My father began his business “AD Goss, Monumental Mason” around 1968. He had recently been made redundant by Jones & Williams, a company to which he had been apprenticed and worked with for many years, when they closed their doors after the last partner died.
At first he travelled around by bus with his tools in a bucket to letter headstones in the graveyards when the weather permitted. When he needed to transport heavy stones and kerbs to the site he enlisted the help of his brother Raymond who had access to a decorator’s van.
He eventually made enough money to buy his own second hand Austin A35 van. It had a vent in the roof at the back and the indicator switch in the middle of the top of the dashboard. As a child I was allowed to stand in the front passenger seat and stretch over to turn the indicator when told.
My father started renting his premises on Amman Road in Lower Brynamman around 1970 and would cut letters in the workshop when the weather prevented him from going around the graveyards to mix concrete, build foundations or install the stones and kerbs.
It was a two room shop next to Danny the Barber and the smell of hair tonic (“ti moyn ‘spray’ bwy”) used to waft across when the wind was blowing towards the Banwen. The front door opened into a little corridor faced in tongue-and-groove, painted a chalky sky blue. Then there was an inner door with dust-laden frosted glass leading into the main workshop, about 3x4m of extraordinary clutter.
In 1978–82 (the time I remember it best) this room was a tribute to organised chaos and always smelled of the paraffin heater. I doubt my father, a man of admirable priorities, ever cleaned it and once an item was put down it remained there until used again or forgotten.
He had a low shelf about ten inches off the floor which ran around the back wall of the work room. This was used to hold the stones he was working on and usually had two to three headstones on it at any one time. His tools and paraphernalia (wedges, rollers, old newspapers) were kept under the shelf. He sat on an old pouffé or kitchen stool depending on the height of what he was working on.
The wall to the left of this was deep in vertically stacked kerbstones, old and new, scaffolding planks and various bits of wood. The wall to the right had a boarded up fireplace hidden behind more bits of stone, vases and containers and a stack of old coats that were used to throw over shoulders to run around the back of the shop for a pee when it was raining hard. At the front of this room was a half partition and a door leading into the front “office”. It was in here that he engraved coffin plates in the moribund light the window cast onto a sturdy wide shelf.
This room also sported a variety of old cupboards and cabinets discarded from home which held the notebooks and work diaries of many years and were topped with desiccated cactus plants, a long discarded bonsai experiment and a (toe) curling photo of me, his only son, in full chubby-cheek mode aged five. I was pictured in black and white in front of the school photographer’s jaunty “cow jumped over the moon” backdrop, a moon which my round face easily eclipsed.
Back in the main work room there would often be a selection of elderly local characters, most of whom were called Will and had variously been afflicted by pneumoconiosis, mine accidents, or had simply succumbed to the sheer hard graft of their lives. They were drawn to the shop from the often gloomy Brynamman weather like overcoated moths by my father’s ingenious Heath-Robinson lighting arrangement.
A single 60W bulb (which seemed to make the room darker when illuminated due to the thickness of dust on it) was secured by various extension leads to a lengthy flex held in place by three bits of hairy string nailed to different corners of the room and a bulldog clip. This cleverly allowed it to be moved around the room to wherever my father was working.
The Wills (Will Pia, Will Hicks-Francis and one-armed Willy Bach) convened, perched on a variety of low chairs and battered pouffés around the paraffin heater, fuelled by Trevor the Oil, another occasional visitor. The conversations in Welsh ranged from their schooldays as far back as the 1930s to current affairs, rugby and village gossip to a young lad were endlessly fascinating. Do you remember that girl, one would begin, you know, she once knitted a swimming costume, what was her name, started with an M — Mair, no, — Margaret, no and so on until another piped up, Wasn’t it June?, Yes, that’s it! Popular girl wasn’t she!
The banter, always respectful of young ears, would roll back and forth as characters came and went. Dapper Harold the Crown, Danny the Barber, Dai Eros the electrician and a number of other bit-part players would pop in to chew the fat, but the only woman I ever remember entering the shop was Auntie Gladys (or Florence Nightingale as my father riskily, and fondly, referred to her).
‘Auntie’ Gladys Williams owned the shop and the house next door and would float in with the occasional piece of lemon meringue pie for my father, the undercooked pastry guaranteeing heartburn for the rest of the day. She thought the world of him as he was always on hand to help her if she had a problem with the house or needed a lift. She superstitiously refused to open the door on New Year’s Day to anyone until Arthur with his jet black hair had called. This entailed him dragging me out of bed on New Year’s morning to drive down to visit and be forced to have a schooner of sherry and any lingering mince pie left over from Christmas, a brief chat and back home to nurse more heartburn while taking down the Christmas tree and decorations.
A variety of wellington booted, tossle hatted ad hoc labourers were employed over the years. They were interesting characters that I recognised as younger men that looked up to my father for his skill as a craftsman. There was Brian Harris who came and went every few years, Clive Owen who became a family friend with his lovely wife and two sons. And then there was Keith Nickolds, or ‘Knickers’ as dad fondly called him, a larger than life character who also kept in touch for years after his time in harness, sending me photographs from the Ark Royal when he joined the Navy.
I was fascinated by their stories of working together, all three claimed at various times to have fallen into an open grave while wheeling a barrow for my dad, and I was struck by the fact that they seemed to find this hilarious.
On days when the weather allowed there was plenty of outdoor work to complete and from the age of ten I worked for my dad during the school holidays. I was employed to cut grass with sickle and scissors, wash down stones after they’d been fixed, rub off excess gold leaf with cuttlefish and help roll and carry the stones from van to graveside.
My father was a great reader of history books and he taught me the techniques of the ancients to manoeuvre the heavier granite or marble headstones and kerbs with rollers, levers and crowbars. If you had to physically lift the entire weight of a stone at any stage, you were doing it wrong. I’m convinced that his expertise in these methods contributed to his longevity in what was a very physically demanding job.
We began work at 8.00 and were often in a graveyard by 8.30 having loaded up with gravestone, cement and tools at the shop. Since he hated driving, as soon as I was big enough to reach the pedals, he taught me to reverse the van, by then a battleship grey A40 or later a bright blue Morris Marina. He’d drive to the graveyard gate and then hop on the bonnet for me to drive to the graveside, banging his hand for me to stop when we got there.
At around 10.00 we would stop for ‘breakfast’ although we’d eaten before leaving the house. This consisted of a flask of coffee, strong, sweet, instant and my mother’s latest moist boiled cake, quick bake or Welsh cakes, deliciously sweaty from the clingfilm. We would chat and listen to the radio and my dad would read the Daily Mirror and do the crossword. If we were away for the day we’d sometimes eat lunch at a pub or a chip shop. If the venue was too remote we’d have sandwiches and more cake and the dregs of the coffee in the van. But if we were close enough to home we’d go back for lunch, my mother, a dedicated and loving housewife having sandwiches or a salad ready or occasionally a fry-up of some sort.
Back to work and the radio was a constant companion tuned to Swansea Sound, Radio Two, or One if I had my way. If the cricket was on it was Test Match Special all day with Brian Johnston commentating on Brearly, Gower, Willis and Botham, a season long saga of heroes. Otherwise we listened to Jimmy Young and later the Radio One Roadshow, a soundtrack to the summers of my youth.
When the weather was bad I was of limited help to him in the workshop. One poor summer he decided to teach me the value of hard work via the tortuous task of sawing a piece of slate to make a hearth for our home. The two inch thick blue slate slab was about six feet long and three wide. My task was to saw a foot off the length and a foot off the width. Sounds easy. It took me six weeks. It had to be sawn with a fine toothed stone saw to limit the amount of polishing it would need when done. The progress was glacial, but the sense of achievement when it was finally finished was very sweet indeed.
As I got older and stronger my dad would drop me off first thing at one of two piles of chippings he was allowed to dump at the back of the chapels Ebenezer or Siloam so that I could mix the concrete to make a grave foundation. I revelled in the physical work, fetching buckets of water from the chapel tap and mixing bag after bag of concrete, six shovels to an old PVC fertiliser bag so that they could be easily shifted at the site.
After a couple of hours preparing the wooden shuttering he’d come back to pick me up and load the bags onto the van. Then it was a case of wheeling the battered barrow with as many bags as I could manage to the graveside until the foundation was filled and he could tamp it all down with a float. A day or so later this would be plastered with sand and cement and finished to a fine sheen under his experienced hand. A day after that we’d be back to fix the stone and kerbs, joint with more cement and polish it off with a cloth and cuttlefish.
My father kept to his own timescale, probably driving his customers nuts with a two-year backlog of work at times but he always appeared happy in his labour and was never without work. He never retired, predictably falling to smoking related cancer at the age of 63 having been a heavy smoker from his early teens. I don’t know if retirement would have suited him although he would have kept busy in the garden and with DIY — and my mother would have found plenty of little trips he could take her on. But work was his pleasure and he did it well.
For years I kept his old work cardigan and used to take a moment now and then to inhale its ingrained aroma of warmth, cigarettes and stone dust. I still have most of his tools and am particularly fond of his applewood mallet, the handle worn and polished by the roughness of his hand, the head deeply dimpled from the repeated concussion on the chisel.
His workshop was demolished some years ago to make way for a scaffolder’s yard but his work was timeless and I still see it, familiar as handwriting in the local churches and chapels. I stop whenever I am passing one of the graveyards he covered and have a quiet ten minutes seeking out his work and trying to find one of the metal business plates that he attached discreetly to the bases. I suspect his handiwork may well still be there many decades from now.
The time I worked with my father was a golden period of my life, peaceful and worry free. He taught me the rewards of hard work, to take enjoyment from small things, and above all that pride in your work is a life-force, both a virtue and a necessity. I hope that I am like him more than I suspect that I am and I wonder if I will be able to instil the same values in my own children - he did it by example, I try to do the same.