Obituary: Jock Murray

Click to follow
The Independent Online
John Arnaud Robin Grey (Jock Murray), publisher: born 23 September 1908; MBE 1945, CBE 1975; Senior Director, John Murray 1968-93; married 1939 Diana James (two sons, two daughters); died London 22 July 1993.

'OF ALL publishers he most looked the part': so said Peter Phelan of the Publishers' Association, no mean judge. Jamie Hamilton looked like a matinee idol, Rupert Hart-Davis (who had been one) like a Guards adjutant (which he also was), but Jock Murray looked exactly like a publisher. Longish hair, which seemed to have an independent life of its own, a sharp eye and nose, brow and mouth never still, always expressing, even when he was silent (and he was a good listener), sympathy or more often amusement, lively movement, never a City gent's suit but always a bow-tie, above all the specially capacious satchel bulging with books and manuscripts slung over his shoulder wherever he went, except when it preceded him through the open door of an already moving train - all these made Jock Murray look like what he was, the perfect publisher.

'Jock' he had to be for, although he was to be the sixth John Murray in direct descent from the founder of the firm in 1768, the John Murray, with whom he shared the direction of the firm for almost 40 years, was his uncle Sir John Murray (1884-1967), whose sister Dorothy had married Thomas Grey and produced Jock in 1908. The Murray's that Jock joined, after Eton and Oxford (where he added Murray to his name), informally in 1928, formally in 1930, was immensely respectable, famous for its Handbooks, the travel guides that rivalled Baedeker and made the firm's fortune in the 19th century, and for a general and educational list with a strong interest in travel, but somewhat staid.

Without ever losing the confidence or affection of his uncle, Jock changed the latter aspect of the firm's image, without denting fame or reputation. He became assistant editor first of the Cornhill Magazine, in 1931, and then, in 1933, of the Quarterly Review, the firm's famous periodicals. He retained a special affection for the former and relaunched it with Peter Quennell ater the war, keeping it going until 1975.

But soon he began to set his own mark on the Murray list. It was he who saw the potential of Axel Munthe's The Story of San Michele and published it in 1929. His own friends soon followed. The Valley of the Assassins (1931) introduced Freya Stark to Murray's and the world; it was Jock who saw her gift for transmuting the indomitable spirit that took her to wild places into equally vivid words.

Kenneth Clark was an even older friend; others published his earlier work, but Landscape into Art (1949), The Nude (1955) and Civilization (1969) contributed greatly to Murray's success after the war. Jock had some shares in Bovril which he sold to pay for the publication in 1937 of Continual Dew, the first of John Betjeman's books to appear under the Murray imprint. Betjeman, with his eccentric passion for Hymns Ancient & Modern and Victorian ecclesiology, seemed pure self-indulgence in publishing terms, but Murray lived to see his taste triumphantly justified with the Collected Poems (1958) and Summoned by Bells (1960). But no author, even if he was not a friend before, entered the Murray list without becoming one. No other publisher cherished his authors with more care: anniversaries were remembered, trains met, parcels delivered, flowers sent, all this without a trace of 'business' - they were the natural expression of an affection, an enthusiasm, genuinely felt.

Murray's enthusiasms were a delight to witness. Pirouetting with excitement, scattering the papers that overflowed from his desk on to the floor around (never quite to be restored to order), he would exclaim, 'Here's the most marvellous next instalment from Paddy Leigh Fermor,' or 'Listen to this extraordinary new adventure of Dervla Murphy's,' the emphatic words drawn out as if extension would better convey his own delight. This was something that all his authors shared, not just the great and famous.

But they got much more besides. Murray watched over the design of their books (Stark's The Valley of the Assassins, 1934, shows his hand already at work). William Clowes, printers of Hymns A & M, produced perfect Victorian typography for Betjeman; Butler and Tanner served Osbert Lancaster's line as caricaturist and architectural historian with equal care; but it was Murray who saw to all the detail, latterly with Kenneth Foster, whose untimely death in 1983 was a great blow to him. Promotion and sales got the same painstaking, even exhaustive attention. Like his Scottish forebears, Murray was not generous in such matters as advances (not for him the big-money auctions), but few could resist the all-embracing care; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was one who got away, but Jock's affection and admiration for her work were undiminished. Other publishers envied this, and the apparent catholic liking he displayed; Billy Collins once walked up St James's Street and sought him out. 'Jock,' he said, 'I envy you many of your authors; I hate to poach, but give me a list of your favourite authors and I promise not to approach them.' Jock looked momentarily puzzled, then went next door and got a copy of Murray's current general catalogue, and handed it to him. 'There,' he said, 'that's the list.'

But if authors were Jock Murray's first and last interest in publishing, there was much in between. He was a permanent member of the Publishers' Association Council, only giving up in 1976. He was on the Council of the Royal Geographical Society, likewise, until 1978, and President of the English Association in 1976. He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society of Literature and a member (virtually a hereditary member) of the Roxburghe Club; to all these bodies he gave practical help in matters relating to publication.

His involvement in Murray's business extended far beyond 'his' authors. This became more and more his responsibility after the war, which he spent down at the War Office (he was appointed MBE for organising the air transport for Arnhem), while Noel Carrington took over the editorial chair. Inevitably there was much to rebuild, and Jock was behind the appointment of Kenneth Pinnock who built up Murray's educational list, which kept the firm afloat through the ups and downs of the 1950s to the 1970s. Jock was responsible for setting up the office overseas, in West Africa and elsewhere, to capitalise on this success. The great success of McKean's Introduction to Biology in 1962 made it a landmark in educational publishing. It also brought Murray's the somewhat Greek gift (from the Delegate of the Clarendon Press) of Head's How Human Life Begins, a sex education book illustrated - a revolutionary step - with colour photographs; these had upset the women in the bindery at Oxford, and the already printed sheets were offered to Murray's. Jock was a little upset too, but not in the same way. His nice aesthetic sense was disturbed by a lack of beauty in the illustrations; but were they, he wondered, self-portraits? His equal sensibility for an author's feelings prevented him from asking whether it was indeed a case of 'Head raising his ugly sex'.

No account of Jock would be complete without mention of Byron, as near a family ghost as 50 Albemarle Street can boast. With Peter Quennell he edited Byron: a self-portrait (1950), but it is the 12 volumes of The Complete Letters and Journals, edited with Leslie Marchand between 1973 and 1981, that will be his principal monument. He gave unstinting help to all other Byron scholars, among them Doris Langley Moore, and he was the custodian of Murray's amazing archive and museum (including Sir John Moore's Corunna pistols). This brought all sorts of visitors to his door, including Americans anxious to see Byron's boot. He took it all in his stride - 'The nice ones,' he said, 'give me a tip.'

The sense of belonging to the house, as well as the tradition, of his ancestors, made Jock linger late. I remember ringing up one evening; after a long time, a caretakerly voice said 'Murray's 'ere.' Was Mr Murray still there, I asked. Pause. 'I dunno - wot nime is it?' 'Nicolas Barker,' I replied; with no pause, the voice, now Jock's, said, 'Oh, Nicolas, do come round, I've got something to show you.' 'Was that you before?' I asked. 'Yes,' he said, 'second time at least, but Betj' answered first.' There they were like two conspirators when I arrived, and there too was a new forged Byron letter by 'Major' George Byron, to be pondered. It was late indeed when Jock, quite reluctantly, shooed us out and turned the key in the red front door.

Even though Diana, his dear wife, used to complain about being married to Byron, the family tradition was too strong for her or their children to resist something that pleased him so much - it was a special delight that both his sons went into the business, and John Murray VII is there to keep it on. It is sad that Jock is no longer there, enjoying the Indian summer which came to him in the last 10 years, when he shed at least some of his financial responsibilities, but not that for his authors. One of them must have the last word: Jock was, he said, 'the only publisher in whose company a failed author could sit at ease'. Jock replied, 'I think that's the most wonderful recommendation; I'd like that in my obituary.' So let it be his epitaph.

(Photograph omitted)