Somewhere To Lay My Head

by Robert Douglas

Hodder & Stoughton, 340pp, 14.99

I'M SORRY I MISSED ROBERT Douglas's autobiographical debut, Night Song of the Last Tram - an omission I plan to rectify - about a Glasgow childhood overhung by a bullying father and ended irrevocably by the death of his mother.

But I'm delighted to make his belated acquaintance in this book, enjoying every step with a natural-born writer as he travels the road from reluctant 16-year-old RAF recruit in the winter of 1955 to married man with young son about to face a new and challenging job in Durham.

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Enjoying every step because it is a plain tale plainly told in an unaffected style; he has a great ear for the dialogue of a barracks room, a coal mine, hotel kitchen, doss house or a family tea, pins down all-too-human characters in a sentence or two - and a number of times he made me laugh out loud.

He also recaptures the late 1950s and early 1960s, rekindling memories for those of us who were there or thereabouts and bringing them alive for those who weren't. It was not necessarily fun in Blackburn, West Lothian, where he goes to lodge with his Uncle Jim after deliberately and persistently offending often enough to be discharged from a RAF signing that his father had forced him in to: "Supermarkets are way off in the future. Private cars are at a ratio of two or three per street. When a married couple go into Bathgate on a Saturday their purchases are limited to how much they can carry on the bus ..." And the brown paper bags usually burst on the way home.

The highlight of a week is buying the latest Elvis record and starting to go to dances, a pleasure spoiled only by the rampant acne on his face and, he believes, the plookiest body in the universe. After months in the screeching din of a coal-sorting shed, he becomes a miner at 17, seeing death when a shot-firer is crushed by a roof fall.

"As the stones fell on him the weight had driven him down and snapped his legs like matchsticks, the bones coming through the skin," he writes. "We lay him gently on the stretcher and tuck blankets round him. As I take my hands away I see my palms are covered in blood. To my surprise I don't feel sick."

He enjoys the work, 9 a week, and finds first love. When that goes wrong, he goes to live briefly in deepest south-west Scotland with his father and that unpleasant man's much more likeable new wife, before returning to Glasgow - out of money, out of luck and in the Great Eastern Hotel, only one step above being on the streets.

Douglas is remarkably cheerful about being unlucky, unloved and nearly out, always regretting the death of his Ma in her late thirties. But he never gets too down, helped by a friend's mother, the peerless Lottie. With her "your arse in parsley" approach, she yanks him out of the Great Eastern for home cooking - home frying in her case - until he settles in to a job and better lodgings.

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Not for long. He worked his ticket out of the RAF because it had been his father's idea, but wants to make a success of two years' National Service in the army to prove he can do it. He does, as described in the last and best third of a page-turner, from the freedom from infection induction by a fastidious young medical officer ("This necessitates me handling your private parts. I know we haven't been introduced and I haven't had the decency to take you out to dinner, but that's the army for you") to the tears in his eyes as he listens to the Last Post on his last night.

Between the two events he gives as convincing and entertaining a picture of an assortment of young men living together as I've read for some time: from the Beano reader to the slightly more literate Rover and Wizard men and the Oscar Wilde fan, from the world-championship wind-breaking competitions to the earnest attempt to be best with a Bren gun, from the Saturday night dancing to the long-distance hitch-hiking for a weekend back in West Lothian with his fiance.

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Asked to stay on and become a regular soldier with immediate prospects of making corporal, he swithers then decides against. At 23 it's back to civilian life, the start of a family and a job as a meter reader with the gas board. But not for long. At the end of this book he is about to start a 15-year career with the prison service, most of it in a maximum security jail with unpleasant criminals. If anyone can raise a laugh out of that it will be Robert Douglas and I suspect he will before long.

• Robert Douglas is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday 21 August.