Night Mail: A small, unimportant, irrelevant, personal post about change

 This is the Night Mail crossing the border,Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 7.25.05 AM
 Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
 Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
 The shop at the corner and the girl next door.


Just watch this clip from “Night Mail” –  the documentary film from 1936 – and be transported to another time, another place. It’s the London, Midland, and Scottish Railway (LMS) mail train traveling from London to Scotland. The film – directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, and narrated by John Grierson and Stuart Legg – stars the night workers of the postal and train service. Plus the landscape of the night, a sheepdog, rabbits and a flight of birds.

The dramatic forward rush of the journey is cut with quieter scenes of those passed by.

The words at the end – in the clip above – are from Auden’s poem with music by Benjamin Britten.

Watch to whole film below. It’s an extraordinary piece of social history – beautiful to see and hear – about a world that is no more.

North with a hundred tons of letters to sort. The postal special picks up and distributes mail to industrial England – the mines of Wigan, the steelworks of Warrington and the machine shops of Preston.

John Grierson established the GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit in 1933 with a shoestring budget. He hired young men like W.H.Auden who had leftwing sympathies who were willing to work for very little. Auden was paid  £3 a week. He wrote the poetry and –  as an assistant director – was the second camera for the scene of the mail bags at Broad Street station. He was commissioned to write the ending

We’ve only had the machinery of getting letters from one point to the other. What about the people who write them and the people who get them? – John Grierson.

Benjamin Britten was also on the payroll. He was instructed to write something jazzy and upbeat and nothing too highbrow. Between them Auden and Britten captured the driving rhythms of the train.

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 7.23.27 AM

 Past cotton grass and moorland boulder,
 Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
 Snorting noisily as she passes
 Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.


Auden wrote the poetry with the help of a stopwatch for the timing so that the words matched the scenery of the shots.

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 4.28.24 AM

The soundtrack up until the last few minutes doesn’t have the poetry of Auden’s words. The film is stuffed with  impressive but rather dry
statistics (40 postal workers on the train, half a million letters every trip, 500 million every year, “Those letters were posted in Bletchley half an hour ago”) given life by rapid glimpses of industrial landscapes, speeding rail switches and telegraph wires.

Track workers step back from the line as the postal special roars past. They take a moment to take a swig from a shared bottle and a puff on a pipe. A farmer leads his horse and a newspaper with the latest cricket scores is delivered with precision.

But it’s in the last three minutes that the film so memorably captures the human story of the mail.

All Scotland Waits for Her

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 7.20.02 AMThe film is a window on a vanished past. It’s a propaganda tribute that celebrates the night shift postal and railway
workers, and the power and drive of the golden age of steam. It’s the pistons, the points and the signals. And it’s all the logistics of the connections of how to criss-cross that mail across the country, the sorting, the bag drops and the pride in the work.  The film exudes a cheery, upbeat spirit of  Brittishness of life and landscape. “Can you take postal special? “Take it away, sonny boy” “”Righto, handsome.” And when there’s a problem reading the address on an envelope: “Ah well, makes a nice change for you.”

In June 2003 the Royal Mail announced  the end of the line for mail trains. 170 years of service was history

Night Mail

This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.

Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from the bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes.

Dawn freshens, the climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends
Towards the steam tugs yelping down the glade of cranes,
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In the dark glens, beside the pale-green sea lochs
Men long for news.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or visit relations,
And applications for situations
And timid lovers’ declarations
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Notes from overseas to Hebrides
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Thousands are still asleep
Dreaming of terrifying monsters,
Or of friendly tea beside the band at Cranston’s or Crawford’s:
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
And shall wake soon and long for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

W.H. Auden

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