Before Utterly Immoral, No. 1, Dr James Douglas

Before Utterly Immoral, No. 1, Dr James Douglas

June 28, 2022

Utterly Immoral is the first full biography of Robert Keable. However, three writers and academics (Dr James Douglas, Dr Hugh Cecil and Dr Tim Couzens) all started work on writing or co-writing full biographies, and for different reasons did not complete their work. The first of these was the Church of Scotland Minister, journalist, editor, educator, and author, Dr James Douglas.

In November 2001 James Douglas plucked up courage to contact my father, Tony Keable-Elliott (Robert Keable’s first son), explaining his interest in Robert Keable.

As a young airman in 1942 I picked up a book in the YMCA at Redruth. It was Peradventure by Robert Keable. It fascinated me by its poignant dedication, its discussion of problems I too had encountered, and its literary style. (I had pretensions as a writer, and here was a man who could write.)

Over the years, second-hand bookshops provided me with other works by Mr Keable. My interest was rekindled during several years’ residence in Cambridge from the late 1950s when I was in touch with a number of former Westcott House students …

About 1968, en route to Australia, I stopped off in Tahiti, met a number of people who had known Robert Keable… and visited the grave.

I built up a substantial file, but apart from a short and very general report for a religious weekly published in 1977 to mark the 50th anniversary… I have done nothing with the material.

James Douglas finished the letter by explaining he was a bachelor who feared his executors ‘would be at a loss if left with [a] wide assortment of data on someone largely unknown today’ and he asked my father if he would be interested in receiving the material. My father wrote back to thank him for his letter and to confirm that he, and I, would be very interested in anything he had on Robert Keable.

Over the next two years James Douglas wrote a number of letters to my father, and with each letter came small bundles of paper. The bundles included many letters written to James Douglas (from the late 1950s and early 1960s), by old acquaintances of Robert Keable from his time at Westcott House. There were also extracts from the Dunstable School Magazine (where Robert Keable taught for a year) and much more. Despite his initial claim that he had ‘done nothing with the material’ James Douglas had clearly begun a biography, writing over 100 pages about Robert Keable’s early life. He told my father:

I did consider a biography, and was urged to do so by a publisher I know. I would like to say it was all your [my father’s] fault that I did not proceed with this (it would have been quite wrong for me to do so without consulting you), but there was more to it; not just that I did not quite have enough material, but I did not trust the publisher: an Oxford man whose qualifications to be my friend are of the sketchiest.

The letters have helped me, when writing Utterly Immoral, to fill in much of the background to Robert Keable’s life and to understand that, even when young, Robert Keable was seen by his contemporaries as a person of interest: extraordinary, clever and gifted.

James Douglas, himself, lived a remarkable life which was well documented in a few obituaries written after he died in 2003. What has not been published before is his own description of his life. Whilst corresponding with my father for two years he explained, over two letters, how his career ‘bristled with irregularities’.

[His brother] and I were sons of a Clydeside shipyard labourer who brought us up well in our single-room flat after mother died when I was two. Twelve years later we were conveyed one evening by horse-drawn coal cart to a more spacious dwelling two miles away.

I left school at fifteen with no “O” levels, worked as an office boy, then as “boots” in a Bridge of Allan hotel before volunteering for the RAF in 1941, serving mainly overseas. In early 1946, having won the war with the help of John Wayne, I was encouraged to read by an education officer in Tunisia. I wandered through the casbahs of Tunis and Algiers, picked up the sort of French no schoolboy was likely to know, acquired a proficiency that fooled Glasgow University’s French department, and sweet-talked the Dean of Arts to let me matriculate (he wisely saw five RAF years as an added entrance qualification).

That’s how a slum boy got ideas above his station.

After a year at Glasgow University when returning servicemen meant some students sitting on the floor at lectures, I transferred to St Andrews, graduated in non-distinguished fashion, then went on to the B.D., a higher degree, wherein I got distinction to the bewilderment of self and the faculty. A grant for PhD studies followed, then after a time in America I was appointed lecturer in ecclesiastical history at St Andrews.

This was disastrous. My heart was not in it, and I got out the following year, and cycled from Glasgow via Maidstone to Land’s End and back. Another disaster was a short-term ministry on the Isle of Bute complicated by my breaking off an engagement for reasons which I would not explain publicly, but which I have never regretted 45 years later. “The reasons a woman gives for withdrawing her love always seem valid; those of a man, never.”

There followed 3 years at Cambridge as librarian of a specialist library and editing a reference work; the editorship of The Christian, a weekly which closed because its American owners found me too radical; and a longtime association with another American publication, Christianity Today, which gave me scope for much travel (e.g. Tahiti) as editor-at-large.

Journalism became my first love, but I helped pay the bills by editing reference works. From 1988 I was volunteer lecturer at the most Chinese of Christian institutions in Singapore, keeping on my work as associate editor of the New Dictionary of National Biography.

James Douglas concluded:

Now as the small boy said of a birthday book, “This tells me more about penguins than I care to know.” You should never have asked, but I felt I owed it to you.

James Douglas died in 2003 before my father, or I, ever had a chance to meet him. Over his career he edited, wrote or cowrote over twenty books, mostly religious reference texts including the New International Dictionary of the Bible (published in 1987) and The Twentieth Century Dictionary of Christian Biography (published in 1995). Towards the end of his life, he was an associate editor of The New Dictionary of National Biography. Sadly he never had a chance to complete his own memoirs which he was working on up to his death. He initially planned to call it “The half that can be told”, but admitted in an email to my father that he favoured a new title: “Absurd from the very beginning.”