My First Job: Children's author Allan Ahlberg worked as a gravedigger

'I wanted a job in the open air where I'd be left alone'

"When I was a boy just nine years old / We moved to a house on Cemetery Road," is the beginning of one of the verses in Allan Ahlberg's Collected Poems. Indeed, its author did just that. What the poem does not say is that Ahlberg, before writing Burglar Bill and other much-loved children's books, actually worked for two years in the cemetery in Oldbury near Birmingham.

"I look back on those days with fondness," he says. "I became a gravedigger by a process of elimination. I vaguely wanted to be a writer and I didn't want a career. I had been a plumber's mate, a soldier and a postman. I was looking for a job in the open air where they left you alone."

He became one of four gravediggers who, in the early Sixties, dug all the graves there. Even today, some individual plots in cemeteries are not accessible to mechanised diggers. "It was essentially solitary, like being self-employed."

The road went straight through the middle of the cemetery; on one side, the soil was so sandy that planks were needed to shore up the earth and save the gravedigger himself from being buried, while on the other side the clay retained so much water that he had to bail out with a bucket.

Two of the quartet were real craftsmen. Instead of digging a rough rectangle, they would reproduce the tapered shape of the coffin, following the exact dimensions with an inch all round for clearance: "You don't dig a spadeful you don't need."

Ahlberg was untrained but he got by. Ambrose, the fourth digger, was not in the same league: "He had no sense of the perpendicular. His hole would twist like a spiral staircase so that you couldn't see the bottom."

In winter, when people were prone to dying in greater numbers and the gravedigging business was brisker, the ground might be frozen and, consequently, rock-hard.

In any season, once the digger was approaching the full depth of 10 feet, the soil had to be flung up with sufficient force to clear not just the top of the trench but also the layer of soil already deposited on the surface. They needed to take a ladder down with them.

A grave reopened for another member of the same family was not as deep as a new grave and thus involved less digging, but there was always the danger that the digger's feet would sink down through the rotten coffin-lid to the bones below. They were paid a bonus for a new grave, which would take a whole day.

"I would dig as fast as possible – like an armadillo – to get below ground level; then I would pull a paperback out of my pocket. When we cut the grass in the summer, I would rake it into a big pile and read my book."

And, appositely enough for land devoted to the Grim Reaper, he would use a scythe.

Allan Ahlberg's 'Collected Poems' (Puffin, £14.99, out in June)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Year 1 Teacher

£12 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education require a year ...

Primary Teacher - Hull

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Are you a flexible and inspiratio...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried