Born in 1909-1993, John Murray was educated at Eton and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he took a BA in history. In 1930 he joined the publishing firm of John Murray, and during the war he served with the Royal Artillery. His publications include Byron: A Self-Portrait (1950) and Complete Letters and Journals of Lord Byron (12 vols 1973-81). Since 1968 he has been senior director of John Murray and in 1975 he was awarded the CBE.
When I was doing the research for this interview, there was very little in the press cuttings which was revealing about John Murray the man as opposed to John Murray the publisher. Have you deliberately tried to keep out of the public eye?
Yes, for two reasons. First because any importance that I have is because of the authors I have published. Secondly, my personal life is so traditional as to be hardly believable. My main claim to fame is that I am the only publisher who has typeset in the nude, something I did when I was with Robert Gibbings who ran the Golden Cockerel Press. As a young man I would go and help him and unfortunately I hit the short period when he was in his nudist phase and as I was only about fifteen or sixteen years old I found this very embarrassing. It was all right for him because his nudity seemed like a fur coat. But my own life is essentially dull, except perhaps in two regards: it is a good example of family nepotism – that’s the first; and the second is that during my schooldays I had a bad spell of stammering which impeded my education. But I did get over it and this is encouraging to anyone who has a stammer. It was a most terrible handicap but I went to see a man called Lionel Logue who subsequently helped King George VI with his speeches. He put me through a very interesting training and taught me something which I often now tell young stammerers; that is, with your hand in your pocket beat time with one finger in rhythm with what you are saying and this will help you get over the blockages. Other than that my life has been routine. I mean, it’s boring to say that one’s first memory is of sucking gooseberries; one can do without that.
How would you do a thumbnail sketch of your own character?
Ask me what I think about the characters of my authors, and I could tell you very easily, but until one gets older one doesn’t really examine one’s own character. Nevertheless, I have given this some thought and I would say that I have no greed, no wish to have yachts or a second home. I do have incorrigible curiosity, and I also have a terrible vice – envy, envy of other people’s literary skill, for example. I try to pretend it’s something else, such as admiration, but it is actually envy. On the positive side I have flexibility, which I consider a strength. Of course as a publisher one learns to be flexible within the yardstick of truth and to give way wherever one can. This is the sort if quality which would make me a good ADC. It stems from the fact that my great childhood friend here in Albemarle Street was the butler. I so admired his handing round at table, decanting the port, serving the drinks. Barnes in his waistcoat looked like the backside of a wasp. He had a little bit of paper which was the blacklist of authors for whom there was never any spare chair at luncheon. I admired his style so much, the way he helped gentlemen on with their coats, and so on, that I asked him to teach me everything in return for being allowed to play with my train in the nursery. To my amazement he agreed. He did show me everything, and I now feel equipped to be a very good ADC. Indeed, I am afraid I embarrass American publishers when I help them on with their overcoats since I always put my hand under the coat to pull the jacket down. They look round at me with the gravest suspicion.
You were at Oxford in the 1930s and contemporary with John Betjeman and Osbert Lancaster. To an outsider it always seems as if they must have been exciting days. Is that how you remember them?
Oh yes. And they remained my greatest, most exciting friends until their deaths. That was why I published Betjeman – a fascinating occupation. You would be amused to see the typescript of Summoned by Bells with comments by Tom Driberg, John Sparrow (warden of All souls) and me. Betjeman was certainly one of the most inspiring people in my life. No journey with John was ever dull … There’s a charming episode I remember. He was rather extravagant and he used to take people to his club and have oysters and champagne. I remember one day his accountant, called Masterson, came in and asked if we had any more royalties for John Betjeman – ‘He is terribly in the red, and I find myself going down on my knees and saying, “Oh Lord, please prevent John Betjeman from going into the Garrick Club.”’ I also met Osbert at Oxford, and he too was a life enhancer. He used to come in, either before or after doing the cartoons in the Express, for what he called a snifter, usually a gin and vermouth, and of course the amount of gossip one got from him was absolutely fascinating. Both John and Osbert were much more knowledgeable and scholarly than I was, Osbert on arts, John on poetry and architecture, and I learned a lot from them. But we had a sense of humour in common, and I think of no people with whom I’ve shared more laughter.
When you were at Oxford, did you sow your wild oats? Were you a womanizer at all?
Not at Oxford. I found no woman to womanize with at Oxford. Magdalen was still celibate. I did a little after Oxford, but I did it in moderation. Although I thought of women all the time, and was fascinated by them, I was frightened to get too deeply involved because I thought there might be no escape or that damage might be done. I usually found something I thought I couldn’t live with permanently, so I was a very cautious lover, if that word is appropriate. I then met a girl, knew her on and off for about ten years, and married her. I’m still married to her fifty years on. We laugh sometimes to remember that we first me at a rat hunt in Buckinghamshire. We never caught a rat, but I caught a wife.
How did marriage and family responsibilities alter your life? Was that an area of great fulfilment for you?
Yes, and it increased the possibilities of my career. I’d been an active publisher for about ten years before I married, which of course confirms my view that the male should have settled what he wants to do before he gets married. My wife was very intelligent, read books, liked people, and that was a wonderful bit of luck because it enabled one to entertain authors rather more happily than it is possible to do by oneself.
As you get older, are you more sure or less sure about your ideas and opinions?
Less sure. Goethe writes somewhere: ‘To be uncertain is uncomfortable, to be certain is ridiculous’; and that applies to me with one exception, which is the Net Book Agreement. I’m rather bigoted about that and I only wish that the greedy boys would look more carefully at the reasons for it being started in about 1900.
I don’t know whether you’re religious or not, but how do you feel about that area as you grow older?
I think if anything I’ve become a little less religious. I certainly go to church now less often than I did. Of course, the chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they’re too strong to be broken, and though I read the lesson in the Anglican church up in Hampstead when I’m asked to do so, I feel a little ashamed that I attend the church less often. I try to analyse this and I can’t, but there may be something of old Voltaire on his deathbed when he was asked by a friend to confess his sins and denounce the devil, and Voltaire said: ‘Oh my dear fellow, this is no time to make enemies.’ But I firmly believe that churchgoing is important for unifying the community.
Was there tremendous family pressure on you to become John Murray the sixth?
There was pressure, but not tremendous pressure. I don’t think that excessive pressure was needed because I’d been brought up with authors around me. I’ve certainly never regretted my time in publishing or wished I had broken away from family tradition.
Your own son is set to be John Murray the seventh. Did that come about easily or was it a source of family tension?
I put no pressure on him. As in my case it seemed a natural progression of events. Looking back on family history, the great oddity to my mind is that every Murray but one had one son, and none of them revolted. One of the Murrays had two sons, my grandfather and my great uncle. They didn’t agree with each other because my great uncle was artistically inclined and he wanted books to be produced with lovely gilt bindings. He was far too extravagant, whereas John Murray was a very cheerful man. So my Uncle Hal retired and became a wonderful watercolour artist. To return to your question, one of the things I always did when I knew my children were getting home was to hide the typescripts and relax back in the chair, hoping to give the impression that a publisher’s life was one of lovely laziness. Whether I succeeded or not I don’t know.
How well do you get on with your son? Is there a generation gap in thinking?
Our views are different on some subjects, but he has sense at the back of him. I have not come across a subject in which, even though it upset me, I didn’t think he was right. I can say that perfectly truthfully, but then he’s a remarkable fellow.
The publishing world which your son now inhabits is very different from the one you started out in. Are you confident about the future of publishing?
I’m not confident about the future of general publishing but this is a widely held view. Fortunately, in the last century we started educational publishing which now accounts for sixty to seventy per cent of our turnover. This is the future, a difficult future, because the government doesn’t keep pace with new curriculums by providing money for teams of authors to produce new series of books. General publishing is difficult. I think I’m almost the longest serving publisher in the Publishers’ Association Council, and many years ago I did a private survey. I cross-examined about fourteen of the larger publishers in order to discover how many of their books paid, and the figures were not uninteresting. More than half of all the books they published made a loss, another twenty-five percent just covered the costs, and the number that made a profit was absolutely minimal – under ten percent. Nowadays the reasons are of course perfectly clear: auction of rights, squeezing by powerful retailers, inadequate funds for public libraries and so on. But I needn’t tell you all that, you must know it all.
One of the changes in publishing is that what used to be called flair has given way to market predictions, trends and committees. Do you regret the passing of the good old days, so to speak, or are you resigned to the changes?
Oh no, you can’t be resigned to them. I believe that if the man who has flair has the persistence and energy to publish a book and has the stamina to follow his enthusiasm right the way down, he’ll make a success of it. I don’t want to be conceited myself but I remember well that my grandfather had not published any poetry for a long time, and since I knew Betjeman at Oxford I came back with a sheaf of his new poems. My grandfather said, ‘My dear young fellow, we can’t start publishing that sort of thing.’ I told him I thought they were so good and would catch on and that some of my friends had been very excited by them. I felt so strongly that I offered to guarantee them with a hundred shares of Bovril that he had given me for my eighteenth birthday. He agreed, and I never had to sell the Bovril shares.
Have you ever discovered the secret of successfully predicting a book’s sales?
That’s a difficult one. This immediately raises in my mind the failures and successes for which I have been responsible. I have a perfect example of a book about which people were lukewarm turning out to be a great winner. There wasn’t much hope in the office for a book called The Story of San Michele. We only printed about a thousand copies, so little did we think it would succeed. Then H.G. Wells reviewed it in the Evening Standard and said it was the most extraordinary book with plots that would keep a short-story writer happy for the rest of his writing life. From that moment it shot off, has been published in eighty-two translated foreign editions and has sold something like eight million copies.
Do you still get unsolicited books which turn out be to be winners or are they mostly commissioned now?
It’s increasingly rare that typescripts coming out of the blue are any good at all. If commissioned, they are mostly by authors we already know. I remember a long time ago, however, commissioning a fascinating book, thanks to Bernard Shaw. He had just met the Benedictine nuns at Stanbrook who were writing a book about the abbess, and he advised me to go down and see Dame Felicity. The Benedictines at that time had a double grille through which one had to speak. I arrived at the abbey, rang the bell, and the lay sister opened the door and asked me to follow her. She then turned to me and asked if I were accustomed to talking through a double grille. I told her I was not and that I was petrified. She said, ‘Mr Murray, you needn’t worry, it’s not like them Carmelites what have spikes on their grilles.’ For about two years we worked on the book. The manuscript has to be put in a drawer in the double grille which she pushed to me and I then made comments and pushed it back; I never saw her face. If it was autumn when I came there was always a little basket of plums in the double drawer for me to take home if it was spring there was a little basket of eggs. It was a marvellous book and a good financial success. It told the story of the abbess, and the correspondence between Bernard Shaw and the abbess of Sidney Cockerell in which they communicate about death and religion. It became the play The best of Friends with John Gielgud and Cockerell.
How well did you know Bernard Shaw?
I knew him very well. I cured his wife of lumbago. I prescribed hot cabbage water with salt and pepper to drink, twice a day. It never fails. I used to be a martyr before I was married. I lived upstairs in the flat and I sometimes couldn’t get out of bed, and had to wait till the staff from the advertisement department rolled me off and put on my clothes. Then somebody told me about hot cabbage water which I still drink now.
But Shaw, what sort of a man was he?
I was very fond of him, but ye gods, he was unpredictable. He could be more rude than anyone but Evelyn Waugh. He used to come to parties here and he was heartlessly rude. I remember we had an author called Mrs Campbell who told me her long-felt wish was to meet Bernard Shaw. So I took her up to introduce her. He pierced her with a steely, terrifying look and said, ‘I only know one Mrs Campbell and you are not she,’ and turned away. But If you were on the right side of him he could be very kind. Evelyn Waugh was rather similar. He had a terrible urge to shock people; he couldn’t stop himself. I was never at ease with Evelyn Waugh. I was afraid he would do something unpleasant to somebody I was with. He was never nasty to me, because I probably wasn’t worth being nasty to, but funnily enough when he wasn’t like that I was fond of him and of course I had infinite admiration for him. I know of no one except P.G Woodhouse who had that marvellous literary skill of economy, who could describe a situation and a scene in the fewest words.
Which authors have you felt proudest to have published in your time?
Many come to mind. Apart from John Betjeman and Osbert Lancaster, Kenneth Clark played an important part in my life. As a result of my interest in architecture, I’d read The Gothic Revival which was a very early book he had written while still at university. I asked if we could reprint it and, because of that, we then published most of Kenneth Clarke’s other books, including Civilisation with the BBC. I’m keen on that example because, going back to before my time, there is a precedent with Charles Darwin. John Murray Three had read his Voyage of the Beagle and was so impressed by it that when he heard that the publisher was remaindering copies, he wrote to Darwin to ask if he could buy up the rest of the edition. Darwin said he would be very pleased, though he thought it would be a hazardous undertaking since the book hadn’t sold very well. Murray bought the sheets, rebound them and, treating it as though it were a new book, relaunched it. The whole lot was sold in a fortnight. He reprinted it, and from then on Darwin sent Murray all his books. There’s a fascinating letter years later from Darwin saying: ‘You very kindly said you’d publish my next book. It’s not what I thought it was going to be, and I release you from the promise to publish.’ Murray replied that he didn’t want to be released – fortunately, as it happens, since the book was The Origin of Species. The curious fact about this story is that Darwin wrote to Murray exacting a promise that he would not print more than a thousand copies. Of course it went like a bomb. Now the question is, what were Darwin’s motives in trying to restrict Murray? Did he honestly, kind man that he was, not want Murray to lose on it? Or was it that, although he wasn’t a churchgoer, he was reluctant to shake the religious views of other people? I think that’s why he did it. Murray did finally persuade Darwin to let him reprint. And I wish I’d been there to hear the arguments that Murray gave. I delighted in the Sherlock Holmes books, and in a way that was what first endeared me to authors. I was a schoolboy on my holiday and my grandfather was ill. He said, ‘I think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is calling today; will you be kind to him? I hope he may be bringing another typescript.’ Conran Doyle brought the last volume of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I was so staggered by this distinguished man’s courtesy to a young whippersnapper like me that I thought: if this is an author, let me spend my life with authors.
People often remark that there is something very thirtiesish about you… the dress, tweeds and bow tie, the high brow, the longish hair and your debonair manner…
Who says that? By God I’ll…I wish I could get hold of him…though it was probably a lady.
I don’t regard myself as being of any particular period because I am convinced that I’m not yet grown up. I don’t relate to any age, in fact I forget my age. My physiotherapist used to quote the following:
Man is not old when his teeth decay, Man is not old when his hair turns grey, But Man is approaching his last long sleep When his mind makes appointments his body cannot keep.
I sometimes still feel like a child and I’m sure there are many who feel the same. As a consequence one is appalled by one’s own ignorance of what’s going on in the wide world and, indeed, of all the literature of the past and all the things of the past. One feels an ignorant child.
But do you feel with age a kind of serenity you probably didn’t have twenty years ago?
No. I don’t…perhaps after the fifth glass of claret I might possibly feel it.
Do you still find yourself excited at the sight of a very pretty woman?
Oh, yes. I dream about them. At one stage I thought it would help me to go to sleep, but I have discovered that it doesn’t. One of the reasons I love going on the underground, the Northern Line to Hampstead, is because I’m fascinated by the different fashions. I’m particularly expert on the kind of bottoms that the authors have. I’m amazed that Americans always have such big bottoms and I think bottoms can reveal almost more clearly the character of a person…well perhaps not more than the face, but the way people move their bottoms gives a strong indication. And of course sexual impulse is still there. But, alas, no competence…
Do you have strong views about censorship?
I think censorship is right under certain circumstances, if you don’t want to be unnecessarily cruel to people or their beliefs. My view is very unpopular, but I’ve held it all along.
Have you ever regretted being a publisher rather than an author?
No, largely because I know too well that I am not equipped to be a good author. I have tried to write, and I can’t do it. I can rewrite like other people, I can prune like anything, but I can’t write.
Authors come with a great variety of personalities. Is there a sense in which you have to judge the man or the women as well as the work?
That’s a splendid subject. In our editorial meetings, if somebody suggests a book, I always ask if the proposer has met the author. If not, I always say, ‘Well, I would advise you not to put forward an agreement till you’ve seen him and you have talked with him, better still till you’ve eaten with him.’ I think this is frightfully important.
Tell me about Byron.
When Byron died Hobhouse (his executor) said, ‘Byron liked keeping his friends in hot water and it looks as though his remains will do much the same for his executors’. Of course this is true, but he had such a magnetic quality that John Murray Two bent over backwards to please him. His demands were excessive: when he was abroad he was always asking for Edinburgh powders, or racing dogs, indeed every kind of thing. In fact, if a new author came tomorrow and I had reason to believe that he would be as complicated as Byron, then unless his skill was very great, I think I’d turn him down. But Byron was Byron.
You have edited Byron’s letters. What is it about him that attracts you above all?
His immediacy. Let me illustrate it with an anecdote. You will know that we burned Byron’s memoirs in the fireplace where I used to warm myself as a child. Though I wasn’t present there was imbedded in me a sense of guilt. Many years later I thought the only way to make amends for burning Byron’s memoirs was to publish, collect and edit his letters. So we started. We had a great many here because of course we wrote to Murray but also got a lot from Lady Dorchester. Peter Quennell and I would meet one night a fortnight here in this room to decide if they were autobiographical enough to qualify as being memoirs, and secondly whether they were unpublished. One night, Harold Nicholson was here, sitting in the armchair, and we were reading a long unpublished letter, a fascinating account of what Byron had been up to that day – a riveting letter – and at the end, it gave the date, a Friday in March 1813. Harold Nicholson sat up in his chair, slapped his knee, and said, ‘So that’s where he was on Friday night!’ You see, that curious immediacy, the effect of our wanting to know every detail of Byron’s life is very extraordinary. And it hits anybody who approaches him. We still have Byron’s boots here. They came through Lady Dorchester who had a row with the Lovelace family and consequently left Bryon’s letters and many of his things to my grandfather. When the dust settles on his boots I clean them now and again and laugh at myself.
How would you most like to be remembered in the publishing world?
I suppose that I have been of some help in encouraging authors to create. I can’t really think of anything else of lasting value.
If you were to live your life over again, what are the two things you would be unlikely to repeat?
I’m reasonably safe on that score. I’ve only done one thing that I feel any guilt about and I’m sorry I did it. From the point of view of my work, I can’t think of anything that I would rather not have done; which is terribly dull. My main interest lies in the relationship between author and publisher. I was very pleased, for example, to discover a letter to Murray from an author who was a flop; he writes: ‘Dear Murray. You are the only publisher at whose table an unsuccessful author can sit at ease.’ Now isn’t that a claim to fame?
Are you a gregarious character? I mean, is it possible for you be seduced?
Oh I think so. Given the right circumstances, I’m eminently seducible.
Looking back, which period would you single out as being the happiest, most fulfilling, or saddest of your life?
I suppose the happiest, most exciting in a way, was from about 1930 up to the war, because that was when I was meeting new people, new authors. The saddest was when my mother, of whom I was very fond, became utterly helpless. Then there was the recent sadness of going to see Freya Stark; I published all her works and adored her, but when I went to see her last autumn in Italy, she hadn’t the foggiest idea who I was. That I found most unbearable.
People regard John Murray’s almost as a dynasty. Indeed Albemarle Street is a kind of last outpost of ivory-tower imperialism. How has this affected your life? Do you feel yourself to be in charge of something sacred?
I like the word imperialism. For a firm that’s been famous but never very big the word imperialism is very curious. It is sacred to the extent that it contains so much that is personal to so many authors who provided literature in this country. I regard myself as a custodian of all these things. We have all the early manuscripts and authors’ letters dating from 1768. If American publishers are being really beastly to me I like mentioning to then that we were publishing books when they were still our colony.
Most people who count as oldies would claim to have learned some important lessons in life. What are the lessons you have learned?
I hardly dare to give them to you, they’re so awfully dull. Modesty, because it safeguards against disappointment. By modesty I mean keep your head down or it’ll be chopped off. In so far as anyone can, try to develop a sense of humour, try and see the funny side of whatever it may be. And patience is vital, because then you don’t waste whatever your endocrine glands provide. The one that infuriates my wife is thrift. She gets very upset and confuses it with meanness, which it is not. It’s not wasting what you don’t use, it’s sending newspapers to be recycled. You can train yourself to be thrifty, yet never be mean. I turn out lights that are not being used, I try not to throw away food if it can be used. But on occasions, delicious occasions, a really good blow out is marvellous.