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Squadrons of Pelicans: Bold covers were part of the appeal of the original series

Around the corner from the Daily Mail's offices on Kensington High Street is one of my favourite second-hand bookshops. Run by the Trinity Hospice charity, it has clever, tempting window displays — mustard-covered crime fiction of the Thirties one week, lawn-green cricketing memoirs the next — and is just close enough for a lunchtime dash.

On the back wall, opposite the door, is an altar to Penguin Books: six shelves of orange fiction and two of blue Pelicans. It is the two blue shelves at the bottom that appeal most when I drop in. For £2 you can leave with an introduction to early medieval art in Europe, a canter around Georgian England or a study of working-class families in the East End. The original cover price was much less. 

When Pelican Books, an imprint of Penguin, was launched in 1937 it was with the aim of providing a curious and inquiring, but not necessarily affluent or educated reader, with a library of human knowledge. For sixpence a throw you could buy volumes on economics, archaeology, history, science, psychology, anthropology, art and literature, and also more practical subjects like sailing or fashionable ones like jazz. Over the next 50 years, until the imprint closed in the late 1980s, Pelican published nearly 2,500 titles covering everything from juvenile delinquency to Greek art, atoms to early computers, wildflowers to marijuana.

Now, after more than two fallow decades, Penguin have revived the Pelican imprint with five new titles: Economics: The User's Guide by Ha-Joon Chang; Human Revolution by Robin Dunbar; Revolutionary Russia by Orlando Figes; The Domesticated Brain by Bruce Hood; and Greek and Roman Political Ideas by Melissa Lane. The cover price is now £7.99.

The first Pelicans were hatched from Penguin books, the publishing house started by the enterprising Allen Lane in 1935. Having earned his stripes working at the publishers Bodley Head, he had a plan for a new sort of book — cheap, lightweight, small enough to fit in a gentleman's jacket pocket or a lady's handbag, and bound in eye-catching paper covers rather than heavy, expensive leather or cloth. Lane imagined the books being bought from W.H. Smith's newsagents on station platforms and read on the train.

There are many Penguin creation myths, but one of the most persuasive is that since there were already successful Albatross and Phoenix publishing houses, Allen Lane concluded that birds must sell books. The early Penguins appeared with orange covers, bold, clear type and a jaunty black-and-white penguin, drawn by a young employee on a trip to London Zoo.

The first ten, which appeared on shelves in July 1935, included Ariel by André Maurois; A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway; The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers; and The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie. The books were an instant success and new titles were added to the list. In its first year, Penguin sold more than three million  brightly-coloured paperbacks.

By 1937, the restless Lane was looking for his next project. While standing by a bookstall at King's Cross — all the Penguin stories start in railway stations — he overheard a woman asking "for one of those Pelican books". Fearing that a rival might seize upon the name, Lane swiftly moved to make it his own. If the waddling, stocky Penguin represented fiction, then the stately, pensive Pelican would be the bird of science, history and the arts.

Lane wrote to George Bernard Shaw saying that he was interested in reissuing Shaw's The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, first published in hardback in 1928. Wasting no time, the practical Shaw wrote back: "Right, how much do you want to pay for it?" His Guide, expanded to include "Sovietism" and Fascism, was published in May 1937 and the Pelicans took flight.

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Eric Dickens
July 9th, 2014
8:07 AM
Alas, most of my Pelicans are unread. The chest-blood washing down over fledgling readers by the solicitous mother of education, as mythology would have it, did not quite make me read them in the past. But my earliest Pelican, bought in some second-hand bookshop, originally cost 2/6 (published: 1947). Over many years I have amassed a random library, and tonight I plucked out seventeen Pelicans from my rather chaotic multilingual shelves. There may be more. My action was triggered off by Laura Freeman’s article. The first Pelican I am going to read is the Richard Wollheim selection of Adrian Stokes' essays (1972). There are also: a biography of Wittgenstein, a book about radical perspectives in the arts, a shortened history of England, a book about "Germany in Our Time" (meaning 1970), the Bradbury-McFarlane book on Modernism, etc. You get the picture. Not only covers, but spines are essential; that is often all you can see in the bookshop; blue for the most. I located my Pelicans quickly it that manner. I hope that the new launch of the imprint doesn't bore us all rigid with turgidly "worthy" titles and funnily awkwardly unpocketable formats.

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