Dedication

Pat Craig (nee McKay) grew up during the pre-war years in Polmadie, a tough working-class district in the redoubtable sou’-side of Glasgow, Scotland. An only child, Pat had a Lithuanian mother and a somewhat aloof and emotionally detached father, who spent his life as a zealous trade-union official. Polmadie was, in those days, a typical Glasgow district of crowded sandstone tenements and mean, poorly lit streets. From the 1970s this whole district was gradually cleared to make way for untidy industrial estates, themselves now fallen into a wasteland of empty and derelict warehouses leaving no record of the generations of Glaswegians who once called Polmadie home.

Despite the social disadvantages of growing up in such a place, my mother was given the gift of a sound education. Perhaps unusually for working-class children at that time, she completed her senior certificate and went on to train as a stenographer – now a quaint and obsolete profession. Pat was an outstanding stenographer. Her typing speeds were a marvel and her shorthand breathtaking, but surpassing these was her extraordinary and almost freakish ability to spell accurately.

Mum met and married Iain Craig, my book- and history-loving father, in 1949 after he was demobbed from the army. I was born later that year and our little family became part of the great post-war migration to Australia: the £10 Poms. Pat went on to work as a secretary and stenographer right up to her retirement when she was an office manager with the large Australian electronics firm, AWA.


Having a mother who could spell better than Samuel Johnson wasn’t always fun. I would give her my homework with a quivering hand and wait timorously for the inevitable grilling. “Boy,” she would say, letting her glasses slip to the end of her nose and fixing me with that withering glare Scottish mothers have perfected over the centuries, “how do you spell ‘separate’?”

I always knew at that point my goose was cooked as I struggled desperately to remember. “Um ... s-e-p ..., ” I’d start, knowing I only had a 50/50 chance of getting it right, “... e-r-a-t-e?” Her eyebrows would arch ever so slightly – I was doomed!

“Go look it up in the dictionary,” she would say in a voice that was menacingly calm, “and write it out fifty times before dinner.” She was not to be trifled with, my mother.


There were other times, though, when her gift could make a wee boy ever so proud. Her friends, always in awe of my mum, would try her out: “Pat, how do you spell ‘onomatopoeic’?” someone would cheekily ask at a party – and mum would rattle it out faster than Don Bradman getting onto a full toss. Jaws would drop.

One particularly proud moment came when my mother was called in by my primary school headmaster. He wanted to show her a rude poem that I had contributed to, along with most boys in the class. However, unlike most of the other boys, I foolishly believed my literary effort was noteworthy enough to sign.

My mother dutifully took time off work and turned up to the interview with the letter from the headmaster in hand. As I stood there, trembling, he glibly slid the offending verse across his desk to my mother. She read it while I melted within.

“I’m utterly appalled!” my mother muttered, shaking her head in obvious distaste. I saw a conceited smirk begin to form on the headmaster’s lips and I simply wanted to be anywhere else but there.

“Yes,” he started with a self-satisfied tone, “we regard this as a most serious offence ...”

“No, no!” my mother interrupted. “I’m not concerned with the ramblings of pre-pubescent boys! That’s perfectly natural.” She continued as the principal’s face went blank: “What I’m appalled by is the unsatisfactory education your school provides these children! That these students are in seventh grade and still unable to spell adequately, tells me your teachers have failed them abysmally!”

The headmaster struggled to find a retort and began to wag his finger at my mother, always a serious mistake. “That certainly isn’t true, Mrs Craig ...” he began, but she stopped him in his tracks by rising from her chair and stretching to her imposing five-foot-nothing.

“Of course it’s true, you silly man,” she thundered, then flicked the letter he had written to her across his desk. “There are three spelling and four punctuation errors in that letter,” she declared with just a touch of triumph in her voice, “and I’ve circled them for your attention.” She swept from his office leaving a stunned headmaster and trembling boy gaping.

There was a God, after all.

Many years later, in the late ’80s, I was given a sobering demonstration of my mother’s awesome secretarial skills. I was then a partner in a small music-publishing firm that had all its books expensively typeset by specialist outside firms. In an effort to contain costs, we purchased two wonderful Apple Macintosh Plus computers: all-in-one boxes with a little six-inch, black-and-white screen to which we added a massive 1MB of additional RAM. Those were the days!

Our first project was to have the three books we already had in our catalogue converted into electronic text so we could do our own desktop publishing. Pat had not long retired and I suggested to my colleagues that she would be the ideal person to enter all the text. Mum had never touched a computer in her life. She knew nothing of word processors, copy-and-paste or spell-checkers – and she viewed the mouse with deep suspicion.

Nonetheless, we sat her down in front of a blank Microsoft Word document, showed her how to place the cursor and told her how to save. We also told her not to bother about layout, errors or paragraph structure: just type in the words and we’d do the rest. We guessed it would take her a number of sessions over a few days.

Mum was left battering the keyboard as if it were an old Remington typewriter. We were not expecting to hear much from her for some time, so we were a little surprised when she emerged three hours later to pick up her handbag and get ready to leave for home. “You’ll be back tomorrow to do some more, Mum?” I asked, hoping she wasn’t completely exasperated by these newfangled computers.

“Ah, no,” she said, “I’ve finished it all.” Our eyes widened in disbelief as she headed for the door saying, “You lot owe me a good lunch at a decent restaurant.”  We raced into the office to see if something was wrong. Had she missed half the chapters? Did she realise there were three books? It all seemed a bit quick! But no, it was all there: page after page of close-packed typing. She had done the chapters, index, copyright information and contents pages. All of it. We guessed she must have been typing at well over 100 words a minute!

So, I ran the spell-checker and we began to proofread – and it gradually dawned on us just how gifted my mother was. There was only one spelling mistake in the entire document – a letter missing from the end of a word – and one case where she had typed ‘the the’.

And that was it. We still talk about it twenty-odd years later.

My love of books and history come from my dad; they have always been his passion and became mine at an early age. However, my love of good English and my pedantry for correct spelling, punctuation and syntax come directly from my mother – and no one better could have inspired me. I doubt she would ever have believed I would one day become an editor, but she would certainly have approved – even if I still hesitate, if ever so briefly, when I write separate.

Wee Patricia McKay (as my dad always called her) passed away from a respiratory illness in 1992 while holidaying in her native land. I think the death of one’s mother always creates a wound that never really heals. It’s a scar that leaves a dull, empty ache for something lost; that tangible but indefinable part of one’s identity and being now simply vanished. But we should think ourselves blessed if we can bequeath a similar pain to our own children: for it will mean we were loved.

These pages are for you, Pat Craig.

Back to top …