By Ken Clay

Penniless Press Publications. 240 pages.

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It took me quite a few years, but I did eventually manage to collect the forty issues of Penguin New Writing, finding them in second-hand bookshops, charity shops, jumble sales, and the like. Friends also helped by contacting me to say they’d come across copies somewhere and which issues was I looking for? I wasn’t too fussed about the condition, provided all the pages were there.

I’ve often had occasion to refer to a story, poem, article, but the problem has always been one of knowing in which issue the item I was looking for had been published. I recall once wanting to re-read two articles that John Hampson wrote under the title, “Movements in the Underground,” in which he looked at what might be termed literature that dealt with the seamy side of life. I did find them (in issues 27 and 28, published in April and July, 1946), but it would have been much easier had this newly-published guide been available. Incidentally, I was reminded of them when I visited the current John Minton exhibition at Pallant House, Chichester. He did the cover designs for the issues in question, and copies were displayed in the gallery.

The first issue of Penguin New Writing appeared in 1940. It was an extension of New Writing that John Lehmann had edited in the 1930s. But, as he pointed out in his Foreword, the fact of it now being published and distributed by Penguin meant that it would reach a far wider readership than previously. Its size, too, was of importance in a period when paper rationing would affect publishing. And the size also indicated that, as Ken Clay mentions, “they were designed to go In a battledress or jacket pocket”.

The 1940s were boom years for little magazines. Clay refers to Horizon as one of the key ones of the period, and it’s true that it was an important and influential publication. But Penguin New Writing was more representative of its time, and offered a broader range of writers and material. It needs to be viewed alongside another similar magazine, Reginald Moore’s Modern Reading, which managed to survive for 23 issues between 1941 and 1953, and had a similar democratic spirit to sustain it. Like Penguin New Writing, it was produced to a war economy standard, but lacked the kind of financial and distribution support that Penguin could provide. That it did reach a wide readership perhaps says something about Reginald Moore’s persistence, and the demand for magazines of its kind that existed in the 1940s. A poem, a story, an article could be read in the gaps between long stints in factories and offices and the demands of service life. And more people seemed to want to express themselves in print. Penguin New Writing and Modern Reading were the kinds of publications that provided outlets for known and unknown writers.

It’s fascinating to look at the index of writers who were published in Penguin New Writing. There are obviously some well-known names, such as Dylan Thomas, Stephen Spender, V.S.Pritchett, and Louis Macneice. But I’ve always thought that one of the pleasures of collecting little magazines from the past is looking to see what lesser-known poets and prose writers were doing. There are stories by Leslie Halward, who perhaps isn’t totally forgotten but it’s doubtful if all that many people now read his work. His 1936 collection of short stories, To Tea on Sunday, is worth reading if you can find a copy. I mentioned John Hampson earlier, and his Saturday Night at the Greyhound, first published in 1931, has been reprinted in more recent years. But, again, I wonder who now reads him?

Halward and Hampson did at least have some sort of literary reputation, but there are other names that it might prove almost impossible to trace in terms of establishing whether or not they published anything else. Helen Spalding, John R. Townsend, Bruce Richardson. There are some brief notes about what they were doing when their work was in Penguin New Writing, and I suppose an assiduous researcher might be able to track down further information, but it won’t necessarily tell us a great deal. It’s a fact that many people publish a poem or short story in a little magazine or two and then, for various reasons, don’t follow up with more material, or don’t get it published. Family life, work, other interests, can all intervene to limit the time available for writing. And some people perhaps don’t feel the need to say any more in print.

It’s certainly true that the post-1945 years saw a decline in little magazine publishing, so that by 1950 or so many of them had ceased to exist.  John Lehmann’s Foreword for the final issue of Penguin New Writing in 1950 said that its circulation was “still remarkably high for something exclusively devoted to literature and the arts, it is not high enough to make both ends meet”. And the fact was that the post-war years brought in a period of austerity and rationing that hit everyone hard. People simply hadn’t the money or the time, perhaps even the inclinations, to buy little magazines. Their priorities were in other areas of life and work as men and women returned from the services and started to cope with the realities of civilian life. It has been suggested, also, that the later issues of the magazine began to show that the “professionals” were taking over from the occasional writers from the factories and the forces who had previously found a place in Penguin New Writing.

Ken Clay refers to himself as a “little mag nut,” and I happily place myself in the same category. It isn’t just a case of collecting the magazines, though there are enough of them cluttering up shelf space in my house, but writing for and about them, and even editing one or two. Most magazines will never be indexed or given the kind of loving treatment that Clay has applied to Penguin New Writing. He has produced an invaluable book and deserves to be praised for it.

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