Monthly Archives: May 2014

King Lear at the National Theatre

I used to live no more than 10 minutes’ walk from the National Theatre, but these days a trip up to London to the theatre is a rare treat. And all the more so when it’s to see Simon Russell Beale playing King Lear at the National in a production by Sam Mendes. The last time I saw Lear was at Stratford in 2007 when Ian McKellen played the lead (possibly more at the right age), so it’s a tough comparison for Russell Beale, but he delivers a storming performance, with a lot of subtlety and even tenderness mixed in with the rage.


It’s a production that seems to me to emphasise the drama and the emotion over the speeches and the words. When Lear rages, his delivery is too fast and loud to follow the detail of the words (and he’s not the only one), but the emotion and the general meaning is never in doubt. It’s a large scale dramatic production in several respects, from the sheer size of the supporting cast of soldiers, to a raised cliff in the storm scene that is more reminiscent of Les Miz than Shakespeare. There’s plenty of gore too with the ripping out of Gloucester’s eyes added to by Lear bludgeoning the Fool to death in a bath, in what seems like a surprisingly casual episode of violence that provokes little reaction from the other characters. Much the same is true when Edgar kills his brother Edmund. Understandable as the killing may be, it seems to come out of nowhere and to provoke little reaction from a large crowd on stage. By then there’s quite a collection of dead bodies littering the stage, and it seems to be just another one to add to them.

Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan), Kate Fleetwood (Goneril) and Olivia Vinall (Cordelia)

Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan), Kate Fleetwood (Goneril) and Olivia Vinall (Cordelia)

The whole cast is strong and there are other memorable performances. I enjoyed Tom Brooke as Edgar and Stanley Townsend as Kent in roles that both seem to me quite difficult to get right. Funnily enough the last memorable Edgar I saw was Simon Russell Beale himself, many years ago at Stratford. Kate Fleetwood played Goneril entirely plausibly as a chilling but regal Wallis Simpson figure, but for me Anna Maxwell Martin was far less plausible as Regan and hit several jarring false notes. Overall though, a great day out, a production that will live long in the memory, and all rounded off by a ride up to the top of the Shard (totally over-priced, but an amazing view) and dinner at Jamie’s Italian (an unalloyed pleasure).

Up and down the Cotswold Way

The Cotswold Way is my local path, or at least my local long-distance footpath. I’ve walked some bits of it many times and many bits of it some times. But I’ve never walked the whole length of it – just over 100 miles from Chipping Campden in the north to Bath in the south. That’s the challenge my daughter has taken on, to raise money for Raleigh International.

Broadway Tower (photo by Newton2)

Broadway Tower (photo by Newton2)

So this week I set off to walk the first stretch with her. From Chipping Campden the path rises up to Dover Hill and along the Cotswold escarpment to Broadway Tower, before descending into Broadway. 5 miles down, and so far so good – a quick stop in one of Broadway’s many tea rooms and off back up the hill. A short walk along the top and again it’s not long before we’re back down in the valley at Stanton, described in two different guide books as being the ‘quintessential’ Cotswold village – a word that seems to have been invented just for Stanton. Across some distinctive ‘Ridge and Furrow’ fields to Stanway and Wood Stanway, and then we’re climbing again, steeply up the escarpment as it starts to rain, gently at first, and then more persistently. This is the low point of the day’s walk – legs are starting to tire, as the rain gets heavier and heavier, and we still have a lot of miles to go.

Stanton - the "quintessential" Cotswold village.  Photo by Philip Halling.

Stanton – the “quintessential” Cotswold village. Photo by Philip Halling.

From the top of the hill at Stumps Cross, the path runs along past quarries before starting to descend again towards Hailes Abbey. The rain has eased off, but by now this pattern of continual climbing up the escarpment, then descending back down into the valley is starting to lose its interest – couldn’t they just design a path that follows the top of the escarpment? I suppose people from further away appreciate a route that takes in many of the towns and villages along the way, but as someone relatively familiar with the local area, it’s the bracing walks along the tops of hills, and the views that come with them, that are the attraction of the Cotswold Way.

The Cotswold Way above Hailes.  Photo by Philip Halling

The Cotswold Way above Hailes. Photo by Philip Halling

From Hailes the route cuts across fields to Winchcombe, before we start to climb again up to Belas Knap. That’s four times climbing up to the Cotswold escarpment in a single day, and by now we’ve done nearly 20 miles of almost continual up and down. It’s a long time since I’ve walked anything like as far as that in a single day, and I can certainly feel it in my legs. Alice is maybe not as exhausted as I am, but her feet are far worse, badly blistered and painful with every step.

I’m just doing the one day, but her plan was to keep going for several days. She hobbles on for most of the next morning, but the blisters win and she has to take a temporary break. She’ll be back to do the rest of it, by which time I may have recovered enough to walk another stretch too.

Hit or myth: the inspiration for Penguin Books

Every successful and long-lasting venture needs a creation myth. In the case of Penguin Books, the story goes that Allen Lane was on his way home from visiting Agatha Christie in Devon and browsed the station bookstall on the platform of Exeter Station. He was struck by the absence of any serious contemporary fiction at reasonable prices, and came up with the idea that led shortly after to the launch of Penguins.

Station Bookstall at Horsted Keynes

Station Bookstall at Horsted Keynes

How much the story represents the real genesis of Penguin Books, and how much is a myth created later, we can never really know. It has an attractive plausibility. Se non è vero è ben trovato. It would gain considerably in credibility though if we knew that Lane had visited other station platforms in continental Europe in the preceding months. There he would have found a very different position, and the contrast could have been quite striking. Paperback copies of the English-language Tauchnitz Editions had been sold in station bookstalls on the continent for almost a hundred years before Lane’s trip to Devon, and had more recently been joined by the brightly coloured Albatross Books.

Certainly as a publisher Lane would have been familiar with both Tauchnitz and Albatross, and it seems clear that the Albatross Books provided much of the subsequent inspiration for Penguin Books. Similarities between the two series include, amongst other things:

• The use of a seabird as name and logo
• Brightly coloured covers, with different colours to indicate genre of book
• The size of the books (broadly 181 x 112 cm, corresponding to the ‘golden ratio’)
• The use of dustwrappers in basically the same design as the cover underneath
• Return postcards slipped into the books inviting readers to join a mailing list / suggest titles


Some of these things may seem like coincidental similarities, shared by many other series, but they were all essentially new practices introduced by Albatross (in 1932/33), then taken up by Penguin (in 1935), and only subsequently spreading to other series. By the start of the Second World War in 1939 the ornithological theme had spread to Jackdaw Books, Toucan Books and Wren Books, as well as Penguin and Pelican, and the book format introduced by Albatross had been widely copied in the UK market. Albatross itself did not long survive the end of the war, so it was Penguin which became identified in the public mind with good contemporary fiction in brightly coloured paperbacks. But when the story is told of how Penguin Books was born, it should be remembered that an Albatross was there at the birth.

Penguins in Argentina: Don’t fly for me

Penguins travelled to some unusual places in their first twenty years. The US Penguins are relatively familiar, Australian and New Zealand Penguins rather less well known, and Penguins from Egypt and Palestine little known and very difficult to find. But all of these editions were in English. There are relatively few Penguins in other languages – two brief series of Penguins in French (but published in England), one book in Italian, and a few other odds and ends.

Spines of Argentina Penguins 2

Which makes it all the more odd to find Penguins in Argentina, published in Spanish in the late 1940s, in association with the local publisher Lautaro. And a very odd selection it is too. The early books from 1947 are almost exclusively translations of UK Pelicans – self-consciously intellectual books on Opera, Ballet, Town Planning, Greek Science and the like.

One of the early titles is a translation of ‘A short history of English literature’ by Ifor Evans, but there appears to have been a conscious decision not to market English literature itself. The list included ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley and two novellas by Henry James, ‘Daisy Miller’ and ‘The Aspern Papers’, but these were by then already classics, and neither book had been published by Penguin in the UK. There is no representation at all amongst the early books for contemporary fiction – Penguin’s core product in its home market. Of course there may have been copyright issues, but these do not seem to have been insurmountable in the US, Australia and elsewhere.

 Argentina-Opera Argentina-Greek-Science Argentina-Frankenstein

In late 1947 the first crime novel appeared – a translation of ‘Poison in jest’ by John Dickson Carr, and this was followed by three others in mid-1948, but by then the series was already on its last legs. Two last translations of Science books and then a complete change of direction for a final flourish with fiction from local South American authors, particularly the stories of the Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga. The series continued at the rate of about one book a year until 1952, but after 1948 there seems to have been little if any input from Penguin, so that it may have become little more than a sub-brand for Lautaro.

 Argentina-Poison-in-Jest  Argentina-Cuentos-de-Amor

Other than that final coda, the series effectively ran for just 18 months and included 36 books, so it is little more than a footnote in Penguin history. It can hardly have been a commercial success, and there were few attempts at publishing Penguins in translation elsewhere. Was Penguin, not for the first time, guilty of putting its high-minded (but self-imposed) Reithian duty to educate and inform, above its commercial purpose? Or was it simply too difficult to manage an operation far distant from London, in a way that was consistent with the Penguin brand? That was a problem they certainly encountered in the US, and indeed most of the other overseas operations of Penguin led to similarly short series.

Short as it was, the Argentina venture did have one consequence of lasting significance for Penguin. When Allen Lane visited South America in 1944 and made initial arrangements for the Argentina Penguins, he decided he would need Spanish-speaking assistance back in the UK office, and recruited a young girl from Uruguay, Tatyana Kent, to work for him. She ended up not only working for Penguin for many years, but marrying their chief designer, Hans Schmoller, and is now, some 70 years after that first visit, the President Emeritus of the Penguin Collectors Society.

Tanya Schmoller and others at a Penguin party

Tanya Schmoller and others at a Penguin party