Book Festival interview: Robert Douglas, author of Last Dance at the Wrecker’s Ball
ROBERT Douglas unlocked a treasure trove of memories when he started writing about his beloved Glasgow, says Susan Mansfield
PICTURE a young man on a train. It’s 1955. Robert Douglas has just turned 16, and his world has changed. His beloved mother has died, and he’s leaving Glasgow for the first time, packed off by his father to join the Boy’s Service at RAF Cosford. As the train trundles south, he thinks about Glasgow. About the tenement at 14 Doncaster Street, Maryhill, the only home he ever knew. About the back courts, the Blythswood Cinema, Cocozza’s Cafe, the smell of his mother’s cooking, the sound of the trams. And he locks it all up inside his head because he never wants to forget a single thing.
“I was broken-hearted,” says Douglas, a lifetime later, sitting opposite me in a restaurant near his Northumberland home. “I’d lost my mother, I’d lost my pals, I’d lost my street, I’d lost everything I knew. I remember saying to myself, I’m not going to forget anything, not a thing.”
And he didn’t. When he came to write a memoir some 50 years later, the best-selling Night Song of the Last Tram, his recollections were as fresh as the day he filed them away. The book has gone on to sell 130,000 copies, and was followed by two further volumes of autobiography: Somewhere to Lay My Head and At Her Majesty’s Pleasure, about his years as a prison officer. These in turn have been followed by a trilogy of novels about Glasgow, the third of which is about to be published.
Douglas is a natural storyteller, and he has a story to tell today: the story of how he became a writer. Like all good storytellers, he lets it take its time, unfolding, twisting and turning, offering glimpses of what is to come. Like all good stories, it has an element of suspense: how did a lad who left school at 15 with no qualifications come to publish six books?
He admits there are days when he can hardly believe it himself. “If anybody had said to me, even when I was in my thirties, ‘Do you ever think you’ll write, Robert?’ I would have said, ‘Don’t be bloody stupid!’ To me, anybody who wrote had been to university, or at very least had stayed on at school until 17. I just assumed that, being a working man, you were allowed to read and you could enjoy movies, but you didn’t write.”
Looking back now, though the signs were there. As a child, he couldn’t wait to be eight, the age he had to be to join the children’s lending section at Woodside Library. By the time he was 11, he’d read his way through almost everything they had. He devoured cinema, drank in stories, listened to the Maryhill menfolk telling war stories and picturing the scenes in his imagination.
But there were also difficult times. “My father was a nasty little bugger. He used to knock my mother and me about. But the good thing was there were lots of times he was away, and there was just my mother and me, which was great.” Seeing a film with her at the Blythswood, followed by an ice cream in Cocozza’s, was all young Robert needed to make him happy. Her death from cancer, aged 36, changed his life. He still wears her wedding band on his finger, bought back from the pawn shop after she died. He remembers the last time his father visited, with a drink in him, snarling at his mother: “Look I’m just waiting for you to die so that I can get married again, so f***in’ hurry up, will you?” She died ten days later.
Three years after his departure for RAF Cosford, he was back in Glasgow working on the docks. “The trams were still running, it was still my Glasgow. I used to go back and stand at my close and pretend as if my mother was in the house getting the dinner ready. As long as I didn’t go into the back, it would be true, as long as I didn’t put it to the test.”
Then came marriage, children, a job in the prison service, first in Birmingham, then Durham. He worked with prisoners such as train robber Charlie Wilson, gangster Ronnie Kray, Russian spy Gordon Lonsdale and Moors murderer Ian Brady (who once gave him a recipe for tattie scones). In 1963, he sat with Russell Pascoe, one of the last men in Britain to be hanged, ironically on a kind of suicide watch. “Oh aye,” he says, wryly, “he wasn’t allowed to harm himself, the state was going to do that.”
While he was a prisoner officer he had the opportunity to attend extra-mural classes at Durham University. He also taught himself German during the long, slow nights on gate duty. “By the time I was in my late thirties, I was beginning to realise I have a brain. My father was always saying to me, ‘You stupid bugger,’ but I was starting to think ‘You’re not bloody stupid at all’, even though I haven’t been educated to the level I could have been.”
For his 40th birthday, his second wife, Pat, gave him a box of oil paints, and he immediately began to paint scenes of Maryhill. Colourful pictures of the cinema, the cafe, the back close adorn the walls of his house, along with the “no. 14” he salvaged from Doncaster Street before it was demolished, and a destination plate from the Maryhill tram.
He still hadn’t considered writing, but on the 25th anniversary of the hanging of Russell Pascoe he penned – carefully, in biro – a short article for a local newspaper. Other pieces followed, fragments of what became his memoir. Then he won a short story competition. By the time he took early retirement and joined a writers group in Hexham, he had been published more than most of the other members. His tutor there, poet Brendan Cleary, encouraged him to publish a memoir but it took three years and 19 rejections before he found a publisher for Night Song, which immediately became a Scottish bestseller.
Even after three volumes of autobiography, he was none too sure he could write a novel until he hit on a winning idea: a tenement in Maryhill, where the lives of 12 different households intertwine. Set in 1951, Whose Turn For The Stairs? captures a world of single ends and outside toilets, a Glasgow slowly emerging from the shadows of war. At 18 Dalbeattie Street, ex PoW Billy McLaren enjoys practising his German with war bride Irma Armstrong, romance blossoms for Robert Stewart and Rheo O’Malley from opposite sides of the sectarian divide, and everything unfolds under the benign eye of matriarch Granny Thomson. Once Douglas hit his stride, scenes started to unfold “like a movie” and he could barely type fast enough.
“You might think when I started my first novel I would have the good sense to start with something easy,” he laughs. “A tenement close, 12 flats, about 28 characters – I was writing a bloody Russian novel! It’s all very much based on memories, especially of my mother and all her pals. The men thought they ruled the roost, but really the women ran the show. The men went to work and went to the pub on Friday and Saturday nights – some of them were good but most were a variation on my father.”
Coloured with a gentle, but never sugary, nostalgia, the books have found a ready readership. The sense of warmth and community is offset by a willingness to write clearly about the more difficult things, like Richard Sneddon, who savagely beats his wife Marjorie. “I’m not trying to write great art, great literature. I just write about working-class people, the movies, the music, going to the dancing, and the trials and tribulations that sometimes happen to you.”
The sound of the passing trams is a constant in the background. The second in the trilogy, Staying On Past the Terminus, marks the end of the trams in 1962. “Glasgow was the last city in Great Britain to do away with the trams. On the last night of trams, there were a quarter of a million people on the streets of Glasgow to say goodbye to them, it really was a major event.”
Last Dance at the Wrecker’s Ball describes Dalbeattie Street a decade later. The close is marked for demolition. The residents are moving out, accepting new homes in modern estates. The cinema has become a bingo hall. But, while they watch Upstairs Downstairs on black and white televisions, they still like to socialise at the Rendezvous Dance Hall.
Douglas is already six chapters into his next project, a stand-alone novel, You Can Get It At Ingrams, set in a fictional Glasgow department store in the 1950s. Having hit his stride as a writer in his late sixties, does he wish that he had started sooner? He looks thoughtful. “No, I think it’s good that it all marinated in my head, all my experiences. I’ve had time to think about it over the years, make up my mind about things. I’ve read a lot and watched a lot of movies, I’ve got my own ideas about prose and how to present a story. I think I’m a better writer because I’ve started late.”
He has had the good fortune to hit on his subject, the Glasgow of the post-war years, the world of those carefully preserved memories which take him back to his childhood home, to his beloved mother. “I’m writing the kind of book I want to read. It’s my link with my Glasgow, my link with my mammy, my single end. I’m writing these for me – if nobody else is going to write it, I’ll write the bugger myself!”
• Last Dance at the Wrecker’s Ball by Robert Douglas is published by Hachette Scotland, price £16.99. Robert Douglas is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Cynthia Rogerson this Sunday, 26 August, at 6:45pm
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