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Once there were giants...

Penguin books were a fine example of a 'cultural democracy' that has now withered against the reactionary dominance of the mainstream. We need to rediscover the passion for dissent and questioning, and technology may ultimately be the key.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
12 December 2013
Penguin.jpg

Flickr/HellolmNik. Some rights reserved.

Once there were giants. They had names like Allen Lane. You know whom I mean, the founder of Penguin Books which for at least half a century led the field in paperback publishing. Penguin Books was in the vanguard of the widening of awareness. It was a cultural equivalent of the welfare state, an educative process developed throughout society by paperback and evening classes and societies, with some back-up through print and broadcast journalism. Literature and science and thought were working their way into the everyday life of ordinary people. Not everyone benefited. Not everyone wanted it. And there remained obstacles, especially of class, to fulfil the dream of cultural democracy. But there was some achievement.  If the process had a central focus it was Penguin Books, publishing almost everything of quality, and very little that wasn’t quality. Well presented, and at a reasonable price, Penguins were ubiquitous in literate environments of which there seemed to be so many.

Looking back, well, we didn’t know how lucky we were. For a long time, quite a long time, there was a developing possibility of the dream coming true. Raymond Williams called it The Long Revolution. You remember it. You still have it somewhere, that blue Pelican along with all the others. They filled your mind and fed your hopes. It was thanks to Allen Lane; not only him but especially him.

Lane died in 1970. His dream did not die with him, but it cannot be said to have survived for very long. From Dallas to The da Vinci Code the forces of cultural reaction have underwritten the socio-economic regression that some called modernity. You can find Aldous Huxley titles in paperback, but you have to search. They don’t leap out at you as they used to. There are fifty shades of trash trying to grab you, but the books that make you wonder are hidden away. That was not how it was meant to be. Had things gone the other way, had there been real progress (and not the ersatz world of false choices) then the spirit of Allen Lane would have survived. All we have is the memory.

The vocabulary of memorial needs to meet the occasion of celebrating someone whose ventures were far more for the common good than for any personal profit. How about pioneer or trailblazer? It is not possible to imagine anyone of progressive instincts disparaging Lane’s achievements. The only trouble Penguin caused was to vested interests in commercial publishing, and of course to that strange, ethereal presence: the Establishment. Lane challenged the accepted way of doing things. And that is never liked by the powerful. They fear that their inadequacies may be exposed. They fear that the truth may be told. Extending the reach of culture is generous and visionary.

Libraries preferred hardbacks for their sturdiness in withstanding the strains of wide circulation. But for the ordinary book-buyer it was the paperbacks that filled the sitting-room shelves, a row of glowing magenta, a row of classics in sombre black, and another of academic azure. The wiser heads in publishing did not find Penguin a challenge but an exemplar. Reasonably-priced, well-produced paperbacks became the mainstream of bookselling. Penguin dominated, but Papermac brought out Thomas Hardy et al, and Faber, especially for poetry, was ever dignified but now within wider reach. In 1970, as Lane was dying, Granada brought out its Paladin range, Fontana produced its Modern Masters.

For a long time it seemed that Penguin Books and its successors were part of an emerging alternative to institutional society. A colloquium of new voices was articulating potent, sometimes mysterious, and always interesting energies. An air of experiment, in which Penguin played its part, was speaking to the general feeling within society. It was powerful enough to submerge the feelings of reaction although these have returned with a vengeance, of course.

Historians one day may be in a position to define the critical moment when the experiment failed to make the decisive break in the continuum. Social experiment did not become the natural governing principle of society. How close it came to happening is one of those uncharted questions. Historians one day may be able to discern the reasons why the revolution was deferred. (I say deferred, not defeated.)

At first glance it may seem inexplicable that an expansion of higher education has not led to an expansion of new ideas from young idealists. It clearly hasn’t happened. The mainstream bookshops now pack ephemera on the shelves, giving equal status to entertainment books. The habit of serious reading has not grown in proportion to the number of people registering for courses. There may be more qualifications, but there are not nearly so many ideals.

The idealists always formed a minority, although a generation ago there was far greater idealism then than there is now. But education, especially at a university, used to mean a broadening of interests, an expansion of horizons. A material culture has narrowed the purpose of education to an essentially vocational role. Education has become the acquisition of skills rather than the development of intellect and sensibilities.

Aldous Huxley, writing in 1959, predicted this when he spoke of a future generation trained to accomplish tasks without being educated to ask questions. As for Aldous Huxley – ‘Oh, yeah, I read Brave New World at school. It was quite interesting. Did he write anything else?’

For thinking people reading comes as a matter of course. Questioning comes as a matter of course. It is the lifeblood of an imaginative response to the world. To think is to question. To write is to question. These processes are integral to a valid cultural system. In a conforming society dissent is inevitable if a creative mind is alert to the responsibilities of creativity. It is not a position sought. It is how things must be unless we apprentice ourselves to convention.

The point about Penguin, the WEA, the Left Book Club, and other elements within the network was that ideas and values were given a central place in the alternative social programme that engaged, in varying degrees, millions of interested citizens. Not everyone signed up to everything. But many found something useful. The twentieth century saw a remarkable growth in unofficial education and with it came patterns of career development according to skill and initiative rather than formal qualification. The career of Neville Cardus is a spectacular example. There were many others, not necessarily in the public eye, who gained advancement to positions that now require graduate status. There were early leavers, going out to work initially as clerks and apprentices, who read and studied and found ways to more fulfilling work and/or community life. Learning was not an obstacle to be overcome and then discarded. It was a pleasure. Ordinary lives became extraordinary.

This is what is meant by cultural democracy. It is an association of the like-minded working its way through the informal network of feeling that is outside the official structures of society. Work may be no more than a duty, whereas the life of the choral society or the drama group may be the heart of a community. The key point is that there was active involvement rather than passive acceptance. That is the liberating element. It has not gone from social experience, but it has changed direction. It has gone underground. It is less visible. The mainstream is inherently conservative. The oppositional nature of literature distances it from the mainstream.      

But technology has extended the capacity for communication. That can mean more chat, more time-wasting trivia. It also means a wider capacity for things of substance. The possibility exists now for a conversation in society that will itself determine the nature of society. Everyday experience needs to be part of that conversation. Older institutions are losing some of their relevance and their authority as a network of root feeling works its way into the social fabric. Everyone has a right to a voice. There are other realities waiting to be articulated. Historians of the future may be able to discern the reasons why the revolution happened.

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