Allen Lane’s Pelicans Take Wing Once More

The publisher wanted to offer impecunious readers a university in their own home. With the imprint’s relaunch, that ambition lives on

Features Literature
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.

An early advertisement for the Pelicans included a manifesto: “Fewer people are content simply to work at a routine job all day and turn to the cinema, cheap novels and dance music for all their recreation. They want to use their brains on something different from their ordinary job, but not to embark on a hobby which is merely a way of escape.”

Pelican offered readers a university in their own sitting-rooms. “A man who may be poor in money,” wrote Lane, “is not necessarily poor in intellectual qualities.

“I wanted to make the kind of book which, when the vicar comes to tea, you don’t push under the cushion. You are rather more inclined to put it on the table to show what sort of person you are.” This ambition drew comparisons with that other great educator of the Forties and Fifties: the BBC.

Lane insisted the books sold for sixpence because he knew that the average man when comparing the cost of cigarettes and beer with that of a new book would calculate that he could get more for his money with a smoke and a pint. Once books were cheaper than these temporary pleasures, Lane found an avid reading public.

The company received more than 500 requests from readers for new titles every week: some for reissues of out-of-print favourites, others for entirely new books covering some pet topic. Lane took on the challenge.

In their early days, Penguin and Pelican had only republished  existing books but in the late Thirties they began commissioning. Lane assembled an advisory panel of left-wing editors which included V. K. Krishna Menon, an ascetic vegetarian educated at Madras University and the LSE, and two keen though not fanatical socialists, Lance Beales and W. E. Williams, both also of the LSE. They signed contracts with authors over gin (preferably) or sherry (loathed by the publishers but then the chosen drink of university lecturers). George Bernard Shaw also had an advisory role.

 A survey by Mass Observation in the Forties found that Penguin readers were five times more likely to vote Labour than non-Penguin readers. The inclusion of the left-wing economist Ha-Joon Chang in the new Pelican list is entirely in keeping with its original political stance.

Lane gave his editors strict instructions: “I don’t want any of the grand old men. I want the historians who are going to be the grand old men in 30 years’ time.” He made a point of paying very little — a few pounds for each edition of 30,000 copies — but insisted that if the books were any good, the young authors would get academic posts for their efforts.

Some of the Pelican contributors required chivvying along. When Professor H.D.F. Kitto of Bristol University failed to deliver his manuscript for The Greeks on time, the Penguin editor Alan Glover wrote suggesting — only partly tongue-in-cheek — that the next time the professor was in London, he should visit the Penguin offices to take his pick from their assortment of “eminently marriageable” young women with excellent typing skills. Kitto managed without, though the manuscript missed its deadline.

Lane had a dishonourable habit of accepting ideas from anyone — and then commissioning someone else to write the book. Sometimes, however, he was prepared to take a punt. When 17-year-old schoolboy Kenneth Mason wrote to Penguin in September 1939 proposing an anthology of animal poetry, Lane said yes. The book, divided into insects, reptiles, birds, fish and mammals, was published when Kenneth was 18 and sold 75,000 copies.

Another unexpected success was Peter Heaton’s Pelican book on sailing, published in June 1949. Allen Lane had his own boat called — what else? — The Penguin, and commissioned the book largely to satisfy his own interests. He was delighted when it sold 350,000 copies.

While some of the titles could be dusty — The Civil Service in Britain, The Genesis of Modern Management — there were crowd-pleasers too. Putting sex in the title was a good gambit: The Physiology of Sex by Kenneth Walker was published in 1940; The Psychology of Sex by Oswald Schwarz in 1949; Sex and the Social Order by Georgene H. Seward in 1954; and Sex and Society by Kenneth Walker and Peter Fletcher in 1955.

Books about art and artists with black and white and later colour plates sold well. They were slim and light enough to take to galleries. Kenneth Clark, whose life and achievements are celebrated in an exhibition at Tate Britain (until 10 August), gave his name to several titles: The Nude; Landscape into Art; The Gothic Revival and a superb monograph on Leonardo da Vinci. His description of the artist’s self-portrait is typical of the book’s easy, lyrical style: “This great furrowed mountain of a face with its noble brow, commanding cavernous eyes, and undulating foothills of a beard.”

The “look” of the books was always essential to the Penguin and Pelican brand. In the early days, the covers all adhered to a simple orange or blue grid with text in Gill Sans font. Over time, they grew bolder. Black and white illustrations were introduced to Pelican covers in the late Forties, trippy, psychedelic, abstract covers in the Sixties; photographic and witty line-drawn covers by the cartoonist Mel Calman in the Seventies.

There seems to have been no great falling of the axe, just a gradual petering out of the series through the Eighties; the last Pelican was published in 1989. At the time, a spokesman for the firm admitted that the books had become “a bit worthy, a bit hard-going”.

The success of the Open University may have taken some of the Pelican market and the boom in the number of students going to university meant that there was less call for people to educate themselves at home. Other amusements and distractions — television, the hi-fi, videos, eating out — may also have done away with the evening at home with an improving book.

Yet now the Pelican flies again. Archivist Steve Hare, who is researching a PhD on Penguin design and has collected more than 15,000 Penguin and Pelican books, says admiringly that this is a “serious and very old-fashioned thing to do”.

The new books are not slavish copies of the originals: the blue is lighter, the Pelican logo bolder, the format slightly larger (too large for a back pocket). The designers have perhaps missed a trick with their spare, uniform design. What makes the older Pelicans so appealing to second-hand book shoppers are their distinctive covers. It’s easy to be seduced into buying a Pelican with an unpromising title because the cover is so covetable. That’s certainly how I ended up with J.H. Plumb’s Crisis in the Humanities.

Paul Lickiss, a chemist at Imperial College London and a collector who has more than 1,700 Pelicans, says it is “a pity” to have kept the colour but not the bold, imaginative designs. He singles out The Geography of African Affairs by Paul Fordham, published in 1965  as a witty, inventive example: the letters of “Africa” have been ingeniously stretched to form the shape of the continent.

First time around, it took Pelican a dozen years to abandon purely typographic covers for illustration. No doubt the new Pelicans will find their feet — or should that be take wing?

While writing this article, I found myself, quite serendipitously, on a train opposite a man reading Ha-Joon Chang’s new Pelican guide to economics. He was a trainee surgeon, on his way back to London from a medical conference. He was the perfect Pelican reader: educated, inquiring, knowledgeable in one field, curious about others.

When asked what he made of Chang’s new blue Pelican, he said carefully that it was “educational . . . heavy-going”. But in that crowded train carriage, on a hot June afternoon, he barely looked up from its pages until the train pulled into Paddington. Allen Lane, who built an empire on books that could be read on the train, would have been tickled, if not pink, then certainly blue and orange.