Obituary: Al Murray

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The Independent Culture
IT WOULD be hard for any individual to match the achievements of Al Murray in the field of physical fitness, to which he devoted his life. The health clubs and gymnasiums which have become so much a part of urban living in the Nineties owe much to the creation of the first Murray Gym in the City of London in the late 1950s; and his later work in pioneering exercise rehabilitation programmes for heart attack victims never received the recognition his legion of friends, admirers and disciples felt he deserved.

Murray began his working life as a painter and decorator in his native Fife, but his prodigious feats as a young weightlifter led him more and more towards sport. He was Scottish lightweight and middleweight champion as well as British record holder in the late 1930s, when weightlifting was still something of a vaudeville spectacle, and Murray would entertain his music-hall audiences with various hand-balancing acts and feats of strength and endurance on stage.

He served as a staff sergeant-major in the Second World War during which he began to unearth his talents as a coach, devising an exercise for anti- aircraft gunners who lifted shells as though they were weights, thereby helping to increase their loading-speed. As a result of this Murray's picture is still to be found in the Fox Gym at the Army's physical training headquarters in Aldershot, Hampshire.

In 1948 he became Britain's first national weightlifting coach and moved down from Kirkcaldy to Wood Green in east London where he opened a modest gymnasium aimed purely at weightlifters. He was only paid by the government for three years, but he decided to stay in London when his contract came to an end, taking a job with a sports goods manufacturer for whom he worked for many years.

Murray continued as national coach on a voluntary basis, and quickly became an adviser on strength training to other sports such as athletics and swimming. His extensive writing on the subject began to provoke interest from abroad, particularly from Russia whose athletes remained in competitive exile after the war until the late 1950s when they were readmitted to the Olympic Games, their weightlifters making an immediate impression.

During this period Murray opened the Spur Gym at the St Bride's Institute in Fleet Street, London, which attracted weightlifting champions from all over the world. He then expanded his operation by moving to larger premises near St Paul's and opened his doors to everyone from the rich and famous like Sir Laurence Olivier, who became a personal friend, to the London taxi driver who became one of Murray's star pupils.

It was while working at the Murray Gym that he became involved with the British Medical Research Council, with whom he pioneered a training programme of gentle resistance work using extremely light weights for those recovering from heart attacks. At the time it went against the widely held belief that lifting should be avoided at all costs following a heart attack, but it is now common practice.

Although he retired as national weightlifting coach in 1972, Murray continued to act as a valued adviser to John Lear, his successor at the National Sports Centre at Bisham Abbey. His coaching and teaching methods were never less than severe in their rigour, but Murray was a truly great extrovert and almost always the focus of attention, whether barking out instructions or exercising his sharp sense of humour for the benefit of those within earshot.

In his later years he found more time for reading his favourite philosophy books, writing his memoirs and painting, although by now it was watercolours rather than walls and ceilings. He remained in touch with his sport until the end of his life, and left behind a rich and varied legacy for millions to benefit from throughout their own lives.

Alexander Murray, weightlifting coach and fitness instructor: born Markinch, Fife 10 January 1916; married (one son, one daughter); died London 27 September 1998.

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