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Blue, white and read all over: the return of Pelican Books

John Sutherland recalls how Penguin’s imprint, launched in 1937, gave education to the masses and challenged the Oxbridge status quo

A wonderful book is the Pelican: editions through the decades, from Shaw's 1937 political tract onwards

 

The Pelican book rises from the ashes this month. Why, one wonders, exhume a series that honourably ran its near-50-year course, fading out in the 1980s? One reason suggests itself – agglomeration. Penguin wants to assert and define a “core” identity: where, so to speak, it is coming from.

The decision to revive Pelican will have been made by committee. At its birth in 1935, Penguin Books was the brainchild of one man. The 1930s were a decade of dictators and Allen Lane was the Mussolini of the book trade. Biographies of “King Penguin” paint the picture of someone who was not over-cultivated, often uncouth, frequently overbearing but passionate about good books. He had no university background and did not belong to the best London clubs. If publishing was a trade for gentlemen, many would have felt that Allen Lane did not qualify.

Penguins began as sixpenny paperbacks with hardback content. Lane launched the non-fiction Pelicans in 1937, as budget reprints and “Originals”. They expired 47 years later. The reasons are obvious enough. The 1960s were the decade of the “paperback revolution”. Lane loathed illustrated covers, associating them with American drugstore tat. For him, Tschichold typography was all that was required. Nor did Lane like large format. He had conceived of Penguin Books while standing on a windy platform at Exeter Station. His books were designed for the overcoat pocket (or the battledress pocket in wartime), not the bookshelf.

Lane yielded, with extraordinarily bad grace, on the pictorial cover issue in the mid-1960s, under pressure from his brilliant (and later disowned) protégé Tony Godwin. But Pelicans, even decked out in these new feathers, could not compete with the eye-catching “egghead paperbacks” (trade paperbacks), which had been innovated by Jason Epstein at Doubleday in the 1950s. They caught the eye – particularly the younger eye – and were quickly picked up by British publishers less traditional than Penguin. Pelicans looked dowdy by contrast and paid the price.

For most of today’s reading public, the word “Pelicans” has no cultural resonance. For those in my ancient demographic, however, they were formative. When I was growing up, paperbacks meant access to two things hard to come by in the postwar period: sex and knowledge. The first was delivered via Hank Janson, smuggled Olympia Press texts, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Eustace Chesser’s much-thumbed and initially banned manual Love Without Fear.

Knowledge, in its most interesting varieties, came in pale blue covers. Everything I know about the Greeks came from H D F Kitto’s 1951 Pelican; everything I know about Leibniz (shamefully little) from Ruth Lydia Saw’s 1954 Pelican. I was mad about jazz as a teenager. The Pelican Jazz, by Rex Harris, put some intellectual stuffing into my madness.

Pelicans were a university without walls, teaching things that wouldn’t be on intramural courses for generations. They were hailed as the “popular educator” (with a nod back to Charles Knight’s Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge). And they were also founded on frankly populist political principles. The first two-volume title in 1937 was a reprint of George Bernard Shaw’s Fabian-feminist tract The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, a book that was originally published in 1928 to coincide with women getting the vote. (“Unreviewable”, proclaimed the New Statesman, going on to give it two argumentative pages.) In 1968, as its 1,000th volume, Pelican published E P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. A red (ish) flag fluttered over the whole list.

So profuse were Pelicans that they could contain within themselves debates and fierce quarrels. Freud (Totem and Taboo) figured early but so did psychoanalytic dissidents such as Jung and Adler. I have been a lifelong Adlerian, converted by Lewis Way’s 1956 Pelican Original. Freud was also subjected to head-on attacks in a string of Pelican Originals by Hans Eysenck, who believed that psychology was lab coats and experimentation, not asking neurotic people about their masturbation fantasies.

A student and disciple of Cyril Burt, Eysenck was an evangelist for the “intelligence quotient”, or IQ: the belief that “pure” brain power could be measured as something unaffected by social circumstance. His bestselling Pelican Original was called Know Your Own IQ (1962).

The IQ theory – however flawed, looking back, one now sees it to be – opened doors, through the eleven-plus examination, for working-class children (including me) into tertiary and higher education. Once we were in the grammar schools, Pelicans were our vade mecums. And grammar schools, for the majority excluded from Oxbridge – unable to admit more than what it saw as the cream – led (for me and for most women) to the non-Oxbridge penumbra.

The ideological soul of the Pelican library is, I believe, encapsulated in one volume: Bruce Truscot’s Red Brick University. His polemic was first published in the summer of 1943 when – after Stalingrad and El Alamein – victory looked a certain prospect and “when the future of modern universities was being widely discussed all over the country”. There was, thank God, a future to discuss. Truscot’s monograph was expanded, rethought and rewritten in 1945, on the eve of the great postwar welfare reforms. Red Brick University was again revised and published as a Pelican Original in 1951, as Attlee’s government staggered to the end of its time, having left the welfare state as its monument. In its Pelican form, Red Brick University circulated widely and influentially.

Truscot’s vision was of a postwar higher education system based on ideals of univer­salism (“a right, not a privilege”) and fairness. “Red brick” was never his preferred epithet. He called them “modern civic universities” (MCUs). At the time he was writing, the bulk of MCU undergraduates were locally enrolled and lived at home. As Truscot pictured it, “Bill Jones”, after dutiful study at the Drabtown red brick, went home “every day at teatime, to listen to Dad on the political situation and Mum on current market prices or the iniquities of neighbours”. High tea but no high table. And a row of Pelicans in Bill’s bedroom.

The MCUs belonged not to a “class” but to a place and a “region”. They had “roots”. And they were growing, as Truscot fondly believed, in strength. “Bruce Truscot” was as much a pseudonym as “Bill Jones”. The books were written by Edgar Allison Peers. He was, when writing his Red Brick series, professor of Hispanic studies at the University of Liverpool. His identity was kept secret until his death in 1952.

English society, as he bluntly put it, had been “half-strangled” by the Oxbridge hegemony and institutions that belonged to the “medieval past”. But no more. The dynamisms released by wartime victory and a reformist government would create a new and more democratic world of higher education. The future was Drabtown University’s Bill Jones, not William St John Toff of Eton and Balliol and Bullingdon.

The Truscotian avatar – had he lived to witness it – would have been Richard Hoggart. Born “copper-bottomed” working class in Leeds, in 1918, Hoggart went from the local grammar school to the local Leeds red brick. After service in the Second World War, he taught at Hull. He also worked, as an act of class solidarity, on a building site, reneging on the brevet-officer-class status he acquired during the war, then Leicester (where I was lucky enough to be taught by him) and Birmingham, where he founded the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.

Encouraged by Ian Parsons, Hoggart pub­lished The Uses of Literacy as a hardback with Chatto & Windus in 1957. It then achieved mass circulation as a Pelican. (Allen Lane reportedly read the book at a sitting before setting the presses rolling.) It was in its pale blue livery that The Uses of Literacy was passed around among the advanced thinkers in my sixth form.

Hoggart’s book went on to become, in its successive Pelican reprints, a manifesto for the new provincialism and redefined culture from its narrow Arnoldian form into something universally enriching. His chapter on the deracinated grammar school boy echoes Truscot’s belief that an organic relationship with one’s background and traditions was what held society together, what made it truly social. Hoggart, who died last month, became one of the country’s leading public intellectuals without any contact with Oxbridge and, in many ways, in defiance of what Oxbridge was. And is. He was many things. One of them was Homo pelicanus.

This magazine, as readers will know, has recently opened what will be a long and profoundly serious debate on what one could call the “re-privileging” of British education: this is a country under the cultural dictatorship of the old public school/Oxbridge duopoly and, within that, all-powerful elites. In an interesting admission on Newsnight, Harry Mount – a Bullingdon Club contemporary of Osborne, Cameron and the two Johnsons – divulged that, between smashing glassware, the club discussed Vico’s theory of necessary elitism. It fits.

Pelicans, in their first manifestation, were not just books. They contained a vision of Britain as it might be – and as it should be. They changed their world. Good luck, then, to Pelican Redux and may it do the same.

John Sutherland’s “How to Be Well Read” is published by Random House Books (£20)

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

GRAHAM TURNER/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA
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How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era