Saturday, 5 June 2010

Lady Watership's Odyssey

It's unlikely that you would have asked, but no, I couldn't have told you which were the three best-selling post-war Penguin titles.

But according to Phil Baines' Puffin by Design: 70 Years of Imagination 1940-2010, the immediate post-war best-seller was Homer's Odyssey, in its superb and unsurpassed translation by E.V.Rieu. In 1960, following a sensational obscenity trial, the Odyssey was knocked off its column by D.H.Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. Its hero Mellors continued to give the profession of gamekeeping a certain dark nudge-nudge cachet until something came lolloping along that gamekeepers ought to have been attending to instead of debauching aristos (not that Lady C. needed to be tied down): rabbits. In 1970 Richard Adams' Watership Down, another Odyssey in its way, topped the Penguin charts.

Or rather Puffin charts; it's the same company. I was as surprised to learn this as I was to discover that Watership Down was the very same hill between Winchester and Newbury on which I became engaged on a sunny June Sunday in 1969. This must have been just at the time when Richard Adams was starting his collection of 13 rejection slips before a company called Rex Collings, and subsequently Puffin, took it on.

Puffin by Design: 70 Years of Imagination 1940-2010 (I ordered it though Davazon) is a delight. It has echoes of This is Your Life combined with a visit to the National Portrait Gallery: a constant stream of old friends and acquaintances, some deeply loved, some liked, some best kept at a distance, some merely tolerated, some you would have liked to make friends with but somehow never managed to. Puffin by Design is really a notated compendium of the covers from the period, covers that jump out at you saying -

Remember me? You used to read me aloud to Primary 7 (James Vance Marshall's Walkabout), or

You lent me to P. who never gave it back (Jenifer Wayne's The Day the Ceiling Fell Down), or

You left me out all night and I never recovered (Kathleen Hale's Orlando the Marmalade Cat's Evening Out), or

You accidentally dropped me overboard when going about in Salhouse Broad (Arthur Ransome's The Big Six), or

We never met. Your kids knew us well, but somehow you never got round to saying hello (Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series).

Of all the Puffin books that fed my and my children's imaginations in the great post-war heyday of children's literature, only two remain on our bookshelves. The kids took nearly all their books with them in the gradual process of leaving home, but there's one orphan left behind in our shelves; the last of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe series:

And one I've kept since childhood, a book that made such a deep impression on me that it featured in my novel The Night Music.

So if you've been wondering where I've been all this week, I've been having orgies. Orgies of literary nostalgia.


Rog said...

Puffin covers are very evocative aren't they?

I always thought that "How to give up Smoking" should have been a Puffin title.

moreidlethoughts said...

I love your quirky title! And what a rush of nostalgia these books(and others) are.Some I have, most I have read and dammit! many I'm going to haunt the library for!

Cynthia said...

My Penguin paperbacks of "Sons and Lovers" (five shillings) and "Women in Love" (six shillings) are among the few souvenirs of my college years (1965-1969) that I have kept, and still treasure. I did not know that Puffin = Penguin; thanks, as always, for providing such nuggets of esoteric information for your faithful readers!

Dave said...

I am back now.

Christopher said...

Rog: Other forgotten Puffin' titles include Stig of the Hookah, How To Tell The Time With A Dandelion Clock and James Thurber's The 13 Flights of Stairs and the Wonderful O.

MIT: Haunt away!

Cynthia: Always a joy to see you here.

Dave: So I see, ditto, ditto. Welcome back! Everyone has behaved exceptionally well during your absence, no doubt because of your announced intention to pull any delinquent's head off and make him/her swallow it.

I, Like The View said...

ah, one of my favourite subjects. . .

. . .book covers


I was sorely tempted to purchase this book the other day. . .

. . .but what about Pan covers?

Christopher said...

Which book, Jax?

- and yes, Pan covers I used to find probably more inviting than Puffin ones: I'm thinking of all the war books (The Colditz Story, The Dambusters, Escape or Die, The Wooden Horse, etc) that were red meat to a 12-y-o, and then all those Agatha Christie books with curiously unsensational covers. And there was a great satisfaction in having the spines lined up together on one's shelves...

mig said...

I loved the Lancelyn Green book. I wondered sometimes if he was a relative of Lancelot.
Your list of books' reminders to you sound almost like potential novel titles : ) I'd certainly be tempted to buy a book called you left me out all night and i never recovered

I, Like The View said...

Puffin By Design!

(one of my favourites, alongside Stig of the Dump, is Serraillier's The Silver Sword) (oh, and Walter de la Mare's - oh, can't remember which one. . .)(oh, and how about Dr Zhivago. . . this one)

Christopher said...

*slaps head at unbelievable cretinity*

If you do I hope you enjoy it very much, Jax. I found every page endorsed the very superior taste, imagination, intelligence (h'm) and energetic open-mindedness of our generation. There are some curious omissions, though, maybe something to do with copyright - Susan Cooper, Ian Serraillier (as you say), William Mayne, Leon Garfield etc.

Dr Zhivago = Mondriaan? - but due to advanced cretinity can't see much connection.

Christopher said...

Mig: I shall add it to my To Write list. Thank you.

I, Like The View said...

I'm flattered that you consider me to be one of "our generation"


dinahmow said...

That's what I was going to say, Jax!
Were Fontana paperbacks available in England? They were (in post-war NZ) about sixpence cheaper than Pan.But Pan scooped the big names.