Professor Alistair McCleery, ‘Postcolonial Penguins 1935-1972’

While Alistair McCleery’s talk was titled “Postcolonial Penguins,” his discussion extended far beyond the nuances of the book trade and into areas such as book historical theory and international politics. At the outset, he explained that his research stemmed from two sources of interest, one professional and one personal. His professional interest, he recounted, was based in a desire for book historians to work harder at finding patterns and models rather than sticking to the kind of case study tradition he has observed for many years. Professor McCleery gave a brief explanation of the British publishing structures post-World War II, and why things changed so dramatically in the world of books at that time. Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, in the aftermath of the war, opened satellite branches all over the world. These wholly-owned overseas branches grew and grew until some locations began to devolve based on further development of local communities and new international involvement in publishing.

The resulting pattern, McCleery argued, followed a very similar arc to the five-stage theory of global economics, but in publishing only three distinct stages can be identified. Essentially, the transition from colonial to postcolonial gives way to globalisation. Foreign-owned branches of certain publishers were integrated more and more into local economies until those locals began publishing their own works. This continued until there was a full back-and-forth book exchange, a globalised trade. By the 1960s and 1970s, UK publishing firms began to outsource production, for example some manufacturing was moved to eastern Europe. As a product of this, there were sometimes black market or bootleg books produced, a topic that lies on the periphery of Professor McCleery’s research, but was nonetheless a fascinating part of his talk.

Next, Professor McCleery went on to explain how he has been trying to apply his findings on Penguin to other firms, to track a web of patterns across agencies like Longman’s and other popular publishers. He explained that Longman’s actually did have an experience that was quite confirmatory to his other research. In Nigeria during the independence period, Longman’s was taken over by local groups and a good deal of new literature was published. Longman’s did eventually take the branch back over for 100%, but the point Professor McCleery was making was that there is much more to be studied and accounted for.

Moving away from his professional interests and into his personal impulse to study Penguin, we were granted an inside look into the role of Penguin books in mid-century schooling and upbringing. In Professor McCleery’s words, there is no way to overstate the cultural relevance of Penguins for people who grew up between 1950 and 1980. There was a huge push toward self-education in those years, and Penguin took this mission on as a fundamental part of their company. The red-spined Penguin Specials and black-spined Classics were just two examples of the precisely categorized library of opportunities that Penguin provided. The founders of the company had decided from the beginning that accessibility was one of their key tenets.

Speaking of Penguin’s beginnings, Professor McCleery also gave a comprehensive outline of the company’s first years. From its inception in 1937 as a way for informally educated citizens to self-teach, through the massive increase of readership during the war, Penguin balanced the cultural, educational, and commercial with perfection. Readership in India in Penguin’s first decade was huge, the culture of self-improvement in the country was massive. Likewise, in the early 1950s, reading had expanded immensely, and identifying the new market, Penguin established the African Series. It was later taken over by the Penguin African Library. The reason Penguin was so successful abroad relative to Oxford and Cambridge University Presses was that Penguin was dominating the market of informal education — University Presses were too focused on formal structures. Through the next decades, Penguin established branches in Australia, New Zealand, and many other places.

Ultimately, Professor McCleery explained that his research is ongoing, and that he hopes more scholars take an interest in these types of book historical theories. His expertise was clear and his insights were keen. The issues attached to research like Professor McCleery’s reaches beyond the field of book history, however, and the establishment of international publishing branches has been subject to matters like war, political tensions, and the like. There is very apparently much more to be said about postcolonial Penguins and their contemporaries, but this seminar was a fantastic way to introduce us to the topic.

Professor Alistair McCleery is Director of the Scottish Centre for the Book at Edinburgh Napier University. The Centre carries out work that informs policy related to authorship, reading and publishing.

Report by Robyn Pritzker, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the Centre for the History of the Book, University of Edinburgh.

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