Postman Pat and the winter solstice

Dec 4th, 2010 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Postman Pat was a favourite in our house in the early 90s.  We would sit and read stories and watch videos of life in Greendale and when driving through Cumbria would tell imagined stories of the Greendale community living their lives in the villages and lanes passed by the M6 motorway.

Postman Pat had the power to evoke memories of childhood days in rural England; the characters were not so different from  those in any English village and the way of life and the daily concerns corresponded with those of countless communities across the country.  Perhaps the success of Postman Pat rested  on the fact that children could identify with the stories.

There was one story that always had a melancholic touch to it.  It was read to a boy a month short of his third birthday in France in September 1993 and told of Postman Pat helping with the harvest while the children played in the field.  It seemed odd that children in story books could play in mown wheat fields without their shins being scratched by the stubble.  Stubble in Somerset required shins to be washed in hot soapy water with a generous dash of Dettol thrown into it.

It wasn’t the stubble that was melancholic, though, it was Postman Pat’s loss of his cap.  Helping with the harvest, he inadvertently leaves his cap down, and it disappears.  Months later, when a bale of straw is cut open in deep midwinter, the cap reappears, it had gone through the baler.

Reading the story on a September day, when even France was turning towards autumn, there was a realization that the harvest was past and that the dark days approached.  Spending today coping with the effects of a burst pipe in the attic, and then driving roads covered in frozen snow with freezing fog reducing visibility to a few yards, Postman Pat’s summer days seemed like a dreamtime, another age in a different world.

The builders of Newgrange must have keenly felt the darkness of these December days; the great burial mound where on the shortest day the sunlight shines down the passageway to the inner chamber is a mark of how much they longed for a return of light, warmth and life.

The finding of Postman Pat’s cap in the story was intended as a funny epilogue to amuse attentive young ears, something at which it was very successful.  Reading it those seventeen years ago, it seemed symbolic of the dying of the year, the passing of the happy times.  (Retrojection adds to the way in which memories are perceived; the months that followed were particularly unhappy and the thoughts evoked by the story became remembered as a prologue of the times that followed).

The cap should have served as a reminder that there are seasons other than winter, and that days in corn fields were as much part of life as snow and ice – but, being a melancholic, I overlooked the light and warmth.

Roll on Newgrange’s special day.

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  1. Postman Pat has all but vanished, in England anyway. His cap may emerge years later in a car boot sale. The story makes me think of bigger timescales – specifically, the Marks and Spencer towel in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. By keeping hold of their towels in a time of catastrophe, our heroes knew that time travellers from the future would discover their towels and rescue them. (It’s all a long time ago; I don’t remember the details.) The story speaks of the potency of material things to hold us to a particular time.

    You are right about stubble though. Was that an echt John Cunliffe story? I’d have expected him to get a detail like that right.

  2. The stubble scratches and bathing with Dettol was Nan C’s soveiegn remedy, Mum remembers it well from her own experience with stubble scratched legs

  3. The last time I was at Newgrange the friendly guide was a Polish or Latvian bloke. Or so I thought. I checked as we left – turned out he just had a cold and was from Kerry.
    It’s still – Newgrange that is – a good place to contemplate the changing of the seasons.

  4. Aww you get like this every winter you know? You need a Parish in the antipodes where it’s summer all year round. Frankly, I’d trade you a nice open fire and a foggy morning or two . . not for long . . .but it would be nice for a change

  5. I always planned to be rich and to change hemispheres at the equinoxes!

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