As life plods inexorably on its way, one might as well get used to the notion that some of the characters who once seemed to be part of the very fabric of society will recede into the background; they will flicker, fade, and then perhaps disappear quietly for ever.
Among them are clearly some figures who have had their day. Does anyone really miss the rag-and-bone man, the traditional sandwich man who served as an animated billboard or the bearded gypsy who riveted together broken cups and plates? Some other pillars of society whom we knew in our youth – such as the Village Stationmaster, the Parson, and the Policeman on his beat are still to be found, though perhaps less in evidence. Happily, the Postman still traipses daily to my door, bringing broadsides and bills, pamphlets and picture postcards. So long as it lasts, that is. For I have just been listening to a self-styled communications expert telling his radio audience that now the Postman’s days are numbered.
Did I hear that correctly? I understand perfectly well that many of the missives which, once upon a time, were composed with paper and ink and solemnly despatched through the mail, are now flashed electronically across the ether. I appreciate, too, that many a parcel now bypasses the faithful post and is delivered, hurriedly and expensively, by some smart young man in a flashy courier jacket. But the postman, like the ploughman of old, still plods his weary way.
My deeply-rooted faith in the inevitability of the Postman goes back a long way. I recall bursting into tears at some tender age when Santa Claus provided me with a bus conductor’s kit, rather than the Postman’s outfit that I had so earnestly requested. A decade later, as an adolescent, I earned a little pocket money each December by helping out at the local Post Office with the Christmas mail, thriving in the company of twenty cheery postmen at a time, most of them classified as “walking men” and all committed to ensuring that the mail, however wondrously addressed, reached its proper destination in good time. Then there were my student travels, on which I encountered postmen far and wide, somehow keeping the world in touch with itself against all odds; I recall the day when I sat under an umbrella, close to the Standing Stones of Callanish on the Isle of Lewis, watching a postman arriving on his bike in the rain to deliver a single letter to a lonely cabin on the hillside. Could the concept of service ever be carried further?
And now all that, so it would appear, is under threat. What are we supposed to do without the Postman? Will our letters be delivered by creepy drones? Or even creepier crawling robots? More probably we shall be expected to plod our own weary way into town to collect our mail from the meagre cabin in the supermarket that now passes for a Post Office. No, it will not be acceptable; we shall have to do something about it. And here I can offer the germ of a good idea. Since, as we see, right-thinking people nowadays band together willingly in droves to preserve old steam engines and even older windmills, I am convinced that the moment is approaching when we shall feel similarly inspired to establish a Society for the Preservation of the Postman.
Naturally, we must begin quietly, locally, not over-reaching ourselves. I anticipate no shortage of volunteers in the neighbourhood, people like myself who will gladly don a postman’s cap for a few evenings a week. Nor, with the Royal Mail presumably obliged to wind down after five hundred years, is there likely to be any lack of uniforms, bags and even bicycles, to be had for the asking. We shall of course need an operating base; old Mrs Westwood’s former sweetshop on the corner should serve us very well; with a lick of paint and a little improvisation we should be able to turn it into a respectable old-style Post Office with notices about mail boat schedules, and a reassuringly solid dial telephone hanging on the wall. Then with a little persuasion, the good lady herself will surely be willing to take up her place behind the grille, selling our own penny postage stamps (for local delivery) and knitting socks when business is slack. At five in the afternoon, our Postmen will present themselves, smart as can be, all ready to sort the mail and deliver it around the village with a cheery smile at every door, communications experts in person. It can’t fail. Before we know where we are, half the villages in the country will be following our example. Just you wait and see.
Illustration: Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin (1888), Vincent van Gogh [Wikimedia Commons]