The ever knowledgeable Hayley Campbell reveals the secrets of those famous Orange covers.
Penguin aren’t the kind of unknown indie publisher you need some nerd on the internet to tell you about. They’re so far the opposite of that thing that your correspondent is almost certainly outside of her “can you do us a column on indie book publishers” brief. But wait a second, Mr Editor, I implore you to lower that perfect eyebrow. I will soon tell you how Penguin is applicable in a being-the-coolest-person-on-the-bus sense, although you won’t be as cool as that bird who was reading a lurid yellow and basically dead copy of The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu. She was a one-off. (It was me.)
A recap: the story goes that Mr Penguin (Allen Lane) was so bored by the reading material on offer at Exeter railway station in 1934 that he revolutionised publishing on his return to London by making paperback versions of proper, classic novels which he then sold cheaply/lots of from a vending machine at Charing Cross. (A little show-offy and excessive given the rest of us just spend our time trying to forget the railway station sandwich mistake we made.) The guy was a punk with some crazy ideas and booksellers didn’t like him or his Penguincubator. You know what these paperbacks looked like: the white and orange bands, the plain black text. Today it’s on tote bags and that mug at the back of your cupboard. The new edition of George Orwell’s 1984 did a good joke about it. Your correspondent did laff.
Now, back to the West Country, I was in Bath last week poking around in the sort of bookshop where no Starbucks coffee rings ever graced their polished wooden tabletops, and no bum like me ever bought any of the first editions out of the window. It was the kind of place where a stern-looking lady in a beige blouse tells you over the rim of her chained glasses that “downstairs is open” because clearly the upstairs books are not for you. Downstairs in the unmanned and completely silent basement is where they keep the broken old books with the mouldering binding – all racked according to how far gone the binding is, with a box at the far end that just sells disembodied spines like a Hunterian museum for old leather-bound encyclopedias. But they also had – hidden by the stairs where this 6’1 giant had to stoop – a stellar collection of Penguin paperbacks, the kind that are yellow and rounded at the edges, ones that have been in countless bags and buses before yours. The kind that come with inscriptions to people long dead: Happy birthday, Grandad. 1963.
I spent a pile of pocket change (and pocket fluff, plucked horrifically out of the cashier’s hand) on these old, battered orange things. Partly it’s because, as our lady with the glasses quickly ascertained, I am cheap and there are holes in my boots. But mostly it’s because I have a thing for old Penguin covers, the kind they did in the 50s and 60s, decades after Mr Penguin’s “no cover images” rule had been binned. (You can read an entire essay about the history of Penguin covers if you want. You can buy a whole book about it if you really want.)
Because the thing is, I whine about book covers all the time, but I have never whined about a Penguin cover. Having spent so many years working in bookshops I am someone for whom a bad cover is an actual insult to not only the people who might buy the book, but the poor saps who have to stare at it all day long. The ones who have to count it, tidy it, and recommend the words inside it while apologising for the thing on the front. Most recently it was Faber’s mistake on The Bell Jar that wound me up. Before that it was Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro, where the Australian designer perfectly encapsulated the novel (which spends much time in and around Avril Lavigne’s vagina), while the British got a Donnie Darko rabbit, and the Americans fared no better. I had a pal post me an Australian one from the other side of the world.
Which is all merely to say that I bought some good things on my holiday. I also got into a fight with a Japanese man in a pool on top of a building so I can never go back. But also: in your quest to find cool new things and brazen new indie publishers, don’t forget about the guy who changed things and pissed people off while doing it. Go to your nearest 2nd hand bookshop and look for their Penguins. And if I’ve learned anything from these inscriptions, it’s go visit your grandad. He only gets so many birthdays.
- Hayley Campbell