Penguins, to any member of the British empire born before, during or shortly after the Second World War, were as much a part of the fabric of life as the BBC. These brilliantly designed paperback books became a British insti-tution that educated and entertained many generations, emanating an aura of trustworthy reliability, uniquely combining concern for public taste with public good. They were the creation of Allen Lane, born in Bristol in 1902, dead of cancer at 67, a true and original English entrepreneur.
In this version of his life, Lane comes forward as a short, stocky man with steely blue eyes, permanently attired in a perfectly cut suit; not a "literary" fellow, but a man of business with flair amounting to genius, stoutly protected by Machiavellian timidities in his personal relations, both private and corporate.
Something - who knows what: Lane's family, or the limitations of his biographer? - will keep the personality of Allen Lane safely hidden despite the publication of this book. Here I must plead special knowledge. Jeremy Lewis worked in book publishing for much of his adult life, and for a number of those years I worked with him. Inevitably, after reading his Penguin Special: the life and times of Allen Lane, I felt I had spent a very long afternoon with Jeremy on his return from one of his customary and, to use a well-worn Lewis phrase, "convivial and bibulous lunches".
At typical length - hidden behind a bumbling non-portrait of Lane, lubricated by Lewis's minute, repetitive and sometimes tedious descriptions of Lane's drinking habits - looms a masterly account of British publishing in the 20th century, give or take its past two decades. As such, Lewis's book is unlikely to be bettered, for although Lane remains obscure, Penguin Books, and the myriad underpaid and loving minions who made it what it was, come to vivid life, as does the forceful personality of the author himself.
Lewis announces his steely presence in the first four pages of the book, shuffling his person towards us in typically ingenuous prose. Encouraged to write "during the course of a drunken party", Lewis fears his presence as an "elephantine biographer", but despite long "bibulous afternoons", his "half-witted" persistence has given us what all publishers such as he demand: "a gripping read".
In the past century most British publi-shers were men, and Lewis is their born chronicler - any woman who appeared on the scene then, and now, he automatically threatens with the word "formidable". He is perfectly attuned to the trousered brigade who told us what to read in times gone by - those men of books who lunched at the Garrick and dictated vast correspondence to each other by way of underpaid and, preferably, spinster secretaries.
All this correspondence, and much more, Lewis has used to produce an excellent social history of British literary life through the prism of its most innovative and influential publishing house, Penguin Books, founded by Lane in August 1935. The company's 70-year history reads like a most superior Ealing comedy. Lane's paperbacks, sixpence each, brilliantly designed, brightly coloured - blue for biography, orange for fiction, green for detective stories - were an instant success, and were followed by the sequence of fishy birds that transformed our culture: Peregrines, Pelicans, Puffins, King Penguins, Penguin Specials, Classics, Porpoises, Buildings, Histories, Music Scores, Poetry, New Writing.
Lewis is a master of office malice - the feuds and dramas and tortuous politics that complicate the lives of and continue to fascinate the thousands of people who pass most of their lives in this un- sung and, but for the writings of Jeremy Lewis, little-recorded milieu. Lane's Penguin Books was a hotbed of such passions, and Penguin Special is spiced with elegiac stories of the men and women of the company, most of them paid a pittance, who circled around and served Allen Lane and his great idea. Here is the ebb and flow of office life, the tales of unrequited love and longing, of loyalty and hard work, of dismissals and betrayals.
Enveloping this brilliant soap opera are dashing accounts of many book buffers of old, from John Lane and Jonathan Cape to Tony Godwin and Tom Maschler, and it is a measure of Lewis's talents that he manages to present a rare but sympathetic portrait of this last bete noire.
Best of all, Lewis explains how a publishing house comes into being and operates. Despite the usual Lewis howlers - the New Zealand writer Janet Frame is mistaken for Janet Flanner of the New Yorker, and Laurens van der Post makes a "Voyage" rather than a "Venture to the Interior" - through his pen, Penguin Books comes across as the Winston Churchill of British publishers and his vivid history deftly demonstrates what a debt so many owe to Allen Lane and his Penguin few.
Carmen Callil's book about Vichy France, Bad Faith: a forgotten history of family and fatherland, will be published next year by HarperCollins