Night Mail

G.P.O. Film Unit / W.H. Auden

Like many British children, I had in my youth a love of steam trains, and I always enjoyed watching television programmes about them. By far and away my favourite was a documentary made the General Post Office Film Unit in 1936 about the trains that carried mail through the country at night. It was called Night Mail.

The first twenty minutes of the film are a clear and prosaic - if obviously staged - overview of the mechanics of the mail trains. However, two minutes before the end discordant, rhythmic music erupts; a narrator bursts into poetry. The poem alternates between driving, intense blocks of verse, timed to match the images onscreen of gushing smoke and spinning wheels, and gentler, free verse sections addressing the people waiting for their mail.

The combination of the rhythmic words, commissioned specially for the film from poet W. H. Auden, striking soundtrack composed by Benjamin Britten, and flashing images was hypnotic and beautiful. I still love both the poem and the film.

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 a 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 boriadoring,
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?

Further reading: BritMovie's article on Night Mail (archived copy) has an account of the making of the film and the commissioning of Auden's poem; Cambridge University's Research News has a review of Projecting Britain, a history of the GPO film unit. Commenter Nino V on the YouTube video embedded above notes: “Night Mail originated to boost the low morale of postal workers at the time. The postal sector had seen an increase in profits in the late 1920s, but by 1936 wages had fallen 3% for the mostly working class GPO employees. The Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act 1927 had seriously curtailed postal union power, and the Great Depression fostered a general mood of pessimism. The liberal-minded Watt, Wright, Grierson, and other GPO film unit members, therefore, wanted Night Mail to focus not only on the efficiency of the postal system but its reliance on its honest and industrious employees.”