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
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
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.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?