Allen Lane: A Personal Portrait

Monographer writes: It’s always been my intention to open Monographer’s Blog to guest posts, but somehow I’ve never got round to it – until now. In my post Publishing on publishing (2 Aug 2011) I wrote that I’d excluded from my series of reviews on texts on publishing any company histories or biographies – for no other reason than insufficiency of interest in the past on my part. I am delighted to say that David Williams has helped to make good the lack by kindly contributing the following review of  W. E. Williams, Allen Lane: A Personal Portrait (London: The Bodley Head, 1973).

David Williams writes: Three surprising facts about Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books:

  1. He was originally called Allen Lane Williams. A distant uncle – John Lane, Chairman of The Bodley Head – had offered Allen a job on condition that he adopt by deed poll a second Lane cognomen. John had no children, and did not want the family name to become extinct.
  2. ‘He appears to have been an average pupil … below standard in Arithmetic and English. He remained so all his life. His letters … were devoid of distinction: they were pedestrian, often awkward … Adding up a column of figures was a slow and laborious exercise’ (p. 37).
  3. ‘Allen read very little, either for personal or business motives, and he knew virtually nothing about literature … he tried, without much success, to explore the arts, but he was handicapped by knowing nothing about any of them … The Aldwych farce was his preference in the theatre, and he lacked even a nodding acquaintance with music of any kind’ (p. 18).

Yet this was the man of whom Williams (p. 93) also writes: ‘Allen had fulfilled a magnificent mission. He had created a publishing revolution of international significance, and enhanced the reputation of Britain as a democratic cultural world-power.’ From childhood onwards I had always trusted that anything in an orange cover was going to be good. In my professional life I have increasingly admired the Penguin imprint and have tried to learn from it. I had imagined Allen Lane to be one of those magna cum laude firsts-winning bon viveur multilingualists – think Hugh Grant in the Bridget Jones films – who seem to populate the upper echelons of the publishing industry. So it came as a shock – and then a slow-burn pleasure – to find he had feet of clay. 

Sir William Emrys Williams (no relation to Lane or me!) was a close friend and collaborator from the earliest days of Penguin in 1937 through to Lane’s death from cancer in 1970. Although Williams set up the Pelican imprint and Penguin Specials (as a consultant) he was never an employee. This short memoir (93 pages) was published in 1973, before the name of Lane (the blurb tells us) became ‘too encrusted in legend’. It is indeed, according to a reviewer of the time, ‘extremely uninhibited’, which makes for a refreshingly good read. Toadying to one’s boss diminishes the self-esteem, realism and creativity any commercial organization needs to evolve and succeed. Hagiographies, likewise, belittle subject, biographer and reader; Williams’s robust, affectionate and ultimately generous picture of Lane helps his friend’s magnificent achievements stand out all the more clearly.

Perhaps the startling tone of this biography is itself evidence why Allen Lane was a great publisher: his genius was to find talented people who could give their different and probably better bests to the Penguin project. Yes, Lane ‘was volatile, insecure, capricious and unreliable [and] revealed a bewildering quick-change habit of mind … that could be the despair of his associates. [He] never expressed a particle of contrition. Even when he contradicted himself in word or deed he reserved the right to have it both ways.’ Yet listen to this account (pp. 65–7) of Penguin top management meetings:

Week by week for many years [we met] at a modest little Spanish restaurant in Beak Street [London] … Over these lunches we settled down to the examination of major editorial principles. Fortified by innumerable porrons of sturdy wine … we often kept it up until 5 o’clock. I have never known more lively and penetrating sessions than those, and Allen’s relish of the controversy that often developed was immense. Should we go in for picture covers? Should we begin doing five or ten at a time of the major modern novelists …? Were we taking enough trouble with our ‘blurbs’? What were the best ways to put our books across? … When risks were involved [Lane] was almost always willing to take them, and the more adventurous a project seemed the more likely he was to adopt it … [The meetings] were impromptu, uncompromising and untidy. Eunice Frost used to jot down the decisions but there were no minutes and no memoranda. It was not the way to run a business, I suppose, but it was in fact the foundation on which a successful business and an international reputation were founded.

These ‘informal and incandescent sessions’, each a ‘vivid and unpredictable adventure’, went on until the late 1950s. In the current techno-economic climate, when traditional publishing certainties are again melting into air and another radical new format is coming on to the scene, how many of today’s publishing meetings are as enjoyable as those? Are SWOT analyses and being ‘sensible’ really the only answer? To modify slightly Lovat Fraser’s superb 1920 ad for Curwen Press, why not ‘Get the spirit of joy into your published things’? I like to think Allen Lane would agree.

© David Williams

David Williams is Managing Director of The Running Head Limited, www.therunninghead.com. He blogs about communication, language and media at http://propagandum.wordpress.com/.

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