Blog Archives

Keep the blue flag flying

Pelican Books, the non-fiction imprint of Penguin, launched in 1937 and brought books on a huge range of serious topics within the range of ordinary people, publishing them at the standard Penguin price of sixpence.  They sold in their hundreds of thousands, bringing education to the masses.  It was conceived as an educational series.  It was no accident that one of the key editors behind Pelican was W.E. Williams, also closely involved in the Workers Educational Association.

But that’s also a clue to another aspect of Pelican Books that was perhaps less evident.  Despite the blue covers of the books, this for at least the first couple of years was very definitely a left wing publisher.  Take a look at the first few volumes.  Volumes 1 and 2 are ‘The intelligent woman’s guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism’ by Bernard Shaw.  The title manages in just a few words to be both patronising and sexist, but also essentially misleading.  This is no even-handed review of political philosophies.   Shaw was a Fabian socialist and this is a rationalisation of his political beliefs.

Pelican A3

Volume 3 is a very odd book to be included in the first few volumes of what is ostensibly a non-fiction series.  ‘Last and First Men’ by Olaf Stapledon is a science fiction novel, described as ‘a story of the near and far future’.  It is certainly fiction and would have been more appropriately published in the main Penguin series rather than Pelican.  For what it’s worth though, the author was undoubtedly left wing in his political beliefs, and during the war a supporter of the socialist Common Wealth party.

Volume 4 was a book on archaeology by Sir Leonard Woolley and probably outside the left / right spectrum, but volume 5 (‘A short history of the world’ by H.G. Wells) and volume 6 (‘Practical Economics’ by G.D.H. Cole) were both the work of prominent socialists.  Volume 7 (‘Essays in Popular Science’ by Julian Huxley) is again hard to categorise as left or right wing, but there is no doubt about volume 8.  ‘The floating republic’ by Bonamy Dobrée & G.E. Manwaring is the story of a naval mutiny and effectively an early example of trade union activism.  It may be presented as the non-political work of academic historians, but it is also a revising of history from a socialist perspective.

Pelican A8 dw

Volume 9 is the first of several volumes of a ‘History of the English people’ by Élie Halévy, surprisingly the work of a Frenchman.   Halévy was probably better described as a Liberal than as a Socialist, but he had left wing sympathies and he lectured and wrote on the history of socialism.   Volume 10 is then a book on astrophysics by Sir James Jeans.

This general pattern of mixing non-political volumes with volumes on a range of subjects by left wing authors, continued for a considerable time.   Over the next year or two the series included works by a long list of prominent socialists including J.B.S. Haldane, Harold Laski, R.H. Tawney, Beatrice Webb and G.D.H. Cole, and communists such as J.G. Crowther and Petr Kropotkin.   There were also several works by members of the Bloomsbury Group, including both Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Roger Fry and Clive Bell, all generally left / liberal if not socialist in their politics.  There are also plenty of non-political authors, but I struggle to find a single author in the first 50 volumes who could be clearly described as right wing.  What is striking to me is that these are not necessarily books about politics, economics or history – even for books about science or art, the series seems to have searched out left-wing authors.

There were of course other left wing publishers and left wing series.  The Left Book Club published by Gollancz springs to mind and was a successful series at much the same time as Pelican.  The difference though is that buyers of the Left Book Club were in no doubt about what they were buying.  Pelican’s position was much less explicit.  In buying a Pelican you were buying into a certain culture of popular education, but I’m not sure it was clear that you were buying into a left wing philosophy.

Krishna Menon

V.K. Krishna Menon

The key person behind the political positioning of Pelican Books was probably not Allen Lane, the owner of Penguin, but V.K. Krishna Menon, whom Lane appointed as overall Editor of the series.  In appointing him though, Lane must have known what he was getting.  Krishna Menon had worked as an editor at Bodley Head, the Lane family firm, and he had been a Labour councillor in St Pancras since 1934.   He was being considered as a Labour parliamentary candidate, but this fell through because of suspicions that he was actually a Communist.   He was a close friend of Nehru, a passionate advocate of Indian independence and a fierce opponent of the British Empire, to the extent that there were doubts about his loyalty to Britain during the war years.

Wiiliam Emrys Williams

William Emrys (Bill) Williams

He did not of course have total freedom to develop the Pelican list as he chose.  He was supported by three Advisory Editors, although it seems doubtful that they were much of a check on his left wing tendencies.  W.E. Williams, mentioned at the start of this post, was one of them.  He was primarily an educationalist, but certainly also a socialist.  As well as his role with the Workers Educational Association, he went on to head up the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, which was later accused of being so effective at spreading left wing opinion in the armed forces that it influenced the result of the 1945 election.

HL Beales

Hugh Lancelot Beales

Then there was H.L. Beales, a historian and another socialist.  In this context it is interesting to note a comment in the introduction by J.M. Winter to a much later collection of essays by R.H. Tawney: ‘That … working-class culture is a central part of European historical writing today is in part because of Tawney’s work and example, and that of a group of his contemporaries among whom G.D.H. Cole, H.L. Beales, the Webbs and the Hammonds are the most prominent.’   Every one of those mentioned was involved with Pelican in those early days.   It seems fair to assume that Beales was influential on the inclusion of Tawney, Cole and Beatrice Webb as well as J.L. (John) and Barbara Hammond in the series.

The third advisory editor at the start of Pelican was Lancelot Hogben, a biologist, who later had a rather odd book of his own published by Pelican. ‘Interglossa’, published in 1943, was a plan for a new world language to be part of a new world order after the war.  He was also a socialist.   So the overall editor of the series was a socialist, seen at the time as perhaps a bit of a firebrand, and all three of the advisory editors were known socialists.   Is it surprising that they kept the red flag flying in its Pelican blue camouflage?

It didn’t last of course.  The relationship between Krishna Menon and Lane deteriorated and ended with Krishna Menon leaving at the end of 1938.   The last volume to carry his name as editor was volume 33, although it’s probably fair to see his influence in terms of the choice of titles and authors at least across the first 50 volumes.

Advertisements

How an albatross gave birth to an entire aviary

When Albatross Books was launched in 1932 to compete with Tauchnitz selling English language books in continental Europe, the name was said to have been chosen because it was almost the same word in all European languages.  The elegant silhouette of an Albatross was a nice design touch, but it seems unlikely that they started off with the idea of having a bird as a motif and then settled on an Albatross as the most suitable bird.

But that seems to be precisely what many other publishing companies did in the years that followed.  The first imitator was Penguin Books, who launched their paperback series in the UK just 3 years later.  Before the launch Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, had explored the possibility of a joint venture with Albatross.  When that didn’t work, he decided to go it alone, but copied all the principal design features of Albatross, including the use of a seabird as the logo and name of the series.

  Web-Albatross-1   Penguin 003

Penguin’s launch in the UK was such a success that a large part of the UK publishing industry felt it had to respond by launching similar series, copying many of the design features that Penguin in turn had copied from Albatross.  Perhaps most importantly this meant scrapping cover art and using instead a standard cover design, mostly typographical, and designed to provide a strong identity for the series rather than the individual book.

But for several publishers, copying Penguin’s design features also meant copying their use of a bird as a logo.   The Hutchinson Group even had two goes at it, with the series of Toucan novels, and the Jarrolds Jackdaw series. When the Lutterworth Press launched a series of children’s books, it looked for a correspondingly small bird and came up with Wren Books.  Another publisher of children’s books, Juvenile Productions Ltd., started the Martyn Library, featuring a bird that is presumably meant to be a martin, although I can’t explain the slightly odd spelling.

 toucan-1  jackdaw-2-dw

 martyn-5-dw  wren-5-dw

One publisher, Methuen, settled on the kingfisher as a logo, but resisted the temptation to call their series Kingfisher books, choosing instead the more prosaic ‘Methuen’s Sixpennies’.  Penguin meanwhile, perhaps concerned that it was losing its distinctiveness, decided to lay claim to all the other birds it could think of that began with a P.  So its non-fiction series was called Pelican Books, its children’s series was called Puffin and there was even a short-lived series of miscellaneous titles at the end of the war called Ptarmigan Books.

methuen-sixpennies-1

I make that at least eight series of paperback books in the UK given bird logos just between 1935 and 1939, with one later on in 1945.  Not bad for the brood of a single Albatross.

albatross-and-progeny

Penguins March into April

From quite early days, the advertising and marketing for Penguin Books was associated with a kind of whimsy, a gentle sort of humour, both in terms of words and pictures.  Cartoon penguins appeared in all sorts of guises to illustrate text that didn’t seem to take itself too seriously.  Other companies still try to use the same kind of style today – somebody like Ben & Jerry’s for example, so maybe Penguin were ahead of their time.  Here’s an example of Penguin’s (sometimes quite wordy) style, taken from an American Penguin in 1943.

Old Man blurb

It’s hard to say exactly where and when they started using this style.  It probably developed gradually rather than arriving fully formed.  But by March 1937 there were at least the first signs of it, as shown by the small advertising booklet illustrated below.

Penguins March into April 1937

Penguin had launched in July 1935, so was almost 2 years old by this time and had already published 80 books in its main series.  It had also already attracted several serious competitors.  Hutchinson had launched their Pocket Library in a very similar style in November 1935 as well as their ‘Crime Book Society’ series in June 1936.  The first paperback Chevron Books were on the market by February 1936 and the Collins White Circle series was only just behind in March 1936.  Other competitors were certainly on the horizon.

Penguin had a head start, but there was a relatively short window of opportunity for them to establish their brand, not just as one of many types of paperback books, but as the name that customers associated with the whole idea of paperbacks.   They did that, not only by pushing ahead with an ambitious programme of new titles in the main series, but by diversifying away from general fiction and crime fiction into other areas.

Penguins March into April 1937 inside front cover

This little brochure as well as promoting the next ten main series titles (volumes 81 to 90, published on 19th March), also announces the launch of both the Penguin Shakespeare and Pelican books.  Six of Shakespeare’s plays were to be published on April 23rd, Shakespeare’s birthday, and the first Pelican Books were to appear on May 21st.  The Penguin Shakespeare is still published today, and Pelican Books ran for 53 years to 1990 before being recently revived.  So not a bad three months work really, with volumes 91 to 100 of the main series to follow shortly after.

Penguins March into April 1937 rear