As this post goes up onto the blog I will be on my way to Hay on Wye to give a talk on the Gentle Art of Penguin Book Collecting as part of the Hay Independence celebrations for 2018, as part of the talk I’m going to cover the strange story of Siné’s Massacre in it’s only Penguin edition.
The title of the cartoon on the cover is a sort of pun in French, dessin morbide means morbid drawing but mord translates as belly so the vampire biting the belly of his victim covers both meanings. The fact that this was chosen as the cover and therefore amongst the least controversial of the cartoons included says a lot about the content of the book. Through the rest of this blog I will include other cartoons from the book although I have been careful not to include the most offensive examples, Siné had a fascination with toilets, hangings, amputation, sex and the catholic church sometimes all in one cartoon and I don’t feel many of the cartoons are suitable even now.
Given this controversial nature, why was he considered for a Penguin book dedicated to him? Well Penguin had a long history of publishing books of cartoons featuring selections of a particular artist, anything from Thelwell and his little girls at their pony club, through Osbert Lancaster, Peter Arno, Charles Addams (and his famous family) and Gerald Hoffnung with his musical fantasies to name just a few. On 5th October 1966 therefore a Penguin Books board meeting was convened to discuss the advisability of including Siné, as he was regarded as a major French cartoonist and a range that had the gentle work of Thelwell at one end and Siné at the other would definitely appear to be inclusive of all styles. It is worth pointing out that this board meeting would appear to have been very very late in the process, as the books had already been printed and were in the warehouse, orders had been placed but they hadn’t yet been distributed to retailers. So technically the book had not yet been published, but it really was a technicality at this point.
Sir Allen Lane, the founder of the business back in 1935, was still chairman of the board at this time although he no longer had total autocratic control of the business as he once had. He had given way long ago to the consensus of the board of directors as he had had to due to the huge increase in the size of the company, which was way beyond the ability of one man to control; however he still thought of Penguin Books as his. Nevertheless the minutes of the meeting show that the overall position was to back Tony Godwin, then Chief Editor and therefore a board member, with some reservations expressed. Backing Godwin was particularly forcefully put by Charles Clark who felt that not doing so at such a late stage would put Godwin in an untenable position; Sir Allen was not happy but, at the meeting at least according to the minutes, backed the decision to publish.
A draft press release was prepared announcing the publication on the 1st November 1966 which included a statement that the board were not in full agreement with the publication, however after the internal legal advisor was consulted it was decided to remove references to the disagreement and all was set for 3 weeks time. So far just a tale of a controversial book being prepared for publication, there had been several before at Penguin and there didn’t seem anything to make this different but the story was about to become bizarre…
George Nicholls recalled in 1970 (after the death of Sir Allen Lane) the events of a night in October 1966 which is almost certainly unique in the annals of UK publishing. He was in bed, as it was around midnight, when the phone rang and he was summoned to the office. When he got there he found Sir Allen along with 3 other men and he wanted the warehouse unlocking, Nicholls had the keys so they set off. On the way the reason for the late night escapade became clear as Lane explained.
I’ve got Singleton round the back with the farm wagon, I’m going to pinch all those Siné’s … that bloody board outvoted me, but I’ll have my own back on them.
Nicholls was shocked but as he said Sir Allen was “the governor” so he did what he was told. After a while they managed to load all the palletised stock onto the trailer and then realised that there would be boxes ready for shipping in the distribution area so went and found all those as well and loaded them onto the truck. It took a few hours but eventually Nicholls locked up the warehouse again and Allan Lane set off with his cargo after saying to Nicholls that this would be their secret. What happened next is largely speculation, various accounts say that when Lane got back to his farm near Reading he had a large bonfire, some say the books were buried, others that he composted the lot and eventually spread it on his fields, what is certain is that the printed books were never seen again and Penguin never did officially publish Siné’s Massacre. Allen Lane also briefly vanished from the scene heading off on an impromptu holiday to Spain whilst things quietened down.
The odd thing was that there was apparently no hue and cry about the missing books; it all seems to have been quietly ignored, the few orders that had come in were cancelled as the book was ‘out of stock’. I used to design warehouse systems so know that so much stock going astray would definitely be noticed very quickly especially with unfulfilled orders this close to the official publication date but nothing was said. The only copies that survived are the few examples that had been sent to people to get their opinions about publication and some trade samples that had made it to representatives on the road. It all adds up to this being one of the rarest, and consequently most valuable, paperbacks produced by Penguin in the last 60 years. Checking abebooks reveals only one copy available at the time of writing this, across all the dealers on there around the world, and that is priced at £145.