As Penguin Books this month relaunches its famous non-fiction Pelican imprint (famous that is to those who have been round the block a bit), Paul Laity in the Guardian (April 25th) has written a sparkling summary of what the Pelican revolution, a later, and logical, offshoot of the original Penguin revolution, was all about.
Pelicans were launched in 1937 and disappeared in 1989. Among the outstanding titles, which sold in numbers which today seem fantastically high – nothing else to do, you see – were JK Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society and The Long Revolution and series like The Pelican Guide to English Literature, of which one volume, The Age of Chaucer, sold 560,000 copies. Another personal favourite is the two-volume Pelican Book of English Prose, edited by Roger Sharrock (first volume) and Raymond Williams (second) which I lost some decades ago but managed to find again through a second-hand bookshop. Why did such a distinguished and successful series disappear? Well, there were copyright problems with the name in America but, more interestingly, a Penguin spokesman at the time remarked that the Pelican logo, as we would say now, sent out the wrong message. And the message was? “This book is a bit worthy.” Oh dear.
In their heyday, writes Laity,
Pelicans hugely influenced the nation’s intellectual culture: they comprised a kind of home university for an army of autodidacts, aspirant culture-vultures and social radicals.
In retrospect, the whole venture seems linked to a perception of social improvement and political possibility. Pelicans helped bring Labour to power in 1945, cornered the market in the new cultural studies, introduced millions to the ideas of anthropology and sociology, and provided much of the reading matter for the sexual and political upheavals of the late 60s and early 70s.
The film writer David Thomson, who worked as an editor at Penguin in the 60s, has recalled that as an employee “you could honestly believe you were doing the work of God … we were bringing education to the nation; we were the cool colours on the shelves of a generation.” It was all to do “with that excited sense that the country might be changing”.
New Pelicans, published this month and in forthcoming months, include Economics: The User’s Guide by Ha-Joon Chang, Human Evolution by Robin Dunbar, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991 by Orlando Figes, The Domesticated Brain by Bruce Hood and Greek and Roman Political Ideas by Melissa Lane. Seem very much like the old Pelicans. All good so far.