Award-winning author inspired by condemned man

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."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition