Peter Douglas

Peter Douglas in 1958
Peter on the 1958 school photo
Peter in 1961 
Ian has suggested that a potted autobiography might be helpful, so here goes.  A David Copperfield beginning!  It all started for me in Northampton in the spring of 1945, which is where and when I was born.  My home is on Stanton Avenue, and among my childhood playmates were several THS alumni: Ian Dow, who runs this website, Peter Crofts, and Lewis Freeman.  (See the “High Tech Toys of the Era” photo on this site. Here we are with our “trolleys.”  There seems to have just been a general distribution of ice lollies from Mr. Crofts at the nearby Greville Avenue post office.)  As well as the car-less streets, the hayricks of Moulton Park farm, and the broad fields and hedgerows were our playground.  In those days, up to the late 1950s, I could see cows grazing from my bedroom window until the Parklands development came and buried our fields with bricks, cut down the spinneys, and demolished the old farm.  Many of us come out of this era, so I’m sure we share such hard losses.

I attended Cedar Road Primary School (1950-53) and St. Matthew’s (1953-56), and I went to Trinity High School 1956-63, memories of which I have been recently reconstructing for this website.  I neither enjoyed nor disliked my school days.  I don’t think I ever really thought about it.  It was just school, and you had to be there.  Everyone just went, made friends, and endured it like the weather, with no great analysis.  I was good at French, I put up with history, and sort of liked English.  I see now that a lot a lot of one’s enjoyment and success (or lack thereof) had to do with the particular teacher.  Apart from cricket, I hated PT and games, and did not excel, and my teachers agreed.  I was lousy at maths, and this is the only exam I had to take twice.  (Luckily they eventually invented the pocket calculator, which made my disability less troublesome.)  My overall marks were adequate and I got by.  I only got seven detentions in seven years, and no caning since getting my hands whipped with bamboo by Mr. Ashby, the HM at St. Matthew’s.

After leaving THS in 1963 I went to the University of Leeds to study English, graduating in 1966. Back in Northampton, months of indecision and apprehension naturally followed, during which time The Future loomed as indistinct and threatening as it could possibly be.  However, its arrival was put off further by a long youth hostelling holiday in Switzerland and France.  Like so many of us, I had no clue what I wanted to do.

At that time my father was stage carpenter (later to be Front of House Manager) at the Royal Theatre and I had been a stagehand there since the age of 14, so I had a tough but enjoyable part time job there until I could bring my life into focus.  At the start of 1967 I got a job as library assistant in the public library on Abington Street for £12 a week.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, that was the start of my career in the library world.  It was something that had never occurred to me, but I “liked books” and there worse ways of earning a living.

The then Chief Librarian, was Mr. Halliday, whose pet theory was that by putting the books he thought people should read only on waist-high and thus very accessible shelves, he could improve the world.  He was very encouraging to me, and suggested that I might want to pursue this line of work and get professional qualifications.  Failing any other ideas, I ended up doing a post-graduate course Library and Information Science at Liverpool Polytechnic, 1967-68.  When I look back it amazes me to realize that at that medieval pre-desktop PC era, the word “computer” never occurred once in all our lectures and studies!

Wife, Marilyn in the 1980's 
In Cape Cod in 1975 
Me & my camera in the early 90's
Since I got a camera, I rarely appear in the picture 
After a few abortive attempts to find employment (when such interview failures perversely brought such great sense of relief) in 1969 I got a job as Assistant Librarian in the London Borough of Brent, and worked in Wembley.  I shared a Bayswater flat with a friend from the Leeds days and a few others.  This was pretty much a late extension of student life, for it was a houseful of young and none too house proud fellows out for a good time in the big city and I was eager to take advantage of all that London offered.

April 1971 was a memorable month for me as I got a new job (a promotion), a new flat, and a wife!   Marilyn is American, and comes from Troy in upstate New York.  In the 1960s she was working in New York Public Library and in 1966 went to England with a friend aboard the S.S. France.  They planned to stay for a holiday and ended up getting jobs and staying for many years.  I know how that works!  She was working as an English teacher and a librarian in a south London school at the time we met in 1969, but that coincidence of professions had nothing to do with us getting together, which happened simply because we had friends in common.

Marilyn’s sister was also married in 1971 and we flew to Los Angeles for that, so my first view of the US was, perhaps unusually, California.  By 1974 we were both ready for a change and the idea of a couple of years in the US in a new environment seemed attractive to me, and Marilyn was interested in getting back to her country.  So we came to the US that April, via a stopover in Iceland.  We lived with Marilyn’s parents in Troy NY for a few months and then got a flat, eventually moving ten miles south to Albany, the state capital, in 1976, when we both had jobs there.

At first I didn’t even want to invest in a house - putting down “roots” I thought, but common sense eventually prevailed.  Given my usual seemingly built-in resistance to change and upheaval, I stand thoroughly amazed now at the person I used to be who could simply pull up the stakes and go to live in another country, with no job!  But at the time I kidded myself that I was putting a two-year limit on my stay in the US.  Living in a foreign country was certainly interesting and life here was so very different from anything in my experience.  I have since made up for this youthful bravado and adventurousness by staying on here and getting into a bit of a rut, though I have never seen myself as an “immigrant.”

Back in 1974 I sent out a blizzard of résumés for library positions, and responded to many advertisements, all in vain.  For a while I worked as stage carpenter at the Cohoes Music Hall, a beautiful 1874 theatre that was being refurbished.  On the strength of my modest experience at the Royal Theatre in Northampton and a ridiculously glowing letter of recommendation from the Tom Robinson (Head of Design there until his death in 1976), much to my amusement, the theatre’s director was encouraged to believe that I had some abilities as a carpenter.  All agree, however, that in this case the apple fell a very long way from the tree!

Peter & Marilyn in the Mohawk Valley, NY,  in 1987
Marilyn succeeded in getting a job with the State Library in 1975, a year before I did.  She worked in many departments, including Manuscripts and Special Collections and Legislative and Governmental Services.  For the last ten years before her retirement she was with the Division of Library Development, with many statewide responsibilities.

My unpromising career in the theatre world came to naught as after several interesting though arduous months there I got a job in what was then called the New York State Library for the Blind and Visually Handicapped (now the NYS Talking Book and Braille Library).  I put my name on the state civil service listing right away, and in 1975 I was called for an interview with the Director, an aging Southern belle from Mississippi called Adamae Henderson, who was full of flamboyant charm and exaggerated gestures, and, fortunately for me, an unabashed Anglophile.  I think I had the job after uttering my first sentence.  I used my accent shamelessly in those days.

This is where I work (taken from a postcard) & below is where I live
The Library for the Blind, as it was then called, is in the network of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, a division of the Library of Congress in Washington DC.  We in Albany NY are one of the 56 Regional Library in this nationwide programme, and my library serves the 55 upstate counties of New York State, probably an area the size of England, so most of the service goes by post.  We’re basically a public library offering books in braille and recorded formats to people who can’t read or hold a book because of a physical disability, including problems other than visual.  The national programme has been around since 1931, but my library dates from 1896.  We are also part of the New York State Library, in the NYS Education Department.

That brings us up-to-date, even though we were just back in 1975!  Since then I have had a promotion, endured the idiosyncrasies of three bosses, worked with four computer systems, and in two buildings, the library having moved from a dilapidated neighbourhood ex-garage to the gigantic marble beehive called the Cultural Education Center in the Empire State Plaza, near the State Capitol in Albany.  It’s a long time in one place, I know, but with so many changes going on it’s almost as if I’ve held several different jobs.  And now the innovation of “digitally recorded books” is on the horizon, cassettes becoming obsolete, presenting yet another big change for me, unless I decide to retire!  Marilyn used to work for the State Library too, and retired in 2004.  I think about retiring now and then, especially on bad days, and it’s only a matter of time I’m sure, for I am one of the few people I know who is still working.

I’ve been back to England several times over the years, though not as much as I could or should.  When my mother died in 1984 I stayed in England with my father for three months that summer, and that was the longest spell there since I left.  I found huge and disheartening changes had already taken place in my home town, with the construction of the Grosvenor Centre and the destruction of the Emporium Arcade, and so many other areas of the town destroyed and what were once green fields with uninspiring gulags now built on them.  I was already becoming a stranger in my native environment.

I became a US citizen in 1995, but only for convenience and only because Britain recognizes dual citizenship, so I now have two passports.   I’ve had the chance, though business and pleasure, to visit many parts of this country, and some friends say that I’ve seen more of their country than they have.   It’s different beyond description, and impossible to comment concisely or fairly on so vast and varied a country.   I suppose I enjoy the lifestyle here, or perhaps it’s just too late now for any other life habit.  As the saying goes, no matter where you go, there you are!  I have to confess that my infrequent visits to England sometimes make my native land feel a bit like a foreign country, and I hate that, but I am still definitely English for all that!  Blood is blood, after all.

Autobiographies by definition stop before the end, so I’ll leave my life here as a “work in progress.” And I do hope there’ll be more progress!

Peter Douglas
April 2007

Since this article was written, Peter has now retired.

Peter had contributed a series of articles to this website, mainly in the Pupil Memories section.  They can be seen by clicking here [go]

The Tower Revisited  - The website for former Pupils of the Technical High School, Trinity High School & Trinity Grammar School, Northampton