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'
Thursday 15 May 2008
"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)
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