Skip to content

One Hundred Penguin Books

August 30, 2010
by the gentle author

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 two, 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.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. August 30, 2010

    I read somewhere (and it might have been on one of your blogs) that Allen Lane never read any of the manuscripts that were submited to him… He simply sniffed them in order to judge their suitability for publishing… Amazing… and what a time saver!

  2. August 30, 2010

    Well, once again I marvel at the topic of your post. Imagining the travels, and sights and experiences that accompanied the gathering of this Penguin collection is rather wonderful.

    Sorry about those interview results, but awfully glad to see those colorful Penguin spines, and to think of all the great reading that rippled from each of the little books. Well, not little in a bad sense, of course!

    Best wishes.

  3. August 30, 2010

    Gentle Author

    You set me looking through my own bookshelves but, alas, none of my Penguins have survived.

    I still have, however, a Pelican Original, one of Penguin’s offshoots, dated 1969, which is “A History of the cost of living” by John Burnett.

    Not that I have to tell you, but don’t ever sell those priceless books.

    Hooray for Penguin !


  4. mcneill permalink
    August 30, 2010

    If anyone should be in Glasgow looking for second-hand bookshops, or just trying to avoid an Old Firm match, then can I recommend Thistle Books, not just for the shop but also for the tiny lane on which it finds its home? Otago Lane is a cigarette stub of a side street near the west end, easily-missed, but you can find it by asking locals for Tchai Ovna, the tea shop that nestles just along from the bookshop. There you can sample over a billion varieties of tea from all over the world and some, too, from outer space. In the evenings they often have folk musicians playing live. It’s a lovely little nook.

  5. mirabilis permalink
    August 30, 2010

    Synchronicity – the title ‘Mr Fortune please’ in the first picture immediately made me think of Sylvia Townsend Warner and her novel ‘Mr Fortune’s Maggot’ only to see her mentioned in the writing further down. Is Fortune such a common name as to deserve two mentions in book titles? And I wonder what it would take to lift Townsend Warner from her unfair obscurity?

  6. August 30, 2010

    What a fantastic post and what a fantastic collection. In 1989, on my first trip to the UK I stayed in a B&B in Gloucester that had three full shelves of Penguins in my bedroom. At the time I was a 19-year old American who had never been abroad and I didn’t know anything about these brightly colored beauties. And, even though I was already a voracious reader, I didn’t recognize any of the authors either. Given the turn my reading interests have taken over the past 20 years, I would give anything to have alook at those shelves again to see how many of them ring bells with me now.

  7. Marina permalink
    July 4, 2011

    A magnificent collection. I have always revered Penguins for their orange spines. I would love to come and spend time with this colourful array of Penguins. Such a treasure trove. And sorry about the interviews … the prospective employers were clearly clueless!

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS