Woodbines and Wooden Sides

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Peter Street is writer and poet whose memoir ‘Hidden Depths’ relates the story of being a gravedigger before the days of mechanical diggers. Alan Morrison reviews the book, published by PreeTa Press, The People’s Publisher

book cover

Peter Street ‘Hidden Depths’ by PreeTa Press

Hidden Depths – the second instalment of Peter Street’s autobiography – focuses on his time working as a gravedigger in the late 1960s when the trade was still very much one of hard, even dangerous, manual labour. All the more hazardous if, as in Street’s case, one has debilitating epilepsy to contend with.

Street’s succinct, spirited, descriptive anecdotal style instantly drew me in and I finished the book in one sitting. It starts with an immediately intriguing scene-setting:

In the gravediggers’ cabin there were three cemetery workers sitting at the table. All three were pulling hard on Woodbines. The biggest of the three came over, introduced himself as Arnold. His hand completely enclosed mine, his bottom two knuckles were out of line, his wrist bone seemed big. I’d seen this before with the fairground workers known as the Gaff lads or Gaffs. He’d been a bare-knuckle fighter.

Being the late Sixties, smoking was still very much a ubiquitous aspect to everyday life, and Street captures this in many amusing ways:

Rick, the youngest of the three, with tattoos and a Brian Jones hairstyle, nodded at me from across the table. He leaned forward and took the fag from the guy opposite who had fallen asleep in mid-sentence whilst talking to Rick. The sleeping guy suddenly jerked awake, but then, shortly afterwards, fell back to sleep with another lit fag in his hand.

Witty and life-affirming though this book is, it is not for the faint-hearted: on the very first page we are confronted with a visceral olfactory description of human remains: ‘…a rising stench of the bodies below hit me, a mixture of sulphur and diarrhoea’. Street’s descriptions are sparse but exacting: ‘It was now a dig in a stinking black porridge’. Health and safety are things of a more sanitised future when it comes to pre-taboo tobacco habits: ‘After pulling on a woodbine, Rick climbed down the wooden sides to show me how to slant the grave floor and then dig a sump (a round hole lower than the floor)’.

It is indeed fascinating to see just how crucial to daily human existence smoking once was, almost as if it was regarded as a social necessity, to the extent that even vital actions had to accommodate negotiating cigarettes and available means to igniting them in almost any situation, as if as a rehearsed emergency procedure: ‘He stayed in the grave with me and while we were waiting he offered me a Woodbine. We had no lighter – no matches’ is followed a little later, after the gravediggers have half-sunk into the quicksand of a sodden grave, by the admonishment: ‘”Next time you’re going to get yourself in the shit… can you make sure you have a light?”‘ It’s almost a Dave Allen sketch. Smoking images are ubiquitous and illustrative of a very different time: ‘He lit his pipe and went back to his silence. I smoked a Park Drive cigarette, content’.

Street manages to draw much wit and humour from even the most deathly of subjects, and the humour is all in the pithiness of the gravediggers’ taciturn exchanges:

“Do you get a warning about your epilepsy?”
I nodded.
“As long as we know.”
That was it. My epilepsy was never mentioned again.

This taciturnity is more typical of the North (Street is from Wigan, near Bolton) and it partly shapes the sparse prose style, not only the dialogue but the narrative:

“What? I mean. Why? I mean…what are you doing?”
“I’m doing what I’m doing.”
There was no answer to that.
The windows were frosted. I didn’t have the heart to order him to leave.
“Stay in here if you want to.”
He started pushing newspapers into his palliasse.
[A ‘palliasse’ is a straw mattress].

This taciturnity is particularly effective in the more comical moments, such as when Street is being interrogated by a prospective Irish Catholic landlady:

“I’m a gravedigger.”
“So, you’re on the spade then?”
I nodded.
“Only donkeys nod,” she said.
It felt like I was somehow being tested.
“I’m a gravedigger,” I said again, proudly.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph”.

“It will be ten shillings a week.”
I searched my pockets. 7/6 was all I had. She looked me up and down, twiddled her crucifix.
“Owe it me.”

Street manages to wring laughter from the bleakest experiences and there are some accidentally comical moments that might have happened in the sit-com In Loving Memory, such as when a brass band hired for a funeral starts playing ‘Let’s All Gather By The River’ just as a coffin starts floating back up in a flooded grave. There are some colourful anecdotes about the fate of certain ‘residents’ of the cemetery, which Street privately calls a ‘village’, such as that of ‘Thomas MacCarte, Lion Tamer’: ‘McCarte had been too drunk to remember to chew on his plug of tobacco which helped him to control the lion.’ This gallows humour can sometimes turn unexpectedly smutty:

Our hands were covered, ingrained in unimaginable muck. I managed to clean my hands with a tiny rub of soap and a spoonful of sugar. Seeing my clean, sparkly hands, they teased me, saying it was due to too much masturbation!

And downright macabre:

I smashed through an almost intact coffin. I began to lift bodies with skin hanging off like bits of cloth. My hands were splodging about in a colloid jelly and I was half way through lifting out half skinned bodies when Bert shouted: “Lunch Time”.

Street and his workmates often erupt into choruses of ‘Lily The Pink’ to keep their spirits up. One is also put in mind of that Victorian rhyme, ‘It wasn’t the cough that carried him off but the coffin they carried him off in’, which was a popular dictum in pre-penicillin days warning against the dangers of chest infections turning to pneumonia -aptly enough, the fate of one of Street’s erstwhile friends whom he hears was found dead in his bedsit clutching a hot water bottle to his chest.

Some descriptions are especially poetic and imaginative:

Boiler suits were hanging shoulder to shoulder; blue giants waiting, eager, ready for the day’s work, when Don, clog irons sparking on the stone floor, leaned over me and lifted his boiler suit off the hook and flopped it over me.

There’s exceptional use of personification in a couple of passages: ‘Silly, I know, but the grave seemed to sigh like it was alive. Then it grabbed me and pulled my clogs down just below my shins;’ ‘Silly I know but surely the grave shuddered?’ and ‘A cobbled road walked me between two stone pillars into Tonge cemetery.’ There is an almost supernatural quality to how Street depicts a tramp who sleeps in the Church and stuffs newspapers down his trousers to keep himself warm appearing as if out of nowhere; and one burly workmate who moves silently in spite of his large presence Street nicknames ‘Ghost’. It is perhaps to be expected that a gravedigger should have his occupational superstitions.

Reflecting on his former time as a bakery assistant, one of many jobs from which he’d been sacked because of his undisclosed epilepsy becoming apparent (a long time before such things as disability discrimination), Street comes up with a sublime juxtaposition of images when witnessing his first cremation:

It was the way Joe and Tommy took the coffin like some large tray of uncooked loaves which were then shoved in an oven. It seemed they could have been bakers.

The description of the crematory process is unflinching:

I am certain that the body moved and then lifted up a foot or so, only to then melt into nothing. …

I felt uncomfortable watching bones being crushed into a large bowl, mixed up with maybe a couple of dozen or so other folk who were then shovelled into a wheelbarrow only to be buried in a communal grave.

Street’s spade frequently hits poetry amidst the prose, not surprisingly, since he is also a poet:

‘Each of us smoke our own cigarettes. Gathered our own thoughts. Time. Rick and Arnold took off the marble top paving. Sand. There was sand all along its nine-foot length.

There’s another sublime juxtaposition when Street and his fiancé Sandra get the key to their first house:

The key, our key, was for a house on Second Street, Barrow Bridge. I took in a deep breath, held out my hand to the Estate Agent, like I was receiving the Eucharist.

Street is Roman Catholic, and, indeed, his parents once nursed hopes he’d go into the priesthood.

Even some of the more scatological images are poetic: ‘The water pump splodging out the diarrhoea smelling water, browning the grass around a number of graves’. It’s the vivid, often grisly descriptive details of the grave-digging trade that makes Hidden Depths as fascinating as it is challenging; it’s perhaps an irony of the title that there is not much of the depths depicted that are actually left hidden: ‘I found the first body, which was small enough to be a baby, in a watery jelly, the colour darker than black if that is possible’.

We learn that the only solution to hands painfully swollen, blistered and ripped open by constant exposure to ‘ice cold water and mud’ from gripping the spade-handle in freezing temperatures, is to “piss on” them. The instinct to wash them in cold water or ice would, Street is warned by an old hand, lead to hospital. It seems this affliction of the trade is almost akin to chilblains.

The idioms and adages of the gravedigger trade are particularly evocative:

‘Sump dug. Black-brown water ladled into a bucket. … There were streaks of blue-purple colloids floating in the black’; ‘A few stabs later they lowered the colander back down into the sploshings of a six-foot grave’; “Bessemer feeds on coffins, just eats them away, gone before you know it”; ‘Something he didn’t really understand but had something to do with ‘White-finger’ and shaking’; ‘Joe called tips our ‘bread and butter stuff’ and if it wasn’t forthcoming, he told me to cough a certain way, into my hand, until a tip materialised’; and:

I remember his shovel, flat, on the boarding waiting for my next spit of the grave. I remember shoving my spade a spit down, testing for depth. I even remember clonking the slates on top of the next coffin…

Street often compares the muddy camaraderie of the grave-digging fraternity to that of Tommies in the trenches -or what might be termed the stenches in this particular setting: ‘The rules seemed to be simple: equality, trust, teamwork, and safety’. Certainly some of the descriptions wouldn’t be out of place in the trenches as depicted by Wilfred Owen:

Then it was my first kick, with a round mouth spade, into Bessemer, tiny bits of lunar-like-clinker – like I was digging the moon. Deeper down, the grave was nowhere near as strong as the usual clay or even sandy grave. And it stank of sulphur. I could also smell the sweat of the diggers who had worked on this before me. Diggers who’d hammered and wedged, clinked out the twelve-foot deep coffin shape through this volcanic-like rock.
And:

We pushed our way through the wooden doors into the site to the half empty trenches, like a Somme or Flanders from all those years ago. We went through, what I called, ‘journey trenches’ with their burnt-out clay pipes now fossilised in dark soil. In his trench, Carl found an 1860 penny piece which he later handed into the Museum.

There’s a particularly poignant moment when the gravediggers are tasked to prepare a pauper’s grave: ‘My first chit with ‘pauper’ written in red ink on a smaller than normal piece of paper. No surname, just ‘Alex”. And there are ironies:

“If you were OK, like us (I think he meant normal) I’d get you down the pit face with me.” I couldn’t say I’d rather go grave-digging and exhuming because going down a mine on the pit face was the last place on earth I wanted to work.

Street’s images are earthy befitting the subjects: (when offered a pie from a workmate:)

‘I tried not to snatch it from his dirt-ingrained fingers’; ‘Clogs and overalls were on the floor beneath names painted on a lime green wall’; ‘Elbows, Woodbines, mugs of tea, all on the cabin table’; ‘Back in the cabin, where elbows shared the table with mugs of tea, ash trays, fag packets, matches and the odd lighter’; ‘He slurped from a pint pot of sweet tea’; ‘He pulled his jumper off from over his huge chest and laid it down on the bench, its arms stretched, sprawled out like a spatchcock chicken’; ‘…we discovered that the partitions I had started to smash down were stuffed with some fifty-year-old newspapers, horse hair and old rags’.

Street imagines the disinfectant they use after shifts as a metaphysical soap:

…we helped spray each other with disinfectant to try and kill every known thing and maybe a few more, like our emotions and guilt. I also slipped on the rubber gauntlet type gloves, while the others refused them…

These musings then take on a more polemical tone touching on both the Us and Them paradigm of workers and boss and his outcast trade due to the taboo of death:

It seemed the bosses had isolated us inside this boarded-up grave yard, so that with bits of disinfectant they could wipe out who and what we were.

An exhumation of graves is vividly described:

The lid was fully back and there she was: fully clothed with her bonnet still in place. Her eyes had gone but there was a gossamer-like layer of skin, wrinkled, greasy, a bit like cold chicken skin after being oven cooked.

It was like working in a war zone or (God forbid) a death camp. Later in the afternoon there were more lead coffins and more bits falling from those semi-preserved bodies. What I didn’t get was why none had eyes whilst other body parts were still intact…

The picaresque qualities of Street’s fellow gravediggers are conveyed through description and back story: one is a traveller whose ‘solid gold earring … could be sold, if needed, to pay for his funeral anywhere in the world’; another, a traumatised army veteran, who had a ‘separate cabin’ from his workmates where he could ‘relax, free from Harold’s burnt bacon which reminded him of bullet holes’.
There’s a seam of contemporaneous material details, objects, clothing styles, fashions, brands, pop culture images, and idioms of the period that make the book as much social document as autobiography:

‘That evening, Dad, top coat on, teeth in, took me down to Maxie’s to buy me a Hop-along Cassidy wrist watch, followed by a treat of Nettle beer at Jack Sheff’s Temperance Bar’.

‘…she smuggled out her spare candlewick bedspread and some tins of tomato soup.’
‘Johnny Kitson kept in the shadows a few yards away from me at the Sally-Up-Steps’ chippy, Chorley Road’.

‘…he used to … use Vaseline (instead of Brylcreem) to do his hair. He would take a blob from the round tin and put it in his palm, warm it next to the fire until it became runny, then work it into his hair and use a comb to make a quiff at the front and a perfect DA at the back.’

‘I was trying to think about Sandra and that weekend in Blackpool. We had won a blue wall clock at Bingo we swore we would put it on the kitchen wall in our very first house’.

‘My brown paper carrier bag was falling apart because of the weight of my muddy clogs & overalls. I was struggling to carry it as well as my flask of scotch broth and the bread wrapped in its Warburtons grease proof paper’.

‘Inside the site there was one large caravan, time and weather had almost rubbed out its green and white colours. Inside, eight chairs were squeezed around a Formica table. There was a tiny sink with a small cube of soap…’

‘Saturday night and me and Sandra treated ourselves by going to see a film, The Family Way, at the Capitol picture house…’.

There are many painterly descriptions and poetic turns of phrase throughout the book: ‘Arthritis crumpled up his fingers’; ‘The dark was prised open’; ‘one of them would step out from the dark of the heavy line of rhododendrons’; ‘Before leaving, he sparkle-cleaned his hands, ingrained with oil and dirt, using a tiny rub of soap and a spoonful of sugar’; ‘black beetle funeral cars were creeping in between angels standing either side of the green cast iron gates… passing the giant Romany stones’; ‘…there were two men wearing long dirty cream coloured raincoats and fedoras down near the back gate on the other side of the cemetery.’.

There’s a shocking recollection of the fates of some young people driven to jump out from a burning Bolton club and its aftermath:

I later found out even they, the coppers, didn’t know about those six bodies which had been stacked in one of the cleaning rooms at the Town Hall as the morgue had been full up. … The shock, so we were told, nearly killed her. We also heard that because the burnt flesh of those dead young people smelt so much like roasted pig she never ate bacon again.

Time and again Street employs the olfactory sense impression reminding us that smell is perhaps our most potent sense in terms of memory and association:

Before meeting Sandra later, I enjoyed time in the Bridge Street Slipper Baths. Snorting bubbles up my nose trying to rid it of dead bodies, but unfortunately this only stung the inside and did nothing for the stench. Everywhere that awful smell went with me. Even Sandra’s expensive perfume from Woolworth’s didn’t get rid of it.

There are shades of Dennis Potter’s blackly comical Nigel Barton plays in the depiction of Street’s fractious and culture-clashing but very close relationship with his socialist father who lambasts his son when he announces he and his fiancé are planning to get a mortgage on a home of their own:
“The working classes don’t own houses and don’t have mortgages!”

He talked about us being tied, owned and at the mercy of them, but how renting would keep us free.

A little later on, there is another fatherly tirade against the son’s newly acquisitive tendencies:
I mentioned to Dad that we were going to put £5 down on a twin-tub washing machine. That was it. Nothing more. But it all kicked off, about us even thinking about buying a washing machine. Again, it was all a class thing and how they managed with next to nothing in Dad’s time. Just being the two of us, why could we not, for the time being, manage with a Dolly tub?

I’m reminded of a particular scene in Stand Up Nigel Barton when the eponymous anomic scholar expresses metaphorically how he feels he is constantly “walking” a “tightrope between two worlds”, academic Oxford, and his working-class home life where his father watches him “like a hawk”, to which his collier father barks: “What’ll they say at work? Here comes the bloody hawk, they’ll say! With his son on a tightrope”.

Towards the end of the book there’s another hilarious outburst from his father on the matter of home ownership:

Dad didn’t mean to wipe out our excitement, but again began reminding me about socialism and betraying the working classes. He did not see it as a kind of progression, he thought it was something evil. I think deep down he was worried about me becoming a ‘Tory’. He even talked about an appointment with his landlord.
“You have to rent,” Dad shouted.

At his wedding Street remembers that ‘On no account, according to my mother-in-law, had I to write ‘gravedigger’ as my occupation’. In a one page ‘Epilogue’ Street muses:

For some, a grave-digger is a person who is on the outside of society. A freak even. Maybe for some, but certainly not for me. I was now near that old cabin with its cast iron range, its domino table, its stone flagged floor and I am now heading towards those cast-iron gates…

He finally reflects on some of the most colourful and shocking moments: ‘From being lifted out of a sand hell-hole to catching skulls, to hammering lead coffins into a shape so we could more easily fold them up’.

How to sum up such an experientially unique book, which not only depicts grave-digging in graphic and often blackly comical detail, an almost taboo job due to its proximity to human death and decay, but also takes in such topics as smoking, razor gangs, Gaffs, Catholicism and socialism? Well that almost sounds like a recipe for a Graham Greene ragout.

But Street’s working-class autodidacticism and empirical picaresque depictions of his fellow gravediggers lends Hidden Depths more than a just a passing resemblance to such works as Mayhew’s Characters, W.H. Davies’ The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp and Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The episodes depicting Street and his father’s culture-clashing, fractious yet also intensely close relationship, bring to mind aspects of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and Dennis Potter’s Nigel Barton plays. There are also some aspects of Jack London -e.g. his blue collar bildungsromans- though Street’s prose style leans more towards Hemingway’s unembellished iceberg sensibility.

But of course influences are almost superfluous since this is not fiction but reflection on a life lived. Fortunate that Peter Street’s spirited, witty and immensely warm prose style matches up to the tall order of his almost quixotically colourful occupational life.


Hidden Depths – The life and loves of a gravedigger is available in paperback from Preeta Press for £5 plus £2 p&p. Or as an  Ebook for £3.00 only