gin and cabbages

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.


Published in: on October 31, 2010 at 5:52 am  Comments (36)  
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36 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. an erection test? that wood be hard to argue with…

    • It certainly wood!

  2. I’d like to see book vending machines at all train stations.

    • Instead we just have newsagents selling tabloid fodder 😦

  3. I’ve often wondered at which page the old boy popped up.The judge, not Alan Lane.

    • I read it when I was quite young. Don’t remember thinking it was very erotic at all. Maybe I need to reread it sometime

      • Yes, I was young when I first read it.Read it again in my 20s.Still didn’t think it was “naughty.”

  4. A softcore movie director called Just Jaeckin…..that’s almost too good to be true.

    • So is this line from the movie: “Love between couples should be outlawed. Every act of love must include a third person.”


  5. okay, but how do the penguins publish their books with only two non-flyable, flipper wings? i’m amazed.

    • They are very very clever birds

  6. That’s an editorial meeting that any self-respecting publisher would love. Florida seems ripe for it. Our boys should contact the Penguin boys.

    • all our hospital meetings revolve around gin

  7. Ah, Lady C. I remember the trial well, even though I was only 1…..ahem. The chief benefit of the book (which was quickly passed amongst us by Norman Bamford, the best pages identified with paper clips) was thought to be as a seduction tool for the pupils at the local Grammar School for Girls. Alas, we got that VERY wrong. WE, at the boys school, had mostly only heard rumours of what lay beneath (unless one had a sister. In which case, it had mostly put one off such things). THEY, of course, had seen plenty of CT&As, and were only interested in the book’s literary value. Which wasn’t much.

    • So I shouldn’t bother to reread it?

  8. Problem is one guys erection is another guys indifference.

    • Hmmm…. interesting

  9. So the prosecutor was gay, then?

  10. If that prosecutor was around for Corset Fridays he’d be filing charges real easy. Maybe twice or three times a day even.

    • Are you a three times a day man RF? how about we split the airfare?

  11. Penguin may not have the superb catalogue it once had but I found that battered old Penguin editions got me through times of no money…

    The trial was about the horrifying idea that the great unwashed could read Lady Chatterley without having to go to Paris to get an expensive English language edition.

    Griffith-Jones was a fossil He got ridiculed for his comment “Is it a book you would wish your wife or servants to read”… Idiot.

    • I knew he was involved in several high profile cases but I’d never heard that quote before.

  12. I didn’t find it horribly erotic either, but to each his own. 🙂 And I love the idea of book vending machines.

  13. Kind of off topic for the book discussion you have going on here now Nurse Myra but thanks to your keen observation I just finished writing up a little post in honour of Harry Houdini on the anniversary of his death.

    Thanks for the nudge, I even mentioned you in the post.

  14. I am Malach and I am Oscar Wilde

  15. The most startling thing is that the trial was in 1960 – I’d imagined it was much earlier.

    • Me too…. 1960 seems very recent for that sort of thing

  16. Ha, I wish all such legal decisions were made that way.

  17. i have a feeling some people get an erection everytime they put their feet on the desk, especially if they wear open-toes shoes, so it’s not a fair standard for pornography.

    • Putting my feet on the desk gives my legs some elevation. Haven’t really got the right equipment for an erection… but it might get a result with my male coworkers 😉

      • The claim that putting up your feet is synonymous with erections is simply not true. Sure there are some outliers but my personal data does not support this claim. I require a little imagination or a the correct attention from the correct person. Desks and feet rarely have a place in the equation (rarely).

  18. Lady Chatterly is anything but obscene. I watched the film adaptations as a teenage boy and…..well………ha, ha!

  19. Now that’s the sort of trial that would make for fine television, wouldn’t you say? 🙂

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