Speaking Volumes: The Penguin Pennings

June 9, 1995

Fred Inglis on Paul Jenning's The Penguin Pennings .

In his wonderful essay "Hymns in a man's life" D. H. Lawrence speaks movingly of the great poems which have given shape to his life; but for all the depth at which they are woven into his consciousness, none goes as deep as "the rather banal Nonconformist hymns that penetrated through and through my childhood".

It seems to me that much the same sort of thing is true about the imaginative sort-of-social theory which each of us fettles out of the bits and pieces of our reading, and uses to enclose and comprehend the world. It all happens a bit later in life, no doubt, than Lawrence's hymns, but the writers and thinkers woven really deep into one's ontology rarely come straight from the official bibliographies.

I stare at the ranks of grave volumes, listening to the voices of past masters, caustic Hobbes, matter-of-fact Hume, orotund Marx, bitter Weber. But the man whose civil affections and kindly laughter really shaped my spirit and grounded absolute presuppositions in his view of the world was Paul Jennings.

In several hundred 700-word essays, mostly in The Observer between 1950 and 1970, he re-enchanted the universe for thousands of admirers, making a Weltanschauung out of the Zeitgeist perfectly adequate to the little version of pastoral which we now, to our slight surprise, know middle-class England to have been in those years.

Lawnmowers (with motors), large cardboard boxes filled with impossible quantities of newspaper, Post Office Counters (as we are now to call them, but Jennings knew all along that they were what Strawson calls Individuals), cats belching pepper, electro-magnetic theory, foreigners, telephones, all, all are imbued with a monstrous and tyrannical intractability, and in a daring anticipation of later French thought Jennings makes clear that his theory in no way rests upon a dated and primitivist animism, but presages a general structuralism of things.

He is, of course, a cultural materialist avant la lettre. But his materialism is generous enough to include in its progeny a sociology of Affect whose powerful bringing-together of the quaint and the queer, the uproarious and the upheaving, the unintended and the unintelligible, resolves by sheer breadth of vision the ancient antinomy between grand theory and local knowledge.

Thus the floating signifiers which he finds all over the country - "Submerged Log Company", "Euston Sleepers" (the oracular Presence of Old Railway), "Activated Sludge" and the instructions in German setting out the rules of Halma ("uber eigene und fremde Steine fortzuspringen") - are translated into references by reading their signification itself as an object.

Thus the meaning of life is meaning, and for Jennings as for us all translation is a synonym for the world, and laughter its only credible trope. Materialism lives in the lexicon, and a town is not a town but a word: "buckfastleigh adv. (arch. and poet.) Manfully: "Aye and right buckfastleight, lad" (Hardy). "holyhead n. Hangover". So too with the Tales of Beatrix Potter. Translated, they turn into a gigantic charivari with Jeremias de Hengelaar, the 14th-century mystic shuffling by, pondering the One, and the swarthy Sicilian bandit Il Coniglio Pierino. The arbitrariness of translation is the crucial instance of the difficulty of Things, and laughter is not just our only solace, it is how we hold percept and concept together.

Jennings's imaginative social theory is sometimes thought to have dated, to be too whimsical and plaintive to survive the harshness of globalisation. Not a bit of it. His heirs are, plainly, Michael Frayn and Laurie Taylor. Frayn's Sweet Dreams is a triumphant theorising of, so to say, The Guardian view of utopia. Laurie Taylor's 20-year labour has, of course, given us the only truthful sociology of the central institution of modern life, the university.

Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies, University of Warwick.

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