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The potency of the old Penguin

posted on 31 Jul 2015

The potency of the old Penguin

 

I’ve been thinking about the way in which old Penguin book jackets have the same potency for me as the madeleine had for Proust. As a 13 or 14 year old schoolboy I had been extraordinarily resistant to the idea of reading books. I gobbled down comics like The Hornet and Lion – and I even liked a sneaky look at Dad’s Titbits  or Reveille  - but it didn’t really occur to me to read a book. I can only recall ever seeing one book in the house; a copy of the Pears cyclopaedia which was mainly used to prop open the kitchen door. Not that my family was aggressively anti-book – not at all. It’s just that, like religion or sex, we behaved as if these things simply didn’t exist and never had.

So having to read books at secondary school  was a bit of a pain. I’m not talking about text books – they aren’t real reading – I’m talking about the ones we came across in English. Novels, plays, poetry. For a couple of years I seem to have evaded any real commitment to reading but  some time around about my 14th year I would guess I was trapped in a room with Dylan Thomas and my life was changed. The recording of Under Milk Wood  we were sat down to listen to was probably, although I can’t confirm it, the Richard Burton version and I suspect we were shut into the room for less than elevated reasons – probably to give the English teacher a marking break or space to sort out his divorce. Whatever the motive, Thomas’s soaring and swooping verse play came at me just when I was most defenceless and I was captured. Instead of just following the text of the play in the set book with my chewed, stubby finger I actually listened to all the bible-black, net-webbing, fishing boat bobbing musicality of the words. I think I was genuinely intoxicated – buzzing with the sheer joy of words.

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Did I understand it all? No. Did I care? Not at all. At home I read the play over and over and in my head the voice of Richard Burton, all sonorous consonants and rolled vowels…… Then a rogue thought entered my head – maybe other books are this good? What have I been missing? A new addict wants more and looking back I can see clearly enough now that I was a newly fledged addict.

But where do I get these books from? What the hell do I buy? Book shops – Christ, have you seen how many books there are? For a reason not entirely clear to me I sought advice from the least likely source of book information it’s possible to imagine – I went to the PE teacher. PE? Why? I’ve no idea – I hated PE more than I hated Maths and that’s saying quite a lot. But to be fair, after he’d gotten over his initial shock at my stupid question ( ‘Do you know where I can find books as good as Dylan Thomas?’ ) he gave me the following advice :  “Go to the book shop in town and look for the Penguin section. If you choose any book with a grey cover called Penguin Modern Masters, you’ll be fine.”

The following weekend I did exactly that. Almost randomly I settled on Nausea by Jean Paul Satre, Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood and 1984  by George Orwell. These three Penguin books are etched on my mind like nothing else – just to catch a glimpse of them now is to time travel back to that moment when chance landed me with at least one book – 1984 – that would change my life forever. But that is another story for some other time.

How much of my love of reading was really a love of the physical book itself? That’s quite hard to say but it certainly had a big part to play in my love affair with books. I did read them – several times – but it’s the feel of the books I really remember most viscerally. Looking back at it from this distance I didn’t really appreciate at the time just what a beautiful thing Penguin had created with their ‘cheap’ paperbacks. The size was perfect for pockets and when they were new the paper always smelled freshly cut and inky. The Modern Masters series in their grey soft covers also looked and felt classy – and they were called ‘modern masters’. Look at me, I’m reading a modern master! However, in design terms the real coup was the decision to put modern master paintings on the the jackets – not only was I getting a book I was getting a portable fine art collection – and it was cool  art. For over a decade after this first reading Big Bang I was never without a Penguin paperback in one pocket or another and I’m not ashamed to admit that on many occasions what I carried with me was influenced by just how much I liked the book jacket and the  air of spurious sophistication and intellectuality it bestowed on me, a lumptious youth from inner-city Birmingham. What that showed me, and what I think I understood even that at an emotional level, was that books, real physical objects,  really can be transformative.

 

Terry Potter   July 2015