“And when you turned and smiled at me, A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square….”


Douglas used to say that we lived in a house “filled with flowers and music”, and it was true. But before our lives were joined there was always music, for me and for him. He was a choirboy, and with his fellow choristers was often invited to sing at Easter and Christmas in the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace: the holiness, the history, and the honour of participating made a lasting impression on him. He played drums in a teenaged dance band, “Rimshot Roy and his Rhythm Rascals”, before his country went to war in 1939, and he stood on the windswept decks of warships in front of swaying lines of seamen who were notorious for singing unholy variations of familiar hymns to embarrass their young lieutenant. “Except Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” he told me. “Sailors are a superstitious lot, and they would never meddle with that one, just in case they offended the Almighty and needed Him some day.” As, inevitably, throughout the long years of war, they would.

And at sea, over the airwaves, came music, and he would listen, sometimes to broadcasts by the enemy. “We had Dietrich, of course,” Douglas said, “but they had all the good songs. And everybody listened to Lili Marlene in German. It was just so sad and so beautiful.” He had, and I still have, a collection of Marlene Dietrich records, and when she sang that haunting signature song, so inimitably hers, I would never speak or interrupt, because I knew by the deep stillness in his face that he was back there in the darkness off the Hook of Holland, with the stink of cordite and the dying flares, the arc of tracer, and the North Sea on a November night with the red lights of life jackets in the water around him.

There is a scene in The White Guns, one of the most autobiographical books he ever wrote, where a melancholy showgirl in immediate post-war Germany sits on the lap of a lonely young naval officer, leaving traces of face powder on his uniform, and sings to him in “an atmosphere of memory and loss.” That was the Schloss Theatre in Eutin, near Kiel, and that officer was Douglas.

A year later he was walking the beat in London’s heavily bomb-damaged East End, face to face again with life and death, arresting young criminals who, like himself, had been recently demobbed, sorting out the locals on boisterous Saturday nights at the Salmon & Ball and other pubs, and singing coppers’ songs with lyrics as lurid as any unofficial hymn of the Royal Navy’s. He appeared as a soloist with the Metropolitan Police choir at the old Hackney Empire, singing, in his light baritone, Handel’s lovely air Where’er You Walk: at our wedding in St. James’s Cathedral in Toronto on October 5th, 1985 the organist, at my request, played Where’er You Walk as we signed the register. I had walked up that long aisle on my father’s arm to join Douglas at the altar to Clarke’s glorious Trumpet Voluntary, and our recessional was the Hornpipe in D Major, Suite No. 2 from Handel’s Water Music.

Two years before that, on March 12th, 1983, Douglas had been the guest of host Roy Plomley on the B.B.C.’s celebrated “Desert Island Discs” radio programme. My friend Oliver Bean recently found that interview on Spotify, but not everybody subscribes to Spotify, so here, for the record, are Douglas’s choices.

  1.  Gilbert and Sullivan, When I Was A Lad from H.M.S. Pinafore.
  2.  Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D, played by Yehudi Menuhin, who visited and performed for the Royal Navy in Iceland when Douglas was stationed there during the war.
  3.  Mendelssohn, The Hebrides Overture.
  4.  Lili Marlene, sung by Marlene Dietrich.
  5.  T.S. Eliot reading The Song of the Jellicles from his own Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a well-worn copy of which remains in Douglas’s study.
  6.  Boyce, Symphony No 1 in B flat major, music with which Richard Bolitho would have been familiar. 
  7.  The Old Superb, sung by Frederick Harvey, with the Band of H.M. Royal Marines, conducted by Vivian Dunn.
  8.  Grieg, Morning Mood from Peer Gynt Suite No 1.


He had other favourites, which he said he would have included as our life together unfolded, and I introduced him to the music of Stan Rogers, whose evocative Bluenose, Barrett’s Privateers and MacDonnell on the Heights came to have their own significance. The Mary Ellen Carter (“and you to whom adversity has dealt the final blow/ with smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go….”) became what I bitterly called “the company song of Highseas Authors Limited”, while The Witch of the Westmorland was a lover’s gift before we were married, the lyrics handwritten by me and left on his pillow when, after six weeks together in England, I had to return to Toronto. Maddy Prior and Steeleye Span singing The Victory became a poignant annual highlight of our Trafalgar Night observances: it never failed to move him.

So, yes, there were flowers and there was music. Always, always. Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, the sea songs of Charles Dibdin. Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, perhaps one of the most English pieces of music ever written, and Elgar’s majestic Cello Concerto, both of which Douglas heard in his mind as he wrote the opening scenes of The Horizon. Rod Stewart’s Sailing and Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina, unofficial anthems of the Royal Navy during the Falklands War of 1982, a conflict that affected Douglas profoundly, and in which he was deeply invested emotionally. The voice of Kiri Te Kanawa, whom Douglas had met as a young and enchanting woman at a television studio in New Zealand. And the hymns of his childhood, which, when he was particularly content, he would sometimes sing quietly around the house: O, Worship the KingPraise, my soul, the King of HeavenI Vow To Thee, My Country. They were chosen by me to be sung at his funeral, and others around me sang them: I could not lift up my voice, and the beauty of the music shattered my soul.

For a long time after his death, this house remained silent. I could not bear to listen to the music he had loved; I could not bear the beauty of sunrise or sunset or the moon or stars. The music died with him: the beauty of the world was an affront. My dear friend C.J., who had danced at our wedding and who came from Canada to support me at his funeral, said to me as we parted at Gatwick Airport a few days later, “Don’t listen to any sad songs.” Then she gave me a hard, loving hug and walked through Security and was gone.

I didn’t take her advice. Alone and utterly bereft, I played Eva Cassidy’s Autumn Leaves, another of Douglas’s favourites, and I simply fell apart and stood in my kitchen sobbing, unable to listen to it. It was many months before I tried again, and even now there is music that has great power to wound me.

Not only music. Seasons, angles of light, times of day and night. Places he knew, to which he introduced me, in the world where he had travelled so widely and in this country which is not my own, but which, with him, became my home. London… his London… Berkeley Square, carpeted with crocuses in early spring….

I cross the square from time to time. In spirit he walks with me, the collar of his old grey trenchcoat turned up, tweed trilby pulled low over his forehead. Wings of white hair, Atlantic-grey eyes, the beloved face faintly scarred, the fine, thin-lipped mouth always ready to smile, to laugh, to sing, to kiss. Almost… almost with me…. And yet gone forever.

Perhaps the last words should come from another wartime song he loved.

But I should never think of spring/ for that would surely break my heart in two.