This text was read out at the memorial event to Stephanie Wolfe Murray at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 23 August 2017 by my big brother Kim. Photo by Peggy Hughes.
One of my earliest memories as a three or four year old was being given the mighty responsibility of doing the washing up. It was my first real sense of accomplishment. This had been long trailed by Mum as a special treat in store for good behaviour. Now I was finally getting to do the washing up on my little stool feeling proud as punch. I was Mum’s little helper. I don’t remember how long it took for the penny to drop, that washing up was an irksome chore to be avoided at all costs.
But by that time it was too late. There were four of us, all boys, close in age I was the eldest and there was no avoiding being co-opted into the frenzy of morning and evening panics to get to school or get dinner together and, well, forget about homework. For a long time we commuted from a dilapidated country house in the borders to school in Edinburgh in a variety of second hand bangers that Mum would drive into the ground.
She was always working late so after school I would end up in the Canongate office at 17 Jeffrey Street circa 1975, packing books in the front window for the grizzled Australian sales manager Dave Morgan. Thick brown paper wrapping. Sellotape, proper twine tied tight, but not too tight, according to Dave’s exacting instructions.
The back rooms were Mum’s realm. Corridors of books and manuscripts. Often entire print runs would end up as semi-permanent towers squeezed behind doors. There would be a flow of interns, editors, accountants, publishers, authors and illustrators who themselves had become co-opted by Mum as part of the whirlwind carousel that was Canongate Publishing. It wasn’t that there was a massive number of books being published each year, but gradually the nest of home grown authors started to grow into a flock. Foreign titles, histories, really imaginative childrens books. Even….bestsellers…thank you Antonia Fraser, Jimmy Boyle, Alaisdar Gray for keeping Canongate afloat for these early years.
So Mum ended up through sheer chance at the centre of this Scottish literary revival in the 70’s when Edinburgh really felt like a cultural desert. However unlikely it seemed that someone from her background, with no higher education to speak of, with only a love of books and beauty and wild places, could pull this feat off. She did.
So we’re here to celebrate this tonight and we’re going to hear from those who worked closely with her as a publisher and a friend and were affected or influenced by her in some way. I can only say on behalf of my family that we have been quite simply overwhelmed and moved by the tributes and eulogies we have received from so many admirers from every walk of life. We all knew how special, how infuriating, how determined she was. Between ourselves we referred to her as the Boss. But she was also incredibly loving and kind and forgiving.
And I think that’s what’s going to stay with me into the future.
Many other people gave short talks at this memorial event to our mother, including Alexander McCall Smith, Alasdair Gray, Tom Pow and Jamie Byng. I will make available the audio recording soon.