Rupert Wolfe Murray on his mother’s literary legacy in Scotland and beyond.
Stephanie Wolfe Murray: A Most Unlikely Publisher
By Rupert Wolfe Murray
I would like to draw your attention to the PDF version (available in full at the end of this article) of the wee book I recently published about my dear departed Mother – Stephanie Wolfe Murray.
I suggest you download it, read it and keep it somewhere safe as it’s an uplifting and witty read despite the tragedy of her death at just 76 years of age.
The book is a collection of anecdotes from friends, family, publishers, authors, aid workers and lost souls who found solace in her open house and ability to forgive. Five hundred copies were printed and it’s already out of print.
It came together in just a few weeks (thanks to the artist and book designer Jim Hutcheson) and in this article I described the nerve wracking process of crowdfunding for the printing costs.
She was a Debutante
My Mother left school early, didn’t go to university and by the age of 20 she already had a child (my big brother Kim, whose tribute to her you can see here). She had no ambition of getting into publishing.
When she was three years old the news came that her father had been killed in France, in the last days of the Second World War. Her mother, Wendy, remarried a kindly gent called Harry who had survived a Japanese Prisoner of War camp in Burma and didn’t mind taking orders from his wife.
Wendy, my Mother’s mother, was ambitious for her two daughters. Her priority was to get them married to wealthy gentlemen or, even better, landed aristocrats who would not only provide for them but would help the family move up the class system. The fact that my Mum was beautiful and popular was most promising. Problem was, she didn’t take orders from her mother and wasn’t going to be railroaded into marriage.
She was launched into “society” as a debutante (they used to call it “coming out”) and was a hit: the young aristos crowded round, queued up and competed to take her to dances, to dinner and to their big country houses.
Things were going swimmingly until she met Angus Wolfe Murray. His credentials – old colonial family, an education of sorts at Eton – could have been buffed up and, if he’d had a good job and a suit, my Grandmother may have been won round.
But my Dad had no interest in complying to social norms or impressing my Granny. He hated public school, respectable clothes, and had no intention of getting rich or aspiring to the upper class. He wore drainpipe jeans and a donkey jacket, didn’t have money and my Granny was horrified. A clash was inevitable.
My Mother was sent to New York City in the hope that she would forget about this ghastly chap with the donkey jacket. But it didn’t work – not only were they in love but my Mother was pregnant and, what my Granny never really understood, was that my Mother rejected the conventional life that she was expected to enter into.
She was inspired by my Father, didn’t think twice about throwing away a life of luxury, got married and ended up living in a remote house in the Highlands of Scotland (if you click here you can see a short film of us in 1968).
By the early 1970s we were living near Edinburgh and my Mother’s hands were full: she had four boys and a big house to look after; the idea of setting up a publishing company must have seemed as remote as going to the moon.
The Birth of Canongate
My Dad had inherited a big house in the countryside, an hour south of Edinburgh, but he couldn’t earn enough money by writing books to fix the roof, buy food and pay the bills. He didn’t want a conventional job but he needed to make some money.
This is how he tells the story:
‘A new friend, Bob Shure, wandered into our lives… Bob was American and ended up at our place. I can’t remember why. I liked him at once… He had written Monk, about a young man who climbed up a tower at a university campus and started shooting people. Sounded terrible but it was great, certainly different. He couldn’t get it published.
Late one night, well into the second bottle of vino, I said, “We’ll start a publishing house.” Bob said, “What are you going to publish?” I said, “Monk.” He said, “I’m with you.” Next morning I asked, “Do you remember what we agreed last night?” Bob said, “Best idea in years.” I said, “What was that?” He said, “We’re publishing Monk.”’
I remember these discussions taking place and I also have a clear memory of my Mother looking on, wanting to be part of this exciting new venture but my Dad looking at her as if she was totally unqualified for the task (which she was, but this was rich coming from him as he’d never been to university or done any training in publishing or business). In my version of the story she was taken along to make the tea and answer the phone.
My Dad soon found out that publishing is one of the hardest ways to make a living and, after finding Alasdair Gray, he went off to drive trucks. This is how he explains it in the little book we did about her:
‘I disappeared to make some money and Stephanie took my place at Canongate… I thought that she would last a month and then Canongate would do a Titanic.
I could not have been more wrong. Her natural qualities, suppressed and degraded in a difficult marriage, blossomed. She took the mould, broke it, laughed like hell and built another into a far, far better shape.
“The girl done good,” I told Bob when next in touch.
“Why are you surprised?” he asked.
“You’re a fool,” he said. “You were handling gold and you didn’t notice.”’
Transforming Scottish Publishing
If my mother had applied for a job in Scottish publishing she wouldn’t have even got an interview. She was unqualified, lacked relevant experience and wasn’t very confident with highbrow people.
Publishing in Scotland in the 1970s was at a low ebb and there were hardly any jobs to be had. The era of small independent publishers had not yet arrived, most of the Scottish classics were out of print, the only operators were either sales branches of the big London outfits or makers of maps and dictionaries, there was no trade association and all roads led to London.
My mother had no idea about this state of play when she started out. She had no plan to transform Scottish publishing, no ambition to become the first chairwoman of the new trade association (the Scottish Publisher’s Association, now Publishing Scotland) and would have laughed at the suggestion that she was to become the “doyenne” (the most respected or prominent woman in a particular field) of Scottish publishing.
Perhaps it was her humility and lack of guile that led to her success. Certainly it was her positivity and enthusiasm. Whatever it was, she had a great impact.
‘She broke the mould in Scottish publishing,‘ wrote Michael Wigan, an author. ‘Her innovation, sheer go-and-get-it brio, just swept everyone away in her path. More than a breath of fresh air in rather staid Caledonian publishing, she was a whirlwind. Her charm turned scowling misogynist monosyllabic authors inside out, into grinning schoolboys.’
She was an inspiration to women and her former colleagues, and authors loved her.
Jenny Brown, the literary agent, said she was ‘a visionary editor in the days when Scottish publishers were few and far between, introducing new voices like those of Alasdair Gray, Jimmy Boyle, and Charles Palliser, publishing landmark volumes like Antonia Fraser’s Scottish Love Poems and republishing classics like Sunset Song.
An instinctive publisher with a keen eye for design. A passionate human with a strong sense of social responsibility and a gift for friendship. A woman with a sense of adventure who loved the hills. A single mother of four boys. Capable and scatty. Individual. Stylish. And beautiful. Overseas publishers regularly fell head over heels for her at book fairs.’
Another former colleague, Judy Moir, wrote this: ‘She inspired a generation of Scottish publishers and her generosity, dedication, creative flair, charisma and literary acumen were astonishing.’
The above quotes were taken from the book we did about my Mother, which is called Stephanie Wolfe Murray – A Life in Books. The book starts and finishes with touching little pieces by friends and families but the heart of the book, its intellectual substance, is about her publishing years. One of the most interesting pieces was by Tim Neat, the Fife-based author and filmmaker. Here is an extract from his 940 word contribution:
‘In the 1960’s Hamish Henderson wrote: “Scotland hates and fears its creative writers. Why is there here this conspiracy of the old against the young – which you get everywhere – but which with us is so blatantly tyrannical? It goes back to the fantastic theocratic tyranny of the 17th century and the attempt to divide the nation into a small, elect elite and the damned mass…” Stephanie helped put that old barbarism to bed.
‘And, in the world’s terms, how foolish she was! In my case, recognising and supporting my writing at a time when no one, at least anyone in authority, did.
‘We never ate a restaurant meal but, for fifteen years ran in harness together, and I remember Stephanie saying something that no one else has ever said (or would dream of saying!): “Tim, you are a man at the height of your powers, you must work – and I shall see your work published.”
‘She had a generosity of spirit, rare in our reductive times.’
What I Took from Her
If I had to choose one word to sum up my Mother, to represent her many qualities, it would be the word OPEN.
Looking back over her life, her openness was what advertising people call ‘the red line’ running through all the stories and achievements: she was open to my Dad despite convention and her mother’s hysteria; she was open to living in the wilderness; she was open to us, her children, until the day she died; she was open to the challenge of publishing (and aid work) and was open to authors and anyone who wanted to work with her, or stay with us, however bizarre their appearance (Harry Horse, the illustrator and children’s book author, turned up dressed as Napoleon and was hired on the spot).
She had an open door, an open house and most importantly she had an open heart. Her ability to forgive was unbelievable. Being open isn’t easy. There are so many forces and circumstances that make its opposite – closing down, shutting off, being suspicious, negativity – seem like the easier option. Her openness was powered by an endless supply of positivity, optimism and faith in people.
I feel hugely privileged to have been brought up by such a woman, to have had this life-long lesson in being open to ideas, experiences, people and challenges. This has enabled me to live abroad, in poor and difficult countries, with a can-do attitude which has enabled me to overcome the most formidable challenges.
Her approach to life is best described by the author Michael Wigan:
‘It seemed never to occur to her that something was not do-able. She could get friends, bystanders, or anyone within range, to do anything. If Stephanie said go and rob the bank we need money for lunch, you would unthinkingly proceed with the instruction thinking how sensible.’
Stephanie Wolfe Murray was born at Blandford Forum on April 27th 1941. She died on the 24th of June 2017 and is buried at Traquair graveyard.
Rupert Wolfe Murray is a freelance writer, project manager and PR consultant. He blogs at www.wolfemurray.com.
We are delighted to host the full PDF below of Stephanie Wolfe Murray: A Life In Books, with a foreword by Alexander McCall Smith. Click to view it in fullscreen mode.