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> > > Rite of Passage: a gravedigger's memoir by Peter Street

3 November 2014

Published as an ebook by Natterjack Press, Wendy Young unearths some graveyard humour in Peter Street’s memoir 'Rite of Passage' with its tales of a young disabled grave-digger in a 1960s world that most of us would not be able to ‘dig’!

‘Everything was going how a wedding is supposed to go. That was until I went to sign the Marriage Certificate. On no account, according to my now mother-in-law, had I to write gravedigger on my marriage certificate…’

Heeding Natterjack Editor Mick Bruce’s warning that it’s not an e-book for the squeamish, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in ‘cause being of the Hammer Horror generation it sounded right up my ‘Street’!

Who can resist creepy tales of imagined ghosts in a night-time bone yard, violent Teds, the likely lads Peter grew up with and the old man who ‘stuck newspaper in his palliasse’. Like freeze frames in a silent film, Rite of Passage is a step back into another era with people who are literally the salt of the earth.

With characters who strike a chord with Eddie Johnson’s ‘Tales from the Two Puddings’ (a great book about a Stratford pub with likeable rogues and underworld nasties), Peter takes us into an underground world with harrowing stories of being stuck in holes. Setting the workaday scene like a Spaghetti North-western, Peter relates:

The Good: the kindness and camaraderie of his heroic comrades who are more than willing to help him when he’s stuck six feet under like the White Rabbit in Yonderland. O’Hara - a gift of a name and the local hard-nut who protects his younger brother from ‘the Gaffs’, strapping on his belt like a gun holster.

The Bad: Bob the Foreman who kicks out any squatters: 

‘The hut would have been better, warmer, but for the Foreman who had a problem with us being amiable with the 'road' men. This was the reason he checked the hut before any of us arrived the following morning. It was freezing, but dry in the church doorway’.  

Shrouded in solitude, we find a man who is a loner, an ex-veteran and a superb man of mystery, not so ‘bad’ really.

The Ugly:  a children’s funeral with the sadness of a grieving mother who Peter used to date, wrought at the guts with a touching tale of one of the most upsetting criteria for the job.

Beautifully, Street compares an Asian all male funeral to the beautiful game: 

‘Just dozens and dozens of men carrying the coffin up above their heads while other members were trying their best to touch the coffin. It brought memories of Burden Park and being lifted and passed above all the adults. Safe, behind the nets with all the other kids while watching, Bolton Wanderers v. Wolves: 1957 quarter finals of the F.A. cup.’

Spludge-mess abounds in clogs for our poor Peter and his colleagues – why didn’t they have Wellies?*!  Wading in shit, more sand than Lawrence of Arabia and stinking filth these fellas reminded me of our troops going off to war ill-equipped.

Nevertheless, they are like a unit and look out for each other, as Peter says: 

‘Together with those men who in their own way were completely barking, every one of them, from one giant man who wanted to be invisible and definitely not heard, to Rick, the Brian Jones lookalike, not forgetting Arnold the once bare knuckle fighter: yes, barking of course, but my dear Lord, each one of them had held my hand and walked me through, whatever.’

Who wouldn’t be drawn to the cosiness of the hut where they drink tea and smoke woodbines – for those of us who love the romance of the world of the night watchman and his brazier…!

Hats off to Peter for coping with the job and his accounts of the sometimes grim, at times heartbreaking but overall humourous truth. Writing with a love of lonely, kind and sometimes tragic characters who just leave the reader wanting to know more. Six foot under! Peter takes us four foot six, nine foot six, ten foot six, and more...  

Edited by Michael Bruce, 'Rite of Passage' by Peter Street is available for £5 as a PDF download from the Natterjack Press' website
Rites of Passage is also now available on Kindle via the Amazon website

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