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One Hundred Penguin Books

March 31, 2020
by the gentle author


I came across this set of the first hundred Penguin books in my attic when 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.

54 Responses leave one →
  1. Anne Scott permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Such a wonderful collection! It makes me wonder at which railway station bookstall each one was originally bought and traveled with the purchaser to end up in the shops for you to eventually find them.

  2. Lisa permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Lovely! What a way to assuage the inability to find employment.

  3. Julie Tammo permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Still loving all of your articles after many years of reading them from my home in Australia. We are all needing much good reading material to get safely through this difficult time and I will enjoy going back through all of the articles category by category and post by post to while away the hours .

  4. Jeremy Gibbs permalink
    March 31, 2020

    What an excellent record of old memories, with some fascinating twists. Books can become real household companions and, even if many may never be read again, sometimes they become too familiar and valuable to release. It is perhaps a pity that reading a book is less common now than before. Congratulations on your varied and well-researched articles and pictures Gentle Author which are so inspiring and recreate old memories for so many of your readers. Please keep them coming.

  5. March 31, 2020

    A wonderful peek into your earlier life ga! I wish I had that collection…

  6. March 31, 2020

    It is fascinating to see some of the women writers of the period represented here. Personally, second hand books have always had a touch of romance about them, connecting us to the readers who came before. I am touched by your story, dear Gentle Author, of the personal journey behind every single volume represented here. Thank you for sharing this precious box of memories with us. My late father’s collection is battered with love, many sellotaped inexpertly back together – you can’t put a value on that.

  7. Milo Bell permalink
    March 31, 2020

    What an interesting collection you’ve got there.
    I don’t suppose i could borrow them could i? I could do with some reading material…

  8. Mary-Ann Tait permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Thank you Gentle Author for cheering me with you’re wonderful collection of books and tales. I too am very fond of my collection of mainly orange and blue very old penguins and pelicans – from George Bernard Shaw to Jung.

  9. March 31, 2020

    You are regularly a source of inspiration, but this article about your Penguin Books collection really made my heart sing at an especially cheerless time. The memories of my own youthful voracious reading habits where evoked on seeing the vibrant coloured covers. Thank you so much for sharing such valuable and soulful tales.

  10. Terry Edwards permalink
    March 31, 2020

    One of my favourites from several years of reading these daily posts, largely because it reminds me of the many Sundays I spent scouring the stalls at Brick Lane Market in the mid-80s for the whole series of James Bond paperbacks (never paying more than 40p). A slightly sentimental journey as I’d worked the market with my dad as a teenager in the mid-70s. Thank you, Gentle Author.

  11. Christina Treweek permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Lovely story!

  12. Rachel Firth permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Sorry, this is more of a nostalgia comment rather than salient, useful or terribly interesting, but you have exhumed a memory of my favourite primary school teacher who was collecting first editions of the first 1000 Penguin books. I was at the same time (aged 10, 1977) collecting the first 100 Puffins (first edition or otherwise, although the whole thing was sparked off by my father’s 1st edition of Worzel Gummidge, bought for him when it came out.) My father arranged a swap with the teacher – Puffins for Penguins. In adulthood, of course I rather wish we still have those Penguins, although hard to begrudge my teacher who clearly understood my passion for books.
    You have also created a craving for second hand bookshops. Something to look forward to when we all come out of our hibernation.
    So thank you for the article…. the power of books as objects, as well as (sometimes instead of) in terms of their contents, to evoke memories and (re)connect us to our past.

  13. john clark permalink
    March 31, 2020

    lovely; we inherited my mum’s incomplete collection,,,,

  14. Ian Silverton permalink
    March 31, 2020

    GA, loved reading this account of your previous life as a young man seeking work, great to know you finally made it working in London, what’s the attraction I’ve always wondered of living and working in Spitalfields along with your very interesting neighbour’s? Myself when living near by knew actors artists musicians living there but never gave it much thought, just poor like the rest of us living in the East End to get by. Any thanks for the Blog much enjoyed, stay safe UK.

  15. Bill Goodall permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Of no great value?
    Priceless, dear man.

  16. March 31, 2020

    What an interesting posting from you this morning – I have Penguin books but never
    knew about the podgy penguin on earlier editions, I’m off now to check my bookshelves.
    Thank you for your daily “post” – have learnt so much and when I was not isolated would
    often visit the sites you have written about.

  17. Christopher Glen permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Very much enjoyed reading this piece and its exploration of the nature of ambition contained in it and how that ambition changes with experience of life.

  18. Mike Wilkinson permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Dear Gentle Author,

    Your blogs are always interesting and often fascinating. Today’s is of particular interest to me and no doubt will be to many book collectors and readers. Have you heard of the Penguin Collectors’ Society ? They may well be interested in the story you tell today.

    Keep safe and best wishes

    Mike

  19. Chris Webb permalink
    March 31, 2020

    A very astute description of the old-style second hand book shop that is now nearly extinct. How DID they even scrape a living?!

    The story about Allen Lane is, I think, now printed in the back of all Penguins. Waterstones Bloomsbury branch used to have a shelf of old orange Penguins but they seem to have given up on that idea which is a pity as they looked so right for Bloomsbury. It’s a bit of a culture shock though to realise that so many weren’t actually orange.

    To me they are important because they represent the democratisation of books, reading and literature. I have to smile at the idea of snobby literary types back in the 30s being appalled by these cheap vulgar books for cheap vulgar people.

  20. Sandra Stewart permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Thank you Gentle Author, here in my home in the Pacific and in “this time of Coronavirus” your story took me back to another time and place. I am now in New Zealand but spent the first 20 odd years of my life in England. Stay safe, from the Land of the Long White Cloud…..

  21. March 31, 2020

    Thanks for this wonderful, life-enhancing and heartening piece! I hope you and Schrödinger are staying healthy in the strange, distracting times.

  22. shelley permalink
    March 31, 2020

    what a truly wonderful story – i was travelling with you when i read it

  23. Pauline Taylor permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Tut, tut, scruffy, dusty old secondhand bookshops with proprietors who do not want to talk, you surely cannot have visited me in our lovely old (I admit) clean and tidy bookshop with me (the proprietor) who so much enjoys talking to her customers about their pet subjects. Oh how I miss it all at the moment. Many people collect the Penguins and the green ones, detective fiction, just fly off our shelves. What is so amazing is how well made they were and it is still possible to find them in really good condition, unlike many modern paperbacks which fall to pieces as soon as they are opened.

    On a more serious note it is lovely this morning to see your collection so I will forgive you as it helps me to cope with the lack of seeing my books in my shop with its 15th wonderful roof where my son is, at this moment, working on yet more painting and decorating to keep it looking at its very best. Soon he will have finished constructing a cabinet in which to display some of his mineral collection. He wants to do that to honour the memory of William Gilbert as our premises were the home of Dr Gilbert, physician to Queen Elizabeth I and the author of the first scientific book to be published in this country ‘De Magnete’. He mentioned, in his will, 1603, his books, his globes and his cabinet of minerals. The cabinet of minerals was, as far as we know, the first cabinet of minerals in this country and our customers are fascinated to hear about it and to see my son’s minerals. Such is our bookshop.!!!

  24. Derek Littlewood permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Dear gentle Author – as a regular reader of your posts I found this one hit a particular chord – the bit about your search for work and travelling around the country and getting rejected until one day you strike lucky! I was based in Preston and after covering an area from Yeovil to Carlisle and over to Leeds I fell upon a job in South Yorkshire (and a future wife!)
    And todays youth think they have a hard life!

    regards Derek Littlewood

  25. Johnny Topaz permalink
    March 31, 2020

    What a great story and a lovely collection. I was just re-reading English Journey by J.B. Priestley where he does a very similar tour round many towns in the 1930’s.

  26. March 31, 2020

    “in shabby old shops” — You’ve taken us on the tour this morning. Goodness, these books look so well-loved and appreciated. ‘Makes my heart swell.
    Here in my region of the Hudson River Valley, we have a magnificent used-book barn…..yes,
    “barn”…….and it is a gem. ( If you are picturing a weathered rustic many-times-cobbled-together structure surrounded by woods, chock-full of teetering shelves, a pot-belly stove, and stained glass light fixtures you’ve got it just right. ) Over the years I have found the most incredible buys — Driving home, grinning like a demon. Like cats, books will eventually “find” their perfect/ inevitable home.

  27. March 31, 2020

    What a wonderful collection, and the way you collected these books is even better. The only objects towards which I feel truly proprietary are books. Thank you for writing this.

  28. Kate permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Poets Pub was one of the first “grown-up” books I read, apart from the old classics we collected for POWs during the War. I may even still have it – you inspire me to have a look! I know I’ve still got “Ariel”.

  29. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Wow – what a fabulous collection! And I agree – the whole concept behind Penguin books was genius, and we have all benefitted from the proliferation affordable books. My own Penguin ‘flock’ is mainly P.G Wodehouse, and The Code of the Woosters has been read so many times that it has fallen apart.

    One of the books I am reading at the moment is called “The Long Arm of the Law” and is a collection of stories from the golden age of detective stories written by authors who all seem to write under several pen names. For example today’s story was called “Sometimes the Blind…” and was written by Cecil Day-Lewis as Nicholas Blake. They are the perfect length to enjoy with a leisurely early morning cup of tea (one of the upsides of self isolating!)

    I hope you can enjoy re-reading all your Penguins…

  30. March 31, 2020

    I inherited many podgy penguins from my father who told me that kept him sane while working in Woolwich Arsenal during the blitz. I did collect King Penguins and now have most of them sitting on a shelf. I remember paying as much as two and six for one in the early sixties! They were much grander and were a valiant effort to keep printing and illustration standards high when paper and everything else was in short supply.

  31. Bernie permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Astonishing! Unparalleled, I bet!

  32. Josephine Rogers permalink
    March 31, 2020

    What a riveting tale! What a journey that was. I’ve got about half a dozen of these oldies and will never get rid of them!

  33. Sheila Linnell permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Fascinating! I’ve never seen the pink ones before.

  34. Malcolm permalink
    March 31, 2020

    What a wonderful essay.
    As an incurable book addict I cannot pass a charity shop without entering and searching the possible treasures that may be lurking, unwanted, within. It has got so bad that I have a storage unit full of books that will not fit into my home which is stuffed with books already. I have some of these old Penguins and some Puffins too. These early Penguin editions are almost all excellent reads, by writers who could craft a line and create a story with perfect grammar and syntax. There is England’s heart, there are the glorious words and deeds, the stories of romance, adventure and travel, which – for a boy from the arse-end of nowhere called the Isle of Dogs – was like a portal into another universe, an escape and an education. Long live Penguins and all those writers that opened the door into the world beyond the stink and smoke of reality.

  35. Connie unangst permalink
    March 31, 2020

    As a book seller, myself, I deal with Penguin/Random house all the time. I had no idea that the company had such a long history. They even went out of their way to reprint a out of print book for our store. Great people to work with.

  36. Esther Rinkoff permalink
    March 31, 2020

    I absolutely loved reading this
    What an incredible legacy of a memorable life’s journey to create.
    They all look gorgeous too
    Thank you so interesting

  37. Peter Metaxas permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Thank you this story. I have been in those off the beaten track book shops and wondered, ‘is this a business or the owners hobby?’. Distinct smells, books arranged in a semi-organized fashion. Look deep and you will find a gem. I found, Aerial Tramways and Funicular Railways – a history and design manual. A wonderful book for math nerds like me.
    Best Regards to you and your readers.

  38. Pauline Taylor permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Oops !! I see that the word century is missing from my description of our roof but hope that readers will fill in the gap for themselves.

  39. Dennis Perkins permalink
    March 31, 2020

    What a wonderful adventure. What an intriguing collection. I am jealous of both aspects.

  40. paul loften permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Thank you for showing us this collection that means so much to you. All those job interviews
    Ha ! If they could see you now they would be eating those letters of rejection that they sent! Your perseverance and unique daily blog make you a star celebrity with the added qualities of modesty and self-effacing humility. Something that I think we all appreciate, it is so rare now.
    I have just a small collection of paperbacks, not really a collection as such but just a number pf paperbacks some also Pelican classics that were purchased on a Saturday morning trip to Collets Bookshop in Charing Cross Road in the 60’s. This was my favorite destination for a while and I enjoyed spending a few hours browsing through the assortment of international political papers and pamphlets that they had on display in one corner. It gave me a world perspective of events
    well before the arrival of the internet. Alas Its no longer there

  41. March 31, 2020

    Great tale. Curious though, what type of companies and what sort of job/career did you at the time, hope to build? Curious to know also what did you do at college? It’s the Career Adviser in me that is always drawn to career/work narratives, past, present and futures. Steph

  42. Penny Gardner permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Time to give them a good sniff…nothing like the smell of an old penguin…from the days of real cigarettes!

  43. Jennifer Blain permalink
    March 31, 2020

    Thank you, Gentle Author. Carefully crafted. Gently romantic. Heart warming.

  44. Suzy permalink
    April 1, 2020

    Oh I LOVE THIS!! I wonder what were the second hand book stores you visited here in Liverpool? And how serendipitous that you ended up living next door to the daughter of Allen Lane. You just couldn’t write that!
    I follow an exquisite instagram account called @finepreserversbooks. It is just packed to the rafters with these lovely books and her cats. Every single post is an absolute joy. I’ve sent her the link to your blog post here.

    It must be soooo strange doing your daily constitutional around an empty London. What times! And what an interesting position you are in being an observer/writer of the capital in these historically fascinating times.

  45. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 1, 2020

    Thanks Suzy – I have just been to suss out the @finepreserversbooks Instagram and as you say it is an absolute delight. Cats and books…how perfect is that? (especially as one of the cats is so like mine – black and white with even socks)

  46. April 1, 2020

    This is glorious! When I went to college I encountered the first book store I had ever seen. I went straight for the orange Penguins. I’ve been buying them everywhere ever since.

  47. April 2, 2020

    Wonderful these Book items from the Past!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  48. April 2, 2020

    I love this story.. it re~confirms for me the great silver lining of being an obsessive collector of ant sort which is always obvious at the time .. you meet people and see place you would never have seen .. bird watching and vinyl collections have led me to damp woods at dusk and dusty thrift shops , places i remember long after the disk is lost and the warbler variety forgotten ,, thanks Author

  49. Jo Ross permalink
    April 2, 2020

    That was a fascinating read, thank you G A.
    I was interested to see that you once worked in Inverness – there is an enormous second-hand bookshop there called Leakeys which is housed in an old church. It was established in 1979.

  50. the gentle author permalink*
    April 2, 2020

    Yes, I bought a lot of books at Leakeys…

  51. April 3, 2020

    Thank you for this wonderful story, and its beautiful illustration. I wonder if you visited Sheffield on your travels and if so which Penguins you bought at second-hand bookshops there. I’m a member of Reading Sheffield, a community group which has interviewed Sheffield readers of popular fiction to discover what they read in the mid-twentieth century, and what those books meant to them. It’s possible that some of the Penguins our interviewees read and then discarded, might have ended up in your collection!

  52. April 5, 2020

    Thank you so much for this post and telling the story of how you built your collection. It made me smile today and I really needed it.

  53. Melanie Gadsdon permalink
    April 7, 2020

    Like you, Gentle Author, I too absolutely adore Penguin books. I have a collection of old and new Penguin books, Modern Classics (black) psychology and mathematics (blue) old classics (light blue) Greek classics (brown 1950s), Guy de Maupassant (light green 1950s). I could write more as I’m a total geek on Penguin books! My father used to have so many books way back in the 60s and there were so many that they were put in the old loft. I used to go there and get lost in those books and read avidly. Pure Heaven.

  54. April 27, 2020

    What a lovely collection – and what a happy coincidence with your neighbor! When I was about the same age I started collecting an edition of Shakespeare plays with distinctive 60s cover illustrations, but twenty years on I’m not sure where they’ve ended up.

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