What Postman Pat tells us about letters, parcels, and happiness

The two different versions of Postman Pat reveal how the way we communicate has changed.

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Friday 16 September marks the 35th anniversary of Postman Pat’s debut. The programme is a year younger than I am, but was always wiser and more benevolent. The 13 episodes that aired in 1981 were, incredibly, all my generation got – the second series didn’t appear until 1996. Memory is strange, in that it both multiplies and compresses. It feels as if I watched hundreds of different instalments from Greendale village, and yet recollection condenses the whole oeuvre into a single, hazy image: I’m a youngling, belly-down on the floor, daydreaming of a distant and magical land called Pebble Mill. My grandmother is a plume of smoke from a More’s menthol cigarette and a pair of slight shins. The television is showing us a world where everyone has an arthritic waddle and slurps at empty teacups.

Listening to the opening of Postman Pat as a child, I never asked myself why our hero was so at ease. For that is what the theme song is most eager to make clear: “Pat feels he’s a really happy man.” This phrase is repeated thrice at the end, sung by Ken Barrie with increasing melodiousness. Pat seems singled out for this happiness. No matter how content the baker and shopkeeper may be, theirs is no Patrician joy. Pat is up early on a beautiful morning and the whole day is ahead of him, but he can’t be the only one of whom this is true.

Lately I wanted to consult the original for the source of Pat’s pleasure, and found a YouTube clip viewed over three million times. One moment in the song has a tight dramatic arc, a threat followed fast by a happy resolution: “May…beeee (you can never be sure) . . .” Barrie taunts, but then, despite the initial contingency, it’s clear that the longed-for “Knock!” and “Ring!” are actually happening, and the melodiousness is closer to coital release: “Letters . . . through . . . your . . . dooooor!”

Video: the original Postman Pat theme

And there it was. Pat is so happy because he’s the only one in the village not waiting for the postman. His little red van may lurch up hill and down dale but he is spared the highs and lows of postal anticipation. While the villagers sit nursing their luck, poised to see if a flutter of letters will trigger their melodic high, Pat is always sure. For everyone else, the run-up to Pat’s appointed hour is marked not with happiness but with suspense.

From the start, two assumptions of the programme were the pleasures of delivery and the relief of deliverance, in the biblical sense of being rescued or set free. Every morning, Pat sets people free from their uncertainty. In the first episode, Postman Pat’s Finding Day, the great deliverer not only distributes the post, but totters through the village reuniting people with their lost property, making them whole again.

With the arrival of the domestic internet, canny producers realised that our relationship to the physical post was changing for ever. The television series became, like a Law and Order spin-off, Postman Pat: Special Delivery Service. Everything that couldn’t be sent down a fibre-optic cable was his adjusted remit. The theme song, altered by one word, now crooned: “Par…cels through your dooooor!” But the original spirit of Postman Pat – its stop-motion psychodrama of tension and satisfaction – has certainly been uploaded into our digital world of ceaseless email. Here, Pat has transformed into a thought experiment: someone who is always on their way, even when they have arrived. One wonders how happy even he could be now, given that we’ve embroiled him in the sort of repetition typically reserved for mythical punishments. Even when letters do come through our various doors, we know that Pat is already driving back to the depot to reload his van, potentially with another bold batch for us. There may be a Sisyphean aspect to his new digital job description, but this relentless suspense is our own looping, uphill struggle.

In 2013 the American writer Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay for the London Review of Books called “In the Day of the Postman”, in which she argued that the arrival of email in the mid-Nineties heralded a significant change from the days when letters came once a day. She lamented how the age of round-the-clock email, among other online distractions, thwarts our opportunities for sustained concentration and uninterrupted solitude: “That bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time . . .” These are now standard complaints of our times, but after admitting that digital life’s acceleration feels unpleasant, Solnit received, appositely in the Letters section of the LRB, a now standard reply to such fears: we have always felt rushed and we always yearn for an imaginary, calmer past. The objector then presented a list of harried Victorians as witnesses.

The view that our experience of cultural “speed” is more or less fixed from century to century requires a weird denial of technological determinism. Last year, data from a study by Nottingham Trent University suggested how digital technologies have turned that postbox suspense into an unprecedentedly chronic condition. The survey, of people aged between 18 and 33, showed that the participants were looking at their smartphones 85 times per day. Over half of these uses lasted less than 30 seconds, arguably just long enough for them to check their online doormat. After all, you can never be sure.

We mustn’t, I am often told, idealise the past. Despite their sunny anthem, the villagers of Greendale were apparently among the earliest sufferers of climate change. The first series is a catalogue of extreme unpredictable weather – heavy rain, water shortages, thick fog, high winds, heavy snow. In the opening episode, little Tom, naturally, loves the ping-pong bat and ball he gets for his birthday, but his twin sister, Katie – who gets books and a doll – “didn’t seem very pleased with hers”. Yet in a world where, according to the research group the Future Work Centre, we are developing a “toxic” relationship to our email habits, we might remember Pat’s special happiness.

With contemporary expectations over professional and social correspondence intensifying, it looks like we’ll have to deliver ourselves from the compulsions that such pressures encourage.

“The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World” by Laurence Scott is published by William Heinemann

This article first appeared in the 08 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers