Award-winning author inspired by condemned man

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The Independent Culture

Robert Douglas never expected it, but the time he spent on "death row" in Bristol prison paved the way for the former miner to carve out a new career as an award-winning author.

The 66-year-old, who had also spent some time living in doss houses in the centre of Glasgow, was not a condemned man.

He was one of three prison officers charged with providing round-the-clock company to a 23-year-old convicted murderer, Russell Pascoe - the last man to be hanged at the prison in 1963 before capital punishment was abolished.

It was only years later when he spotted an article on the 25th anniversary of the abolition of hanging that he wondered whether anybody would be interested in his story. He rang up his local paper and it was. He wrote it in ballpoint, sent it to the paper, got it published and was paid the handsome sum of £100.

That opened up a whole new chapter in his life. His success prompted him to go on a creative writing course to improve his writing skills. Now, three Book of the Month awards later, he is being honoured with a senior learner award at the annual adult education awards - organised by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education - to be announced on Monday.

Douglas was born and brought up in the tenement blocks of poverty-stricken Glasgow. His mother died of cancer, aged 36, when he was 15 and - on the day of her funeral - his father gave him an ultimatum.

"He told me I could go and live with him and his fancy woman or join the boys' service of the Royal Air Force [where he could live in]," he said. "He knew it was no choice. He knew the loyalty I had to my mother."

In fact, his first book, Night Song of the Last Tram: A Glasgow Childhood, dismisses his father in its first paragraph - in which he says that, if he had died in the Second World War in the north Africa or Italy campaigns, he could have looked at the plot where he had been lain to rest and pondered about a loving, lost relationship. "Unfortunately, he survived and came home," it continues.

That book was awarded the book of the month award from Publishing News when it came out in November 2004 - and won Scottish book of the month awards from Waterstone's and WH Smith.

He is now on the second part of his autobiography - which will deal with the time he left school and his early years as a miner, living in a Glasgow doss house and his work as a prison officer. A third part is in the pipeline.

He recalls how a primary teacher, Miss Ivy Ross, gave him a love of learning. She was his "Miss Jean Brodie" - telling stories of how she had spent her summers on a tramp steamer touring Africa.

His algebra teacher at secondary school, however, had the opposite effect, dishing out lashings of his belt to anyone who he perceived not to have understood his lessons.

He left school with no qualifications and soon discovered the RAF Boys' Service was not for him. So he went to work at Polkemmet Colliery in West Lothian - going down the pit as soon as he was old enough at 17.

He spent two years on national service, returning to Glasgow afterwards only to find it was "fair fortnight" when the city shut down for the summer holidays.

With no money, he had little option but to lodge at the Great Eastern Hotel - a doss house. "The rest were all drinkers and tramps - but it was the cheapest place I could find," he said. "I stayed there for two months - just sleeping there - until the mother of a friend found out where I was and insisted I stayed with them."

It is these memories that are being vividly brought out in his books. He spends three hours a day writing now and finds that - even if he is not in the mood to start with - he can soon get into his stride as the memories come flooding in.

It was his recalling of the time he spent with Russell Pascoe, who - with a friend - had murdered a Cornish farmer, though, that set him off on the writing path.

Pascoe converted to Christianity in the last three weeks of his life and one of those protesting outside the prison on the day of his execution was the local Labour MP, Tony Benn.

Douglas, who lives with his wife and has two children from a previous marriage, showed the published article to a neighbour who was a writer. "She asked me: 'Did you write this yourself?'" he said. "I said: 'Of course I did.' She said I should keep it up as it was good. I signed up for the Workers' Education Association's creative writing course. I owe a lot to them. They helped me improve my story structure. They told me dialogue is my strong point."

The awards ceremony has been endorsed by the actor Christopher Eccleston who said: "It provides the opportunity to salute the hundreds of adults that have overcome barriers to achieve through learning."