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The Background to 'The Impatient Horse'

George Murray wrote The Impatient Horse - one of the most sought-after Ladybird Books today. This article is by his son.

A near-pristine copy of The Impatient Horse has been sitting quietly on my shelves for more than fifty years, no doubt one of the six traditionally handed to writers on a book’s publication. It was given me by my father. For him and for all of his immediate family this Ladybird book was something to smile at because George Murray, author of The Impatient Horse, was known to the adult world as a respected, indeed an eminent, Fleet Street journalist. He was the Daily Mail’s chief leader writer from 1939 until his death in 1970, writing his ‘comment’ column five days a week until 1965 and still writing at least two leaders a week until his death in 1970.

The opening scenes of The Impatient Horse were based on actual events at his home. In the nineteen-forties and fifties United Dairies used to deliver milk around Esher, where we lived, using horse-drawn milk carts. My mother, who had a very kind heart, was in the habit of giving the milkman a cup of tea which he would drink in the kitchen.

‘He’d sit in a chair in the kitchen and there would see that the kettle was on’ …

The old horse, left outside, would frequently try to find him and would walk into our front garden, dragging his cart across the pavement to the dismay of the morning commuters, hurrying on their way to the railway station. The house and the road outside are still just as they were fifty or sixty years ago (though undoubtedly with more cars driving past).

John and Mary, of course, were based on real people, my sister and I, as was the milkman, pictured in the book but not named. I am afraid it is unlikely that the horse was called Horace as in the story, although United Dairies assured us ours was the last horse to go when the company replaced them with battery-driven floats – which have themselves now been replaced by a Diesel lorry.

The very house in Esher where the original horse grew impatient. Surprisingly Xenia Berkeley's illustrations closely resemble houses in the street.

George Murray was born in 1900. Like almost all journalists of the first half of the 20th century, he started his working life in the provinces after 2 years in the Merchant Navy in the aftermath of the First World War. He worked as a reporter on the Farnham Herald, the Hampshire Herald and the Southern Daily Echo. In times past he told me how he used to cycle round the Hampshire villages, calling on the vicar, the publican and the local policeman to find out about the weekly happenings. But when not writing for the news pages, which in those days were given almost entirely to reports of council meetings, magistrates’ courts, parish news and flower shows, he would contribute stories and light verse to such feature pages as there were in those more serious days.

The Battle of Alton is a very early example, which I found looking through a numbers of old cuttings in my attic. It was written around Christmas 1926:

‘You’ve been to St. Lawrence’s often before
And looked at those little round holes in the door.
But are you aware
That if you go there,
With the snow on the ground and a nip in the air’ . . .

and so the piece goes on.

When he moved to Fleet Street in the early 1930s there was less time for these frivolities and one suspects that after 1939, during the Second World War, they were hardly appropriate, particularly when the supply of newsprint was strictly controlled. Even The Times had only six pages. The Daily Mail, was rationed to four.

Nevertheless his journalism was not limited to his necessarily anonymous daily leaders. He would frequently write articles for the editorial pages under his own name. One Christmas, soon after the war, he remembered a verse fantasy he had written years before and suggested it for the Mail. I remember his writing, very correctly, to the editor of probably the Hampshire Herald, asking for permission to reproduce the piece which he had written twenty years before.

The wider readership of the Daily Mail loved it. They became a yearly feature at Christmas, light-hearted, written in rhyming verse and most of them reflecting prominent news stories of the last year: The Shop in Snowflake Steeet, 1955; Santa’s Sputnik 1957; The First Man in the Moon, 1958; The White Fur Hat, 1959. By 1961 (Santa’s Go-Slow) the article was announced as ‘The Feature in Verse that has become part of the Daily Mail Christmas’.

He was a modest man and had no illusions that he was writing great poetry; he used to call it ‘the old jingle-jangle’. But his verses were ingenious; they pleased and entertained their readers; the Daily Mail was happy to pay him a few extra guineas for them. He used to point out that John Milton earned only five pounds for Paradise Lost.

In what would now be called his day job George Murray reached the top of his profession. He became a member of the Press Council in 1953, and subsequently its chairman in 1959. He was given a CBE in 1958 and became a director of Associated Newspapers, the company that owned the Daily Mail, in 1955.

I am afraid he never reached such heights in his poetic career. Although The Impatient Horse ran to three editions (at least), two other such stories were never published, The Fairy Fair and The Magic Bus. My attic has revealed no manuscript for either, though there is a set of charming Xenia Berkeley pictures for The Magic Bus."

John Murray,   March 2008

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