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Happy Birthday Penguin

I had a fascinating day and a half last week looking at penguins. I wasn’t at the zoo, but attending as much as I could of the University of Bristol’s three day conference celebrating Penguin’s 75th birthday. Bristol, the birthplace of Allen Lane, is home to the Penguin Archive, which contains editorial files, correspondence, photographs, papers from the Chatterley trial, and a collection of Penguin books from 1935 to date.

It was an Aladdin’s Cave of bookery. I started with the Reading Penguin 1 panel. George Donaldson, of the University of Bristol, talked about the clash of academic and commercial interests between David Daiches, general editor of the Penguin English Library (also known as the Penguin Classics Library), and the company. Penguin wanted introductions that addressed the “general reader” rather than academics and students, whereas Daiches felt that it was important that the introductions were academic and authoritative. Daiches eventually resigned over the issue. An amazing history, which caused me to wonder who was this “general reader”? Penguin must have wondered too, for they soon left this elusive figure to his own devices and aimed the Classics at sixth formers and under graduates.

Andrew Sanders of the University of Durham, who edited a Penguin Classics Romola, characterised the Penguin English Library as a “golden age”, which he took to be aimed at the “intelligent educated reader”. The list shaped what he read, and covered a range of literature ranging from classics, gospels, histories, novels, and from the 80s more modern novels. He praised Penguin for bringing out texts such as Clarissa and Scot’s Waverley. In a later talk someone commented that the Penguin Clarissa was not a comfortable read because it was so big! I read the Penguin edition for my MA and remember getting looks of amazement in cafes and waiting rooms when I hauled it out of my bag – but it was a marvellous read and I’m grateful to Penguin for making this and other wonderful texts easily available to this particular reader.

The highlight of the day for me was Simon Eliot of the University of London who took us back to the time when the general reader might be an Amenhotep or Tutankhamun with their noses buried in a “parchment back”. For all book history, said Eliot, begins with a reader – “a real reader”. He went on to set Penguin in a long history of flimsy, cheap texts ranging from pro-forma style Books of the Dead, an attempt to mass produce Martial’s work, chapbooks, ballads, serial publishing, and lurid thrillers on cheap paper with floppy covers.

Eliot may have been my highlight – I’m fascinated by the history of the book – but Christopher Ricks wasn’t far behind in the beaming stakes. He gave a witty, learned talk touching on the theme of patronage, and described his time as an editor of some of the Penguin Classics. Add to this talks on poetry, and a Q and A panel of Penguin people and you can imagine what a day I had!

I was back in the morning for the Penguin Marketing Panel. John Hitchin, Penguin’s first Marketing Director, told us abut Penguin in the 60s, when they launched Laurie Lee, Edna O’Brien’s second novel, Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, the Penguin Poets series, and a host of other great works.

Dr Samantha Rayner, Senior Lecturer in Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University, gave an absorbing talk False Colours: Pan, Penguin and the Challenges of Marketing Historical Fiction. False Colours is the title of a Georgette Heyer novel, as if you didn’t know. (Actually, I didn’t.) Heyer, who was originally published by Pan, had strong views about her book covers. In the 50s the covers reflected the film genre, which was popular at the time. Covers in the 70s and 80s were more restrained with images in medallions, but incorporated contemporary hairstyles and makeup. Heyer herself liked the covers designed by Artur Barbosa – you can see examples of his work at several fan websites
( http://www.lesleyannemcleod.com/rw_art.html#barbosa has quite a few images). When in 1966 Penguin took on False Colours Heyer was not impressed; she thought their first design was cheap and nasty. An abstract effort failed to win her approval; she objected that it gave no idea of what the book was about. (You can see more Heyer covers including Penguin’s 1966 effort at http://teachmetonight.blogspot.com/2009/11/heyer-2009-sam-rayner-publishing-heyer.html, which is a précis of an earlier talk by Dr Rayner.) Eventually Heyer went back to Pan.

Dr Rayner’s talk was followed by Shanyn Altman on The Hayseed Chronicles, a book which was the doubtful beneficiary of what seems to me the weirdest marketing campaign any publisher has ever launched. It included spoof newspaper items and a website full of fake information, which apparently fooled even a BBC presenter. Unfortunately the campaign flopped and the book has not sold well. I can’t think of a publicity stunt more likely to put me off a book than this one. Did Penguin really think that making a fool of its readers was the best way to make them feel well-disposed towards the book? However, mine is not a view shared by Shanyn Altman, who thought the campaign was “brilliant”.

The morning ended with the Reading Penguin 2 panel, which ranged across issues around paratext, censorship, and a look at the first ten Penguin titles, known as the First Batch. Then off for a tour of the Penguin Archive at the University, and into the heart of Aladdin’s Cave. I’ve been told that lists are an absolute no-no in prose. It’s a view with which I happen to disagree, and in the case of the Penguin Archive I don’t think anything I could say could convey the wonder of the collection. There’s only one way to share the magic and that is simply to list some of the things I saw.

Signed copies of the First Batch including books by Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie.

Grumpy letters from George Bernard Shaw.

A letter from Enid Blyton refusing to appear at the trial in defence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover because she didn’t think it appropriate for a children’s author – and her husband wouldn’t allow it.

A photograph of newly-weds Allen and Lettice Lane coming out of the church onto a path lined with Penguins.

A poem by Teddy Robinson in a book celebrating a Puffin anniversary.

Early copies of Worzel Gummidge and Barbara Euphan Todd’s editorial file.

John Lennon’s signature on a book of poetry.


For information on the Penguin Archive and the Penguin Archive Project see http://www.bristol.ac.uk/penguinarchiveproject/

For information on Artur Barbosa - http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-artur-barbosa-1577369.html

For information on Teddy Robinson (because - shamefully - none of the people I mentioned him to had heard of him!) http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/may/02/childrens-books-recommendation-lucy-mangan

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