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Because what you read matters…

Allen Lane, Pelican, Penguin and Krishna Menon

Was Allen Lane responsible for the animosity Krishna Menon had against Britain and for that matter against other Western countries?  What exactly was their relationship and for that matter the exact involvement of Menon with the paperback empire of Allen Lane? This had intrigued me for some time, so I got to work unearthing the details. It was an interesting journey, to say the least.

The story actually starts in Britain, during the second decade of the 20th century, with two high school going brothers Richard and Allen Williams, the latter being the older one by 3 years. The elder who had some aversion to sports, got involved in various kinds of mischief as the younger took to cricket. They were nephews of John Lane Senior who owned a reputed book firm named Bodley Head (named after Sir Thomas Bodley), which had been publishing among others, Oscar Wilde since 1887.

John Lane had a falling out with his partner Elkin Mathew and after the split, retained the name Bodley Head and moved to Piccadilly. In 1918, Allen was asked if he wanted to join his ageing 63 year old uncle in the book business. Allen was not sure if chasing and bedding girls were his passion or books. As the legend goes, he chose the latter and became Lane’s apprentice, office boy and dogsbody (a person who is given boring, menial tasks to do). There was one condition attached, that Allen had to change his surname to Lane from Williams which he did and soon after, and the 16 year old boy was at work at the Vigo St in London.

Richard moved to Australia to learn fruit drying and later joined the British armed forces there. By now, it was 1921 and Allen was not too enthusiastic with the way his life was going though he found opportunities to hobnob with high society, cultivating relationships with a large number of high level dignitaries and popular writers. Soon enough, he leapt up the ranks to become a member of the Bodley Head board and not much later, the company secretary.

But matters were however, soon to go south in the publishing scene. His uncle John Lane died of pneumonia in 1925 and in 1926, and Richard Lane came back from Australia. Publishing and financial problems occurred one after the other and Allen was in no end of trouble. But Allen’s desire to become big in the book world remained paramount, Richard became an editor in the family firm as Allen became the CEO as the third brother John joined to look after overseas exports.

But how did Krishna Menon from Calicut land up in the midst of these hyperactive brothers? Menon, after attending schools in Calicut, continued at the Zamorin’s college and then the Presidency College - Madras majoring in History and economics. Madras Law College was next, during which he got involved with the Theosophical movement of Annie Besant. In 1924, she sponsored his trip to Britain, for six months of further studies and to secure a teaching diploma. That 6 month plan extended for all of 26 years after Menon completed a teaching assignment at Hertfordshire. Menon then applied to the LSE and as fate would dictate, met Harold Laski. Laski would go on to introduce him to many labor party leaders in Britain as well as eminent writers and intellectuals. Menon also started to work in right earnest for the India league. He continued with his LSE studies obtaining a bachelors (studying at night) and two master’s degrees (his PhD application was not accepted as he was considered a disruptive student) and attended the Middle temple bar. Influenced by the freedom movement, he published numerous articles and leaflets and spoke at length at many meetings distinguishing himself as a fiery orator. He also got involved in British domestic politics as a labor party member.

Sheila Grant Duff the eminent journalist found him an impressive and rather frightening figure. She remarked in her memoirs that the Menon of those days appeared as if he had stepped out of the tomb of Tutankhamen, saturnine, emaciated and limping heavily on a tall walking stick. Other accounts show that he also had this disconcerting habit of announcing his own imminent death.

From here on, we start to notice an inconsistency in the various accounts relating to Menon’s association with the Lane brothers. We will see that Lane first admitted to a working partnership with the bookish Menon, but later changed his stance deciding to corner all glory for himself and scoff at Menon’s involvement in his business. Anyway let us find out how the matters actually progressed.

Lane biographer Jeremy Lewis records – When Lane got to meet Menon, he was a penniless agitator
and pamphleteer living off tea, potatoes and two-penny buns in a garret off Gray’s inn at near St Pancras. Menon was dallying around with India league matters but also had to earn a living and that is how he secured an editor’s position at Bodely Head. Ronald Boswell, Bodley Head’s director hired the serious minded, socialist leaning and serious looking V.K. Krishna Menon to work on a nonfiction series. Menon was what they called a ‘lightning fast reader’, who could finish a detective book in under an hour (In comparison his then colleague Allen Lane hardly read any book, but then Lane was the one who had the family connections).

From 1932 to 1936, V. K. Krishna Menon worked as an editor at the Bodley Head, launching a series called the Twentieth Century Library, which in the words of The Times, still provides ‘an intellectual thrill’, included authors like Eric Gill, J. A. Hobson, Noel Carrington, Norman Bentwich, Raymond W. Postgate, Naomi Mitchison, H. L. Beales, J. H. Drieberg, Theodore Komisarjevsky, David Glass, M. A. Abrahams, Ralph Fox and Winifred Holtby. He also edited another list named Topical Books working for Walter Hutchinson at Selwyn Blount which listed authors like Michael Foot, George Lansbury and Ellen Wilkinson.

It was during the Bodley Head phase and with Duff’s support that Menon’s path crossed with somebody who was to become a great player in world affairs and Independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (they had casual meetings twice before). Nehru had just completed his autobiography while in a British jail and was looking to get it published in Britain.

In November 1935 Nehru met Menon the then Secretary of the India League in London and found him to be able and earnest, but with the virtues and failings of an intellectual. Menon was highly thought of in left-wing labor circles of London and Menon, assisted by Duff, took care of much of Nehru’s arrangements during that visit. 

Nehru had originally planned to get his book published by Unwin based on CF Andrew’s recommendation, but was very unhappy with the protracted discussions, the amount of editing done and the meagre terms offered. Menon dissuaded him from working with Unwin and persuaded Lane at Bodley Head to publish it. Stanley Wolpert explains that Lane quickly agreed to publish Nehru after meeting him in 1935 over a lunch and after reading the draft over a week’s period. Nehru was quite wary about presentation of his book for publication and had a lengthy correspondence with Menon before it came out to a resounding success.

Late in 1935, Bodley Head went into liquidation, and the following year it was bought by a consortium of the publishers George Allen & Unwin Ltd, Jonathan Cape, and J. M. Dent. Nehru who had not been paid his royalty in full, was recommended by Menon and others to sue Lane and the new owners, but he did not and finally a part of the remaining royalties as per British bankruptcy law (a solatium) was eventually paid by Unwin. Unwin says that he was originally a little wary about publishing Nehru’s book as he was not sure if the British Government would approve it, but later noted the irony saying that his deal would have proved better, financially.  

In the literary world, the market was getting tough and book prices were falling, Seven shillings and sixpence for a hardbound was too much for most people. With a new business plan of mass publishing of 20,000 copies per book to break even, the Lane’s decided on publishing a set of reprints as paperbacks priced at 6 pennies per book and to build a stock of 200,000 books. After toying with names like Dolphin Books and Porpoise Books, the team settled on Penguin Books and a young Bodley Head artist called Edward Young was sent off to London Zoo to sketch the birds and came up with the engaging logo. Ten out-of-copyright novels, short stories, and poetry collections were released simultaneously and sold at the low cost of six pence each, which is the equivalent of around $1 to $2 in modern currency.

By 1936, Penguin was incorporated on its own. There were three types of Penguin’s: novels, in orange and white jackets; detective stories, in green and white; and popular biographies, in blue and white. Booksellers were initially alarmed, and the brothers struggled to get an order for 70,000 copies against the budget of 200,000.

After a slow and agonizing start, buyers soon got to like what they saw and the order books swelled. In no time, sales soared and a Penguin got sold every 10 seconds. The brothers stockpiled books in the crypt of the nearby Holy Trinity church to deal with the deliveries! Within a year they had sold 6 million books and new authors were added to the list. George Orwell wryly commented, "The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them." George Bernard Shaw said, "If a book is any good, the cheaper the better." The successful brothers purchased a yacht. Allen’s book empire foundations had been laid.

It was in 1936 that Lane got the idea of starting the non-fiction Pelican series. Menon suggested that not only do the Lane’s do reprints, but also publish original works of famous authors. Krishna Menon lined up an impressive number of contacts, not only in the political but also in the educational world with his contacts. He was the one who introduced some of his influential acquaintances and friends to the Lanes.

Among these were the broadcaster and secretary of the British Institute of Adult Education, W. E. Williams, and H. L. Beales, LSE faculty member. They agreed that the books envisioned by Krishna Menon would be useful, promising their support. This is how the Pelican series came into existence. Krishna Menon became its general editor. The first title released was GB Shaw’s Intelligent Woman’s guide to socialism, capitalism, Sovietism and fascism, with Menon’s support. According to Madhavan Kutty, Shaw’s book never left Menon’s side till his death.

As Lengyl records - The early titles of the Pelicans reflected Krishna Menon's eclectic tastes. They included a reprint of one of his favorite books by Elie Halevy, A History of the English People; Julian Huxley's Essays in Popular Science; Vision and Design, by the English painter and critic Roger Eliot Fry; Social Life in the Insect World, by Jean-Henri Fabre, the French entomologist; The Mysterious Universe, by Sir James Jeans; Literary Taste, by Arnold Bennett; and Civilization, by Clive Bell, the art and literary critic. Subsequent volumes included works by Harold Laski, Krishna Menon's idol; the unbelievably prolific H. G. Wells; Harold Nicolson, famed as a diplomat and author; Sir Norman Angell, Nobel Prize laureate; and Wickham Steed.

By this time the Axis powers were throwing their weight around in the world Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, and the war lords' Japan. Krishna Menon waged his own cold war against them as the editor of the Pelicans. He published reprints of Blackmail or War?, by the "French Cassandra," Genevieve Tabouis, and Edgar Ansel Mowrer's Germany Puts the Clock Back.

Towards the fall of 1938, we see turbulence in the relationship between Lane and Menon and both seem to be complaining about each other. Lane arguing that Menon had not updated him on the progress with second list of books and Menon stating that Lane had not updated him on contractual negotiations with the authors. Lengyl opines – The unbusinesslike Krishna Menon had no contract with the businesslike Lanes, and so their cooperation faded into a dense cloud of misunderstandings.

There was perhaps another matter troubling Lane, as the British government had by that time started tracking Menon and labeled him as a communist sympathizer. We get a hint of it from Ethel Mannin’s later outburst to Lane that two of Lane’s editors John Lehmann and Krishna Menon ‘were communist’ and therefore Lane was also one by association. Perhaps the businessman in Lane was alarmed, even though he was also considered to be often leaning to the left.

What happened next was a confrontation in a Soho restaurant. Lewis narrates the event that took place, thus – The truth of the matter was that Lane, mercurial and easily bored found the austere and unconvivial Menon a far from kindred spirit and was happy to freeze him out. Menon lectured him for an hour in a Soho restaurant and Lane who could neither hear nor understand what Menon was trying to say, finally lost patience and called him a bottleneck, at which Menon stormed out in a rage. Menon, ill, undernourished and overworked, felt bruised and isolated. As Morpurgo emphasizes, there was no overt act of dismissal, instead he was eliminated by being ignored, his note unanswered, his editorial suggestions disdained.

As Menon was still continuing to spar with the Lane’s through his lawyer complaining about delays in replies and Lane’s inaction, Lane himself went away on a pleasure tour to India while his attorney Dick formally terminated Menon’s relationship with Pelican, paying him just GBP 125. Ironically Menon’s lawyer walked away with that money and characteristically, Menon forgave him stating that the man after all, had a wife and child, so perhaps had a greater need for the money. Lane on the other hand hobnobbed with Nehru in Delhi, spent a lot of money meeting bigwigs and maharajas and professed (or appeared to) shock at the bad conditions in India. Williams, the person Menon had brought in, took the ‘Allen’s favorite ‘position from then on and soon enough he and Lane became thick friends.

Thus ended the relationship between Lane and Menon. They did not part friends and Lane remained one among Menon’s bitter enemies. While Lane always remembered Menon with great animosity, Menon graduated to higher ground stating years later that he was always the first to read every Pelican released, even after leaving the firm. In the case of Lane, it was not so, Tony Godwin states that the mere mention of Menon’s name made Lane’s voice seethe with venom and that it gave him goose pimples just to see ‘that amount of animosity’ in another! Perhaps there was more to the enmity, we may find out some day….

When Lane visited India in 1938, he discovered that the Pelicans outsold Penguins in India, understanding that escapist literature was not fodder for the poor Indian student and he preferred to spend it on solid books which would help him secure a better life. Did Menon know this small fact? Perhaps not, but it would have gladdened him, for that was his always mission.

Lane’s biographer Stuart Kells on the other hand believes that Menon famously came to dislike anybody who reminded him of Allen, after this event: and that included English publishers, Englishmen, English speakers, Europeans and whites. Anyway as Lane’s fortunes surged, so did Menon’s. After the event, Menon wanted to start a publishing house and printing press at Calicut as well as a Malayalam newspaper according to Janaki Ram, but the idea never took off. He of course, went on to become the Indian High commissioner in London, a confidante of Nehru, a cabinet minister and all that…

Lane did well for a time, his decision to publish Lady Chatterley's Lover brought him acclaim and riches, as well as paving the way for a permissive society. On 1st July 2013 Penguin and Random House officially united to create Penguin Random House, the world's first truly global trade book publisher. The penguin series flourished and the Pelican series continued on till 1990 after which it was disbanded. It was revitalized, to take flight again in 2014.


Penguin and the Lane Brothers: The Untold Story of a Publishing Revolution - Stuart Kells
Allen lane – King Penguin – J E Morpurgo
An eventful chapter in Anglo US Publishing history – Victor Wheybright
Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: The Story of Indians in Britain 1700-1947 - Rozina Visram
The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing - André Schiffrin
Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane - Jeremy Lewis
Krishna Menon - Emil Lengyel
A History of Cultural Studies - John Hartley
Nehru – A tryst with destiny – Stanley Wolpert

  1. The spin of Lane dreaming up the Penguin idea - The story goes that in 1934 Lane was returning by train from a weekend visit to Agatha Christie in Devon. He found himself on the platform of Exeter station and was not able to find any book worth reading. While travelling back to London he had the idea of producing good quality literature which could be cheap enough for a larger public to be able to buy, and could, perhaps be sold from a vending machine. He thought sixpence (the cost of a packet of ten cigarettes at the time) would be the right price at which to pitch the books. He broached this subject to his brothers and they agreed. This is a corporate story which people who have studied and written about tend to disbelieve since lane was not much of a reader. As they say the lie uttered often becomes a truth, for Lane many years later, when scoffing at Menon mentions vaguely of seeing a girl at Exeter or San Pancras station asking for Pelican books instead of using the term Penguin and that was how Pelicans were born!
  2.  R K Laxman states in 2004 - ‎Particular mention here must be made of Morarji Desai and V.K. Krishna Menon for sparing no effort to help me gain some modest success and popularity in my career – That was a surprise I got during all this research.
  3.  Menon and Freudian slip – The 1938 Pelican book advertisement on Freud’s book Psychopathology of Everyday life asks – Why do you forget things you ought to remember? Make slips of the tongue, of the pen? Do things you didn’t mean?.. It was perhaps this advertisement that brought in the usage Freudian slip to everyday conversation. One could attribute it to Pelican, Allen Lane or…for that matter Krishna Menon…You decide
  4. Wheybright who later suffered in similar fashion under Lane, recounts an event when Menon came rushing into the crypt stating that he had secured GB Shaw’s approval in publishing Shaw’s book as a Penguin. Lane who had a brainwave of starting the Pelican series after hearing the aforesaid woman’s mis-remark, decided to publish Shaw’s book as a Pelican instead (after arguments with Menon who said it may not be quite sound legally).
  5. It is also believed that Lane fought with Menon after Menon tricked him into publishing EM Forster’s ‘Passage to India’. But that does not sound right for ‘A Passage to India’ was published on 4 June 1924 by the British imprint Edward Arnold, and then on 14 August in New York by Harcourt, Brace and Co. Even if indeed a Penguin classics reprint was made in the late 30’s or early 40’s, the content of the book was well known to the public already!


Who achieved greatness, Menon or Lane?

Krishna Menon, the idealist, fared badly in the fickle public’s eyes– as the Times obituary said – A remarkable but unlikeable man who worked untiringly all his life for his country, yet never received a nation’s gratitude.

Allen Lane – Like most great leaders, Allen was a myth maker. Many of his myths were about himself, some were almost true, some close to being downright lies, and not a few half-truths made entirely because he had come to believe them. (JE Morpurgo- The King and I - Blackwoods magazine 1979).

Allen lane – courtesy Guardian UK, most others Wikipedia and Google images…thanks to the photographers and with due acknowledgment