Penguin Specials – because we’ve been here before on so many contemporary issues

TL:DR – Look through the list, pick one you like, go onto Abebooks (or anywhere else for that matter), find a cheapo version that costs less than the postage, buy it, read it, tweet/blog about it, give it to a local charity shop.

This post stems from a Lost Cambridge piece on how old books can inform our thinking on politics and current affairs. In my previous blogpost I uploaded some screengrabs of examples of books published by the three national parties that go into a level of depth and breadth that their successors today would struggle to get anywhere near. Spending a little more time going through their Penguin Specials list, there are more than a few titles that make me wonder how much history the current policy makers are aware of in their chosen fields.

The run up to WWII

Penguin started producing a host of books that were coming out of their ears, briefing the public on what was going on using a range of different authors. The first page of their Penguin Specials list has some ***huge*** names. One that particularly shocked me – and reminded me of the diversity of political views at the time, was this one by Londonderry.

A reminder that there were senior politicians who were sympathetic to fascism, and others for communism in the 1930s. Londonderry was a very senior Conservative – serving in numerous ministerial posts including Leader of the Lords and Secretary of State for the Air (i.e. RAF). Not surprisingly, it was panned by his opponents. Despite the cheers on Prime Minister Chamberlain’s return with high hopes that he had averted war, a simple search through the British Newspaper Archive (free to access from public libraries & subscribing universities, otherwise requires £sub) shows there was huge anger at the price paid by Czechslovakia.

Refugees and tabloid hatred

It’s not hard to guess which print paper available today was also publishing anti-refugee articles and headlines in the 1930s – so much so that Punch, the political and literary magazine lampooned the publication’s proprietor for supporting the dictators.

At the time, Britain dominated the Mediterranean with one of the most powerful fleets in the world. This was to protect its shipping lanes that linked the UK to its Empire in India and the Far East via Suez. Malta, Alexandria, and Gibraltar were the three principal naval fortresses – Malta going on to prove to be an unsinkable aircraft carrier.

Does this look familiar? Such was the tabloid hatred that one Lost Cambridge Hero stood up to be counted. Dorothy Buxton – the younger sister of Eglantyne Jebb of Save the Children fame, co-authored this book only a few years after flying over to Germany and telling Goering to his face what a fascist scumball he was. How we could do with someone of her calibre today.

They even arranged with the Government to publish documents relating to Britain’s entry into WW2. Given the continual referral to WW2 by politicians and talking heads on Brexit and CV19 (see this from y’day), this publication contrasts with both the poor evidence base and the reluctance of ministers to come clean as to why they are pressing ahead with the former policy.

Planning for the post-war years while the fighting continues

It’s easy to take such things like family allowances for granted today, but someone had to fight for them. Eleanor Rathbone MP secured the passage into law of family allowances despite being an independent MP, demonstrating that membership of a political party was not a prerequisite of securing improvements in public services & the law.

And what about young people? They had that covered too. And in wartime, they also couldn’t afford to be squeamish about things that offended the religious clerics. In WWI an estimated two divisions were unavailable for the front having been invalided out having contracted STDs. One of those hospitals set up to treat those soldiers was in Cambridge – in my neighbourhood!

As someone who had been assailed from all sides over her affair with H.G. Wells, I can’t blame Lost Cambridge hero Amber Blanco White for writing this book in 1948 who not surprisingly goes after the religious authorities – and not just on sexual morality. What’s also striking is her coverage of philosophical and religious traditions outside of Christianity & religions of the book. It’s also worth noting that many books debating various religious points were also published throughout this period, as well as trying to work out how to deal with communism. With the political parties, they were invited to make their cases.

Both political parties and religious writers tried to deal with communism and the communists. Remember that throughout WWII, the USSR were allies and as a result the continued and extended propaganda reflected this. For the political opponents of communism, turning this around is not something that was going to happen overnight.

The popularity of the Communist Party of Great Britain peaked in 1945 – the party was once led by Cambridge-born R Palme Dutt (his parents, Dr Upendra and Anne Palme Dutt were one of the greatest married couples to serve Cambridge town, with Dr Dutt’s general practice still serving local residents on Mill Road to this very day. At an international level, the following two ideas were prominent:

One never got off the ground, the other… it turned out that the phrase “United States of Europe” was one that mobilised opponents of moves towards political and monetary union. Note that a global union was definitely not a new idea. It was one that gained ground during and shortly after the First World War – one of the most prominent campaigners being Lella Secor Florence, an American internationalist and social reformer who arrived in Cambridge in the 1920s, in which time she became a prominent activist with the Cambridge Labour Party.

Above – Lella Secor Florence (L) in her early 20s, and (R) with pro-world democracy campaigners in New York. From Lella Secor, a diary in letters.

One of the most influential books ever published: Association Football – rules of the game

It wouldn’t be until the 1970s that Black players became a regular feature at First Division football matches – accompanied sadly by the rise of racism on the terraces. It wasn’t until 1978 that the ban on foreign football players was lifted – as a result of the UK joining the EU. (Will new restrictions come in from 2021 when the UK leaves?). In 1958 – at the cusp of a revolution in football (kicked off by Jimmy Hill’s successful campaign to get the maximum wage cap removed), penguin published this book on the history of the Football League. Founded in 1888, the missing seasons are mainly due to the cancelling of the footballing calendar due to the demands of war in both world wars.

Jobs and housing – in particular access to council housing at a time when successive governments struggled with both were often used by unscrupulous politicians to divide communities and societies. The themes kept on recurring throughout history – Irish immigration, and Jewish Immigration due to the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the 19thC, through to immigration from the former colonies, through to the early 21st Century when Eastern European migrants were and still are targeted. Not surprisingly, the drip-drip coverage from tabloids combined with a ruthless exploitation by pro-leave politicians (and an utter failure by those leading the pro-Remain campaign) led to the reversal of the UK’s entry into the EU.

Not surprisingly, town planning was a major theme after both world wars. House building slowed down, and especially after WWII, homelessness was a huge problem, with over a million people homeless due to air raids. Penguin produced a number of books introducing town and urban planning to the general public. Something we could do with repeating today?

It wasn’t just houses – it was the rise of the motor car that was causing big problems too.

The Plowden book is an incredible read as it takes the reader through the history of motoring in the context of public policy. (The author being an adviser to Prime Minister Edward Heath).

“But stuff is still wrong!”

It was still wrong in the 1960s.

How would all of these read today? And what other powerful institutions could do with being looked at systematically if this series was repeated?

It’s not simply a case of calling for a refresh and reprint of the above books.

Recall at the start I typed:

Look through the list, pick one you like, go onto Abebooks (or anywhere else for that matter), find a cheapo version that costs less than the postage, buy it, read it, tweet/blog about it, give it to a local charity shop.

All of the examples I have given (the images are all from the Penguin First Editions Website which is an incredible resource, so credit to the person/team behind it) reflect the state of current affairs, domestic and world politics of the times. Some regimes are long gone (Apartheid South Africa), others have evolved. Some wars have faded into the distant memory, some are still going. Will future generations be talking of a 100 years war in the Middle East? It’s been over 70 years since the outbreak of the first Arab-Israeli war.

In the meantime, new problems have emerged. The House of Lords’ Communication Committee published its report on the Future of Journalism in an age of systematic, blatant, and deliberate disinformation campaigns by politicians that are fanned by independent actors and big tech/media corporations alike – with no one either in control of the consequences, or willing and able to stop them. There’s little coverage of the environment in the context of political environmentalism.

Pelican by Penguin does have a series going – it’s just much more limited in range, and much more low profile

Have a look at – it’s a shame there are only 40 titles in that series. I wouldn’t know where to start with persuading them to bring back the series to its former high public profile. Is it even possible in the internet era? How do we avoid some of the election campaigns that have been so light on policy and genuine debate given the scale of the problems we face?

One other club that relaunched a few years ago was the Left Book Club, originally dating from the 1930s. The AbeBooks website returns over 900 hits when the search terms for the club and the publisher behind it (Gollancz) are input. Some are repeat titles, so it’s not 900 different ones. In the meantime, used books published by the Fabian Society date back to the late 1800s. (The rare ones are not cheap). Their back catalogue has actually been digitised and made available for free by the LSE here. Anything that catches your eye that might be worth re-publishing?

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