When I was down beside the sea, a wooden spade they gave to me to dig the sandy shores….That was the first poem I ever memorised along with another, a really odd choice, the melancholic poem by Verlaine..
Il pleure dans mon coeur
comme il pleut sur la ville.
Quelle est cette langueur
qui pénètre mon coeur ?
That year when I had learned both poems by heart, I had not yet seen the sea or dug any holes in the sand. That would happen one summer after my grandmother left London to settle in Southend-On-Sea. I remember turning the pages of my little Puffin Book, reading the poems and staring at the drawings for hours on end. Magically I was at the seaside, or in the countryside, and certainly I was no longer in the city.
Do children read poetry these days? I wonder, and I desperately hope so, as poetry helps form language. Poetry stirs the imagination and moves the ordinary to the extra ordinary. Poetry creates mood. Poetry inspires and teaches.
I first read this poem in a little Puffin book, entitled, “A Child’s Garden of Verses,” first written in 1885 by Robert Louis Stevenson. Penguin published my little book in 1961, it had a lovely pale green for the cover with the incredible artwork of Eve Garnett.
I loved Garnett’s thin grey pencil lines that added so much emotion to the poetry. Where that little Puffin is today? I have no idea, as with moving to two different countries, childhood treasures got packed and treasures lost.
When I learned the verse by heart and studied those pencil drawings as a child, I had no idea what an interesting woman Eve Garnett was. Eve was a great illustrator, and a woman who deeply cared about the world around her. Did we have mistaken images of women back then, or was I presented with skewed versions of what women were supposed to be like? Eve crossed the Arctic Circle sixteen times! Certainly, she was not a desperate housewife.
Eve after a solid education in art, was commissioned to illustrate Evelyn’s Sharp’s, The London Child. Eve horrified by the conditions of the poor in London, the greatest and richest city in the world, wrote The Family from One End Street. This book was rejected and deemed not suitable for young people by endless publishers, but it ended up winning the Carnegie Medal as the best children’s book of 1937, first published by Frederick Muller. Puffin Books in 1942, only one year after its conception, took the daring move and published the book. It is said to be one of the most important children’s books of the last 70 years. Quite an author and artist Eve Garden was, and bravo for Puffin, the brave little guy of Penguin books, for having Eve as not only one of their authors, but also artists. Truly a double coup.
Penguin came about from a train ride in 1935. The story goes that after a holiday, Sir Allen Lane wanted to pick up a book to read on the train ride back home. At the Exeter Train station he was appalled at the lack of quality of books, and I am sure that meant only one thing, the reading subject on offer was rubbish.
“Mind numbing tripe,” I can hear my father echoing those sentiments, “Victorian sentimental rubbish, cheap quality printed fiction, nothing of serious merit, mere mind rot,” and so on.
Lane decided to create a publishing house. He wanted an interesting logo, and his secretary suggested a penguin. After a trip to the London Zoo, some unnamed penguin ended up as the muse for this great publishing house. Lane succeeded in his goals to publish quality and very affordable books. In 1935 for the price of a packet of cigarettes, he published Hemingway, Christie, and so the Penguin publishing house’s history began at the price of a sixpence and a cheeky little penguin to accompany a book’s journey.
The one thing I loved about my Penguin books is they were all the same, all flashed three horizontal bands, the central one always in white. The author and title published in Gill Sans, a font that I love (this article is written in Gills Sans) and all were the same pocket-sized book. You could have a shelf if you wanted all lined in orange books, or red, and so on. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Penguin had a mad plan that made tremendous sense, orange and white were for fiction, we had a lot of those in the house, green and white for crime fiction, cerise ( deep pinky red) and white for travel and adventure, dark blue, almost indigo and white for biographies, yellow and white for the odd book out, red and white for drama, purple and white for essays, and grey and white for world affairs. In our house, the orange and white covers won hands down. The thing is, with this type of cover, the writing is what really sells the book, not a flashy cover that is often more interesting than the read inside.
Funny how memory plays tricks, when I went to pull down a copy of George Orwell’s, Down and Out in Paris and London, to photograph for the blog post, I had thought it was the classic banding, but my copy is a solid orange. The inside now is brittle and brown with age.
I also had a copy of Sir Harold Nicolson’s, “Why Britain is at War.” It sold 9 million copies the year it was published. I have no doubts that people were confused and frightened by the war, and that little Penguin book was read in privacy, hoping to answer questions and allay fears. Someone, my grandmother, or my father, ended up with a copy and it survived the war and quite a few moves. The paper is very brittle and smells of smoke. Not from bombs or anything like that, but from cigarettes as both my grandparents smoked.
As a child I resented the Puffin Logo on the books as at the time I was also reading Penguin books. I was all grown up and didn’t want to be caught reading a child’s book! Read a Puffin Book? What horrors! But there you go, I had yet to learn that a good book is a good book no matter what age it is written for.
Penguin took a giant stand in 1960. It feels so odd now to think of the outcry the Obscene Publications Act caused with its obscenity charges. After all, the sixties were the Beatles and rock and roll, but in 1960 after publishing “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Penguin was brought to court. Penguin showed that it had teeth and fought back. The court’s verdict? Penguin was acquitted. After the trial ended Penguin sold 2 million copies in six weeks. Finally, it was the end of censorship of books in England. A heartfelt thank you for winning that fight!
I remember reading Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover for the first time, and was heartily disappointed. I could not find the obscenity in the book and could not understand the mindset of the people, or what the fuss was about, but again, I was young in 1965 when I first heard about the book and devoured it from cover to cover. Our copy was on the top shelf of the old brown bookcase. The novel remained a disappointment to me for years. I reread it several times, trying to figure out what was so shocking only to understand many years later, it was not really the sex in the book, but the flagrant attack on a class system that was it’s undercore battle cry. But, when you are twelve, then perhaps you can be forgiven for not getting it right.
An interesting little tidbit is Penguin’s “Penguincubator.” Just imagine… it’s London, in the 1930’s. The roaring twenties have ended, and war is on the horizon, jazz, and cigarette smoking is a way of life. Women wear silk stockings and garter belts, and men wear suits. You catch the train home from Charing Cross, and stop at the “Penguincubator. “ A man lights your cigarette. You stare at him through a gauzy cloud of smoke and then slowly deposit coins into the “Penguincubator,” a book slot machine that clunks out a paperback. You turn and clutch the Penguin Book in hand, not looking back once to see whether you have broken yet another heart at Charing Cross. How utterly Modern! How I would love to see an orange vending machines in train stations today with the cheeky little Penguin perched on top! If it took coins, I would be in heaven. I have no idea why English coins weigh down ones pockets so, but I would gladly trade those coins for a book to read on the journey home!
Wouldn’t it be amazing to read the latest publishing news! Penguin reopens “Penguincubatator” at Charing Cross! Can you imagine the fuss? What glorious fun it could be! But at the end of the day, it’s what’s inside a book that counts and Penguin publishes quality writing and a little poem, that I still remember to this day…
When I was down beside the sea
A wooden spade they gave to me
To dig the sandy shore.
My holes were empty like a cup.
In every hole the sea came up,
Till it could come no more.
R. L. Stevenson