Author Millie Gray recalls hard times in Leith

Millie Gray has just published her fifth book. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Millie Gray has just published her fifth book. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THE words on the page swam in front of her eyes and young Millie had to concentrate hard to avoid the wrath of Miss Irvine.

Millie’s big sister, June, sat alongside, behind the hard wooden desks of Hermitage Park Primary School’s remedial class, hoping with all her young might that today would be the day the scary teacher would just leave her alone.

But, recalls Millie, it wasn’t to be.

“June was petrified by this woman. My sister was above average intelligence but neither of us could spell. Today we’d be classed as dyslexic, but that had never been heard of back then.

“June was so badly treated by that teacher that one day she had a panic attack and ended up being taken to hospital because everyone thought she was having a heart attack.”

It was the mid-forties when Millie, June, their three sisters and two brothers were living in Restalrig Crescent. But it was in the Leith of cramped tenement homes, with its bustling docks, tight knit community, desperate poverty offset by larger than life characters, that her heart really lay.

Millie – once she married husband Bob, she became Millie Gray – was born there, in Admiralty Street to be exact. And Leith was stamped into her DNA, through her mum, who raised the children alone when Millie’s dock worker dad left, her grandmother and her fascination with the real life stories of poverty, courage and tragedy they would tell.

Now 80 and thanks, she firmly believes, to that childhood struggle with dyslexia which forced her to train her memory to recall even the tiny details of her life, Millie has just published her fifth book, the latest in a string of novels based on life in Leith in the first half of the 20th century.

Five books in five years is a remarkable achievement for someone who’s now entered their ninth decade – a point when many may be daunted by the idea of even switching on a computer, never mind rattling out a 230-page novel.

And it’s even more striking that her books have touched such a pertinent nerve with library users across the country that more than 30,000 people borrowed a Millie Gray novel last year. Attempt to get your hands on her latest, The Tangling of the Web, and you may face a wait – almost every copy held by Edinburgh’s libraries is currently on loan.

For someone who has lived with dyslexia all her life this, naturally, tickles Millie greatly.

“I only started to write when I was 75,” she smiles, “and it has been very nice to know people want to read my books.

“I’m not exactly in the same league as Ian Rankin or JK Rowling for people wanting to borrow what I’ve written, but it seems I am doing exceptionally well in libraries. I suppose I write for a library culture – people who are like me, my age group, who grew up and couldn’t afford books so they went to the library.”

What they seem to love is Millie’s attention to detail – streets long since crushed by the march of time and the bulldozer feature in her often gritty tales of Leith family life, while pubs, shops and businesses, a few with slight name changes, are often recognisable from the days when the port was a bustling hub of trade and commerce.

Indeed, her new book takes readers on a journey into a fictional “spit and sawdust” pub not unlike the same gritty bar where her own mother worked as she tried her best to earn enough money to keep her family fed and clothed.

Behind the counter of Dolan’s Bar – just like the lead character of her new book – Millie’s mum tried to support women driven to prostitution in a bid to put food on the table and battled to raise the standards of a typically rough and ready working men’s pub.

“There was a room off the bar that they called the ‘jug’ bar where women would sit and drink red biddy – cheap red wine.

“There were a lot of prostitutes in the area and they would frequent the bar. My mum tried to straighten them out and encourage them to try to get a decent job in the bonds. She always said ‘never condemn your sister woman because that might be the only way she can provide for her children’. Life was hard for many.”

At the heart of her novels are strong, determined women – the backbone, says Millie, of the community she grew up in.

“The men went to work and instead of handing over their wages they would go to the pub,” recalls Millie.

“It was often the women who kept things going, kept the children fed and managed to survive. I’m not anti-men,” she points out, “they had hard lives too.

“My dad had arthritis of the spine and yet he worked in the coal store, a hard physical job that was painful. At least he brought the wages home to my mother before he left her. He just wasn’t one of life’s ‘copers’.”

In the past she’s laughingly described him as a “pioneer” who introduced the concept of one parent families – acutely aware that her own family was far from the first to find themselves raised single-handedly.

As her own life unfolded, Millie absorbed everything that went on around her.

And her grandmother – who lived in what today would be classed as desperate poverty but back then was hardly unusual – was always keen to regale her with tales about the Port, its people and its history.

The patchwork of stories, characters and places were stashed in Millie’s memory bank and used later as she found a talent for simply passing on stories of her own. She became a professional storyteller, later a published playwright and, as she refused to let advancing years slow her down, an Arts Champion for Older People.

Her first novel, A Class of their Own, was published five years ago and was based around Millie’s mum’s own battle to raise her children. Despite grappling with spells of depression and taking on board the troubles of others, her mother pushed her children into striving for a better life.

It meant that even though Millie’s sister June suffered at the hands of a vicious teacher who failed to understand her difficulties were not her fault, she went on to become a successful businesswoman.

“My mother raised seven of us when a woman would only earn half of what a man would,” adds Millie, who now lives with husband Bob, an ex-police officer, in Hamilton Drive.

“I remember my mum taking us to Craigentinny and showing us the houses. She said that one day we might be rich enough to live there. She had a hard life. The poverty was unbelievable – my grandmother in Admiralty Street shared a toilet with 40 other people, yet today we all sit here moaning about the least wee thing.

“I think that’s why a lot of people like the books, they know what those times were like and they have seen all the changes like I have. Like me, they can remember when you could walk from Tower Place to Ocean Terminal and not meet another human being and when the docks came out it was like an anthill erupting with all the men employed there pouring out.

“There was shipbuilding, loading, unloading, trucks, the clatter of bottles being filled in the bonds, all that going on where today there are gourmet eating houses and wine bars.

“But it’s the same in a lot of places – Glasgow, Leven, Methil, Leeds, Newcastle, strong communities with the same kinds of stories.”

Her remarkable memory and her determination not to let the hardships and toil faced by Leithers of generations past be forgotten keeps her writing, telling stories and giving talks, and despite turning 80, she’s now started writing what will be her sixth novel.

“Lots of old people think they are not any use any more. But we’re living longer and healthier and we have to fill that time with something, so I started to write.

“I’m not saying they should go out bungee jumping off the Castle,” she laughs. “But doing something is better than not doing anything at all.”

The Tangling of the Web by Millie Gray is published by Black & White Publishing, £7.99.

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