lighten up. In the last few days, they've mulled over the concept of "middle youth" (a would-be-groovy version of middle age, according to a new style magazine) and speculated about the significance of Blue Nun Liebfraumilch and its return to the nation's off-licences. But I don't think their hearts are in it. You can tell they'd be happier with Gordon Brown and some non-endogenous growth statistics. Frankly, the strain is beginning to show.
This morning, James Naughtie, in his finest Aberdeen growl, interviewed a fellow Scot called Julie, one of several people who are convinced they have met alien beings. Naughtie asked Julie to describe her experience. She had been asleep in her bedroom, she ventured, and woke up feeling unable to move. A strong light was shining through the window, she further recalled, and she was aware of "four small, squat beings around my dressing table". "Four humanoid shapes?" pressed Naughtie. Indeed, said the faltering Julie. "Did you", snarled Naughtie, "have a conversation with them?" No, said Julie, shyly, she did not. You could hear the snorts of derision. Short of actually saying "Did you interview them?" Naughtie couldn't have expressed any more clearly his wish to get his hands on a decent subject for interrogation. ("Look, isn't it perfectly obvious that the Humanoid Party is a dead duck? Don't your recent statements about interplanetary travel represent a 180-degree U-turn ...?)Reuse content