Allen Williams adopted his uncle’s surname of Lane when he became involved in the family business of publishing. John Lane was one of the founders of Bodley Head publishing whose stable of high profile writers included Oscar Wilde though Oscar fell out of favour with the Lanes when he seduced one of their office boys.
“He rose quickly in the business becoming managing editor in 1925 following the death of his uncle. After conflict with the board of directors who were wary of publishing James Joyce’s controversial book Ulysses, Lane left in 1936 to set up Penguin Books. The legend goes that on a train journey back from visiting Agatha Christie in 1934, Lane found himself on an Exeter station platform with nothing available worth reading. He conceived of paperback editions of literature of proven quality which would be cheap enough to be sold from a vending machine; the first was set up in Charing Cross Road and dubbed the “Penguincubator”.
Lane soon became as much of a British institution as the BBC and was often referred to as a modern day Gutenberg. Early company meetings were held in a favourite Spanish restaurant with plenty of wine to accompany them. One visitor was shocked to discover an editorial meeting taking place on a rowboat, the staff dipping into gin as steadily as the oars did into the water.
In 1937, Penguin moved its office to Middlesex; the property cost £2000 plus an additional £200 for the crop of cabbages that were growing there. The staff first had to pick their way through the cabbages which Lane then sold at markets.
In 1960, Lane once again became the champion of free speech when he decided to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The trial for obscenity was decided by Mervyn Griffith-Jones, who, when asked how he would decide whether or not to prosecute, answered, “I’ll put my feet up on the desk and start reading. If I get an erection, we prosecute.”