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Robert Douglas, author




Robert Douglas’s first book was Night Song of the Last Tram.  Robert’s next two books, Somewhere to Lay my Head and At Her Majesty’s Pleasure, have consolidated Robert’s reputation as a most entertaining writer who combines the pithy and humorous with compassion and sentiment. In this image, he is seen with his wife, Pat.


As a prison officer, he watched over Ronnie Kray and Ian Brady. On retiring, he joined a North writing group and set to work on his first book.

It was at the age of 23, in 1962, that Robert Douglas started work as a prison officer and over the next 15 years he dealt with some of Britain’s most notorious criminals.

They include Moors murderer Ian Brady, East End gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray, and Russell Pascoe, who was hanged for his part in the death of a Cornish farmer, stabbed by Pascoe’s co-accused Dennis Whitty during a burglary

Pascoe, who admitted hitting the man with an iron bar, but claimed he was unaware Whitty had a knife, was hanged just before Christmas 1963 – months before the abolition of capital punishment and the last man to hang at HM Prison Bristol.

He was almost the same age as 24-year-old Robert, who was part of the deathwatch team who sat with Pascoe as he waited to go to the gallows.

“In 1988, I suddenly realised it was 25 years since I sat with this kid. By this time I wasn’t a prison officer. I was working for the Northern Electric Company, but I rang up the Bristol Evening Post and said that I sat with the last guy to be hung at the prison.” He then wrote a short story, reflecting on Pascoe’s final days.

“I wrote it out in Biro as I didn’t have a typewriter then and they paid me £100 for it. But it was just going to be a one-off.”

But, having moved to Corbridge, he showed the story to his neighbour, Audrey Graham, who suggested he write professionally.

“I told Audrey I had left school at 15 without an O-level to my name and she said, ‘I don’t care. If you wrote that, you should write’. So she pestered the life out of me.”

A short time later, he wrote a brief piece about growing up in Glasgow in the 40s and 50s “and how we considered ourselves a tram car city”.

It was the start of Robert’s writing career and he went on to write more than a dozen articles for the People’s Friend magazine, and all sorts of newspapers. Then came short stories which won competition prizes.

The stories he sent in were still written in Biro and this continued for six years, until he took early retirement in 1994 at 55. It was then he joined the Workers’ Educational Association writers’ group in Hexham, where his tutor Brendan Cleary recognised his natural talent.

Every week Robert would take in short stories based on his childhood and Brendan regularly suggested “getting all that Glasgow stuff put together” to send to a publisher.

Iit wasn’t until 2005, when Robert was 66, that his memoirs were published, as Night Song of the Last Tram, by Hodder and Stoughton.

In it, he describes the death from breast cancer of his mother, Janet. It was in December 1954: she was 36 and Robert was 15. After her death, he redeemed – for 11s 6d – the wedding ring she’d pawned when they were hard up. “This December, it’ll have been on my finger for 54 years.”

Life was to be even tougher. “My father off-loaded me into the boys’ service of the RAF so he could go off, as he didn’t want to look after me.”

This RAF career was short-lived and in 1962 Robert started as a prison officer in Winson Green Prison, Birmingham, moving to the old prison in Durham in 1970 and changing careers in 1977 to start at the electricity company.

While at Durham, he watched over Bruce Reynolds, one of the Great Train robbers; the Krays; and Ian Brady. Hodder and Stoughton was as interested in these experiences as in his Glasgow memoir – which sold more than 100,000 copies – and it commissioned two more books.

His second, Somewhere to Lay My Head – which continues his life story in the RAF and brutal conditions on returning to Glasgow – was published in 2006 and has sold 10,000 copies.

At Her Majesty’s Pleasure, about his prison experiences, has also sold 10,000 since its publication last year.

Robert says: “In the last three years, I’ve had such a wonderful time with this new career.

“I’m very much of my time. I was born just before the war; I have memories of during the war – I was six-and-a-half when it finished. I’ve very good recall and that’s half the battle.”

He can even remember some events from when he was two years old. “I remember the thunder and bangs and the bombs and the air raid sirens. And I remember my granny in her coffin, because people used to lie in the house in those days.”

He has fond memories of going to the cinema as a child and tells of his delight when in 2006 he met film star Lauren Bacall at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow.

“To meet Lauren Bacall, who I’d seen almost 60 years earlier on the screen, was amazing – I literally met an icon. I gave her a copy of Night Song of the Last Tram and got her to sign a dollar note for me – a 1957 dollar note, when they were called silver certificates. That was the year Bogey [Bacall’s husband Humphrey Bogart] died.

“I said, ‘Now look, Ms Bacall, you don’t need to read the whole book, just the chapter called Flickering Memories, because it’s about my childhood wartime cinema-going with my mother.” In it, he writes about watching Casablanca which co-starred Bogart. Each week, at his large terraced home, Robert meets up with others from Hexham writers’ group where he was a member for 11 years until 2005. They share work and give each other feedback.

He lives there with second wife Patricia, 60, a Newcastle Crown Court clerk, to whom he’s been married for 31 years. Robert, who has two children – Scott, 47, and Nancy, 45, from his first marriage – says: “I never go anywhere without my wife.” He has spoken at three book festivals in Glasgow, two in Edinburgh and one in Wigtown, just over the border.

“When I go, to me I’m just Bob Douglas. But people come along and, after three books, to them I’m Robert Douglas the writer. So, I have to
put on this writer persona. And now Robert is about to see his fourth book – and first novel – published. Whose Turn for the Stairs? is due out next August, published by Hachette Scotland Ltd (formerly Hodder and Stoughton).

He says: “The novel is set back in the 30s and 40s Glasgow and it looks as if it will lead to another trilogy.

“I’ll be 70 when my first novel comes out.”


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Last modified: Thursday, 16 January 2020