King Penguin, 80 years on: Interview with Clare Morpurgo – daughter of paperback pioneer Sir Allen Lane

The founder of Penguin books was difficult, mercurial and as smart as his book jackets, recalls his daughter, Clare Morpurgo, as the imprint turns 80.

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Clare Morpurgo seems to have spent her entire life bumping into literary titans. There was her first meeting with Michael Morpurgo – author of War Horse and more than 100 other books, former Children’s Laureate and her husband of 52 years.

The holiday romance in Corfu started with a Romeo and Juliet-style encounter at her window. Clare, ready for bed and in her nightie, was told by the hotel owner that the son of a family friend was outside waiting to see her. “So I went out on to this balcony – and there on this rubbish heap was standing this lovely young man.”

Then there was her close friendship with Ted Hughes. Having set up home in Devon in 1974, the Morpurgos were walking down the river “and this man sort of loomed out towards us. We recognised him straight away”. They were firm friends until the poet’s death.

Perhaps there is some kind of bookish stardust that follows the 73-year-old around. Although she says most people nowadays have little idea – “unless they are in publishing and quite elderly” – she is of course part of Britain’s literary royalty, as eldest daughter of Sir Allen Lane, the man who founded Penguin Books 80 years ago.

The story has become folklore: after a weekend visiting Agatha Christie (later the godmother to Clare’s sister), Lane found himself on a platform at Exeter station perusing its bookstall. Appalled by the selection, he decided that top-quality fiction should be made available in paperback at the price of a packet of cigarettes.

Lots of children have autograph books, but few have theirs filled with household names before they’re even old enough to read them. Lane bought his daughter one when she was born. The very first message reads: “Who on Earth is he, Papa?” and is signed George Bernard Shaw.

The wonder of all this appears to have been slightly lost on young Clare. “I don’t think celebrity was made a thing of like it is for children now,” the mother of three and grandmother of eight says as she sits in the lounge of her Thames-side flat in Fulham.

“I went to America with my father when I was about 15 and I remember we had dinner with Ginger Rogers and she just vamped my father – she had huge long red nails which came right through her hair as she sat there fiddling with it. We went to Hollywood and I saw Sophia Loren. It sounds really heady stuff, but it’s what we did.”

This Saturday, to mark Penguin’s anniversary, Clare will be speaking about her father in public for the first time – at the Ryedale Book Festival in North Yorkshire.

When I ask what he was like, she instantly addresses his notoriously short temper. “Well, obviously a lot of people did find him quite difficult but I just thought he was the best. He was so mercurial – that’s the word everyone always uses about him.” Michael’s stepfather Jack Morpurgo, who was a close colleague of Lane’s and later his biographer, chose other adjectives, including: “harsh”, “malicious”, “bland”, “vulnerable”, “spontaneously benevolent” and “genius”.

One of our greatest educators, who left school at the age of 16, Lane was a man who embraced life – throwing large parties for staff in Clare’s childhood home. One coincided with her birthday and a baby elephant walked up the drive to mingle with the guests.

Penguin books have been admired almost as much for their aesthetic appeal as their literary merit – Lane declared early on that “good design is no more expensive than bad” – and the man himself was also admired for his jackets. “Everyone commented on his sense of dress,” says his daughter (a natty dresser too, wearing knitted waistcoat, jeans and orange plimsolls). “He was quite overweight, so he was always having suits made that covered up his tummy and he was always going on awful regimes to lose weight. He used to go to a place called Champneys. I think he probably drank too much.”

This is Mrs Morpurgo’s first solo national newspaper interview and her husband is pottering about, dutifully serving the coffee as I ask what her father made of the news that his first-born daughter was pregnant and arranging a shotgun wedding at 20. “Sorry, I shouldn’t be here!” Morpurgo declares. “He was thrilled to bits! I’ve got to leave now. You tell your fiction, Clare…”, he adds before turning on his heel and concluding: “He was fine! He was her daddy and she was his beloved daughter. I wouldn’t have wanted to lose you, so there you go.”

“He was not best pleased,” Clare chips in, “and he was not very nice to Michael”. He reportedly thought his future son-in-law dull as well as a potential gold-digger.
Lane may also have been upset about another of Clare’s decisions. When she was eight or nine, he gave her The Hobbit to read and critique. She told him she didn’t like it and he didn’t publish it. “I think I just had a slight problem being a reviewer when I wasn’t asked just to enjoy it for my own sake,” she says in mitigation, “but that sounds just very stroppy, doesn’t it? I think it wasn’t fair on poor old Tolkien, really.”

The former primary school teacher has had more success in publishing since. As her husband’s right-hand woman, she has been described as the “unsung heroine behind every story he has produced”. For his part, Michael has said his wife is his “first reader, first editor, first critic, and typist supreme”.

Penguin was never passed down the generations for reasons that are still somewhat of a mystery to Clare. But the Morpurgo enterprise is certainly a family operation. Michael writes his fiction lying in bed, balancing “an exercise book on my knees”, before his daughter types up the first draft. Clare then reads and edits the works (and even does his VAT). “I don’t feel like I’m in the shadow of Michael,” she insists. “I feel like I’m a sort of a support system. Which isn’t quite the same thing.”

Her father died in 1970, aged 67, and Clare used her inheritance to buy a farm in Iddesleigh, Devon, which became the base of Farms for City Children. The charity – 40 years old in January – counts Princess Anne as a patron and has shown more than 100,000 urban children the magic of the countryside.

As she reflects on how her father came to be one of the greatest cultural forces of the 20th century, Clare says that the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial in 1960 was the defining moment. Having published the DH Lawrence novel that had been banned for decades, Lane had to fight an obscenity trial – and found himself at the cutting edge of the sexual revolution. Philip Larkin summed it up in his poem Annus Mirabilis: “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (which was rather late for me)/ Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.”

Clare, who attended the final day at the Old Bailey and recollects the relief on her father’s face, is unimpressed by the decision of the director of last month’s BBC adaptation not to include a single f*** or c***, the words that caused all that fuss in the ’60s, because they no longer “seem relevant”. “He’d have thought it ridiculous, chopping out those swear words. All the fuss to get it through and then people drop it and say it’s not worth it.”

But she adds that perhaps it is a sign of the scale of her dad’s revolution – with life so transformed since his titles, and his trial, took wing that we struggle to remember what the world was like before that little orange bird. “People can’t imagine life without Penguins now,” she muses. “They can’t imagine life without paperback.”

  • Clare Morpurgo will be speaking at Ryedale on Saturday. ryedalebookfestival.com.
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