Robert Chesshyre: When being a postman meant something

It was a rite of passage, part of that progress from boy to man

Like many students, I worked several Christmases as a postman. The experience was a rite of passage, part of that progress from boy to man. I had to be up at some ungodly hour –- long before dawn and with several degrees of frost on the ground. I was mixing for the first time with working men, with very different outlooks from the professional classes to which my parents' friends belonged.

By the time I had bumped across the common on my bike, the sorting office was already a haven of good cheer and cups of tea, and I was off shouldering a bag within a couple of hours. There had been a word in my ear – "don't come back before two o'clock" – which I understood to mean "it might be OK for you to sprint the round, but we have to do it every week, so take a measured pace".

I thoroughly enjoyed the work. Postmen are a part of a community, and even part-timers were warmly welcomed. There were exciting discoveries, such as that a recently released atomic spy lived on my round: I felt a slight frisson every time I slipped a letter through his box. Post was then delivered on Christmas mornings. I would set out with a warning that, if any householders offered me a Christmas box, I was to refuse: tips were for regulars.

They loved the Christmas day delivery. There was massive overtime; very little post was left, so bags were light; and my colleagues were not just escaping the Christmas lunch chores, but also returning home as heroes with fat pay packets. One year the union decided to object to Christmas day post. The regulars were up in arms, and I wrote a letter – on their behalf – to The Times. The paper ran my letter and then a reply from a union official, dismissing my points as the sentimentality of a part-timer. It was my first experience of the disconnect between unions and members.

I took a great deal away from the Christmas mail experience. I was being raised in a "get on"' culture – pass your exams, go for the best job, seek promotion. I found myself among decent and amiable men doing a necessary job of work.

For me the money was sensational; it was many years before I earned as much. But I was getting enhanced Christmas pay and not raising a family as were most of my colleagues. But what I really took away was the understanding that society rested on a foundation of workers who did essential jobs – in the main without complaint. They drove buses; cleared rubbish; stoked boilers; repaired roads.

The notion that the only worthwhile people in society were those who wanted to get on and make money had not then taken root. Postmen and those with jobs like theirs were valued. When the going got rough in the more cut-throat world into which a degree propelled me, I looked back with affection at those Christmas shifts. If, as a result of the present dispute, the Royal Mail goes, Britain will have staggered yet further from the harmonious post-war society in which the postman was an emblematic figure.