When I enthused about this book to friends I was amazed how many people said "Who's Sir Allen Lane?" Sacrilege! I'm sure not many customers at Abbey's would have said that! This new counter history of Penguin Books is very much for people interested in the book trade as well as books. I can put my family in this box. When we lived in London, Ron Abbey started the first Penguin Only bookshop in Charing Cross Road, for Colletts, the well-known bookshop up the road. We opened, and closed, four separate Penguin Bookshops in Sydney, and of course knew or knew of most of the characters in this alarming story. In England, Penguin is very much an icon – more so than in America or Australia.
Sir Allen Lane is always regarded as the founder of Penguin – the revolutionary idea of publishing good books at a cheap price and there are many stories about his activities, but Penguin was really founded by Allen and his two brothers (with some other stalwart helpers of course). Their Uncle John, who was a Director of The Bodley Head, a famous imprint, was childless and had suggested Allen, who was then sixteen and named Allen Williams, join the firm as his heir. All members of the family changed their name to Lane. There was an unfortunate outcome here.
When Uncle John died he left his shares in The Bodley Head to Allen but left considerable cash to brothers Richard and John. It was Allen's bad luck that in the near future The Bodley Head went bust so his shares weren't worth much. He never quite got over this and it would go a long way to justifying his scandalous treatment of Richard when the shares in Penguin went on the stock exchange. It was just at the time when Penguin had successfully published D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover so Penguin's name was on everyone's lips. People queued around the block to buy Penguin shares when they were first issued. Allen had persuaded his brother to sell his shares back to himself before the float, this being "the best way" to handle it. He paid Richard 8 shillings yet on the stock exchange they reached a great deal more.
Eventually all three brothers were working at The Bodley Head, living together as young men about town, and very close to each other. In the early days they all contributed in many ways. Allen was, in fact, not much of a reader but an excellent frontman, moving easily in society and always open to suggestions about books or series that should be published. He was more interested in his various lady friends and happy for Richard and John to look after the details. Even Allen Lane's friends admit he was a difficult person and not a very effective CEO but he did have enormous vision and an ego big enough to claim as his own many of the efforts of other people. Penguin and the Lane Brothers is, of course, not published by Penguin. Black Inc are doing this good deed to put the record straight.
This reminds me of the book about Oxford University Press and the making of the giant Oxford English Dictionary. The granddaughter of the famous and revered main editor, Sir James Murray, wrote about this in her book called Caught in the Web of Words. The Press doesn't exactly come out shining in this story. Murray was never properly paid and was left on the outer as he wasn't really an academic, more a self-taught man. Towards the end of his life he was allowed, as a favour, to walk in the academic procession. The book was published by Jonathan Cape Ltd, and was kept in print at Yale University Press where it is today only available as a print-on-demand. You can read another version of this story in Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything. After the enormous success of his book The Surgeon of Crowthorne, which is about one of the more eccentric contributors to the OED, it was suggested to him by Oxford University Press, that he might like to write the full story, which he has done in his usual pleasing way.
I was really pleased to see Helen Garner's This House of Grief win the Australian Crime Writers Association prize for NON-FICTION. (read more on the awards)
This sad story of the father who drove his car into a dam and drowned his little boys may seem a difficult choice for readers, but it is in fact a most absorbing story. Helen Garner never fails to offer a profound approach.