One Hundred Penguin Books
I found these first hundred Penguin books in my attic over the weekend, as I was unpacking a box that has been sealed since I moved in. With their faded orange, indigo, green, violet and pink spines they make a fine display and I am fond of this collection that took me so many years to amass.
When I left college, I wrote to companies all over the country seeking work and asking if they would give me an interview if I came to see them. Then I travelled around on the cheap, through a combination of buses, trains and hitchhiking, to visit all these places – the industrial towns of the North and the Cathedral cities of the South – staying in bus stations, youth hostels and seedy B&Bs, and going along filled with hope to interviews that were almost all fruitless. It was the first time I encountered the distinctive regional qualities of Britain and in each city, to ameliorate the day of my interview, I took the opportunity to visit the museums, civic art galleries, cathedrals and castles that distinguish these places. Arriving at each destination, I would consult the directory and make a list of the second-hand booksellers, then mark them on a tourist map and, after the job interview, I would visit every one. There were hundreds of these scruffy dusty old shops with proprietors who were commonly more interested in the book they were reading behind the counter than in any customer. Many were simply junk shops with a few books piled in disorder on some shelves in the back or stacked in cardboard boxes on the pavement outside.
In these shabby old shops, I sometimes came upon Penguin books with a podgy penguin on the cover, quite in contrast to the streamlined bird familiar from modern editions. These early titles, dating from 1935 had a clean bold typography using Eric Gill’s classic sans typeface and could be bought for just twenty or thirty pence. So, in the manner of those cards you get in bubblegum packets, I began to collect any with numbers up to one hundred. In doing so, I discovered a whole library of novelists from the nineteen thirties and reading these copies passed the time pleasantly on my endless journeys. In particular, I liked the work of Eric Linklater whose playful novel “Poet’s Pub” was number three, Compton Mackenzie whose novel of the Edwardian vaudeville “Carnival” was ten, Vita Sackville-West whose novel “The Edwardians” was sixteen, T.F.Powys whose “Mr Weston’s Good Wine” was seventy-three and Sylvia Townsend Warner whose novel “Lolly Willowes” was eighty-four. After these, I read all the other works of these skillful and unjustly neglected novelists.
Eventually I found a job in Perthshire and then subsequently in Inverness, and from here I made frequent trips to Glasgow, which has the best second-hand bookshops in Scotland, to continue my collection. And whenever I made the long rail journey down South, I commonly stopped off to spend a day wandering round Liverpool or Durham or any of the places I had never been, all for the purpose of seeking old Penguins.
The collection was finally completed when I moved back to London and discovered that my next door neighbour Christine was the daughter of Allen Lane who founded Penguin books. She was astonished to see my collection and I was amazed to see the same editions scattered around her house. From Christine, I learnt how her father Allen was bored one day on Exeter St David’s Station (a place familiar to me), changing trains on the way to visit his godmother Agatha Christie. When he searched the bookstall, he could not find anything to read and decided to start his own company publishing cheap editions of good quality books. I presume he did not know that, if he had been there half a century earlier, he could have bought a copy of Thomas Hardy’s first published novel “Desperate Remedies”, because Exeter St David’s was where Hardy experienced that moment no writer can ever forget, of first seeing their book on sale.
I do not think my collection of Penguins is of any great value because they are of highly variable condition and not all are first editions, though every one predates World War II and they are of the uniform early design before the bird slimmed down. While I was collecting these, I thought that I was on a quest to build my career – a fancy that I walked away from, years later. Now these hundred Penguin books are the only evidence of my innocent tenacity to create a life for myself at that time.
Allen Lane’s idealistic conception, to use the mass market to promulgate good writing to the widest readership in cheap editions that anyone could afford, is one that I admire. And these first hundred are a fascinating range of titles, a snapshot of the British public’s reading tastes in the late thirties. Looking back, the search for all these books led me on a wonderful journey through Britain. If you bear in mind that I only found a couple in each city, then you will realise that my complete collection represents a ridiculously large number of failed job interviews in every corner of these islands. It was a job search than became a cultural tour and resulted in a stack of lovely old paperbacks. Now they sit on my shelf here in Spitalfields as souvenirs of all the curious places I never would have visited if it were not my wayward notion to scour the entire country to collect all the first hundred Penguins.