“Why don’t you go over to the Post Office and ask them for a job?”
When my sister and I were little, my mother worked as a cleaner in the Saltcoats Delivery Office, only one day to be recruited onto deliveries in an emergency after a number of posties fell ill. Now my mother clearly thought it was my turn, at 17, to join the trade. “It’ll keep you fit, and you’ve got your day to yersel!” I wandered around to the callers’ office and asked if they had any work. At 5:15 the next morning, I was back, ready to begin my 14 years in the employ of Royal Mail.
It felt odd being inside that building as a worker. Until then, all associations with the Post Office were bound up in the smell of old paper and gum, waiting in the queue with my mum to collect the family allowance, or the annual visit after Christmas to deposit any money I’d been given into the National Savings account that had been opened for me almost at birth.
As I learned more about the job and the function of the Post Office, I remember being amazed at Royal Mail’s profitability. In 1996, £440m was made, and yet the price of stamps still went up. “There’s an election coming – we pay for the bribes” old Pat told me. Pat Dignan had worked with my Mum, and his wife was a cleaner at the Saltcoats D.O. He’d been our postie since before I was at school, and his seniority and experience meant he’d made it to driver. Now he dropped us off at the start of our walks, reprimanding us if our relay bags were too heavy, and dispensing wisdom along the way.
In the run up to the 1997 General Election there was hope in the air; it was becoming clear that the usual bribes wouldn’t work and the Tories were finally on the way out. I was only a couple of months into the job when my first strike was called. Issues of management “reforms” and “teamworking” led to a series of one-day national strikes. Ian Lang, a wealthy landowner and President of the Board of Trade, suspended Royal Mail’s monopoly in order to attempt to beat the strike. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) had recently amalgamated and was led by its joint-General Secretary (postal), a certain Alan Johnson.
By the time I moved to Govan Delivery Office in Glasgow, Johnson was a junior player in the New Labour government. One might have expected a degree of understanding or sympathy towards the plight of the postal worker from him in office. If he felt such a thing, he kept it well hidden. A decade later he would be part of a government that didn’t merely suspend Royal Mail’s monopoly over the United Kingdom’s postal service, but ended it for good after 350 years. And all years before an EU directive (such as the one in Vigdis Hjorth’s novel Long Live the Post Horn!) might have forced the issue.
As a former postie, and organiser with the CWU, I was taken by just how familiar the struggles encountered by Ellinor, the protagonist of Long Live the Post Horn! , seemed, and the painful ring of truth in the stories of the book’s postal workers. At one point, Ellinor travels to the Norwegian Arctic, to meet an ageing postie who tells her of the great lengths he once went to in order to deliver a letter to a beloved and ageing teacher, Helga Brun. When Ms Brun’s students, try to write to her decades later, with the most scant of information for an address, the postie steps up to locate her whereabouts. Late, but against the odds, the letter is delivered.
No postal worker worth their salt will fail to have a story like that in their bag. In each delivery office there is a box for “dead correspondence” or returns. As people move around more, the number of returned letters seem to grow each year. When neither the sender nor the forwarding address can be found, the letters are sent on to Belfast to be opened in a final attempt to find a return address, and, failing that, burned.
The struggle to avoid that crematorium is not an equal one though – handwritten mail has an advantage in the form of the postal worker. Despite Royal Mail’s best efforts to encourage staff to treat all letters equally and to return all post if there are any defects in the address, or if the addressee has moved on, postal workers still go the extra mile when they see something written by human hand and not churned out of a mailing house.
Just a few months before I left Royal Mail, I recall a postcard being passed around the office for a few days as colleagues attempted to find its intended home. The address was simply: “To Granny, Govan”. No one wanted to send it to the crematorium; we were determined to keep this postcard alive. After a week, however, the signs weren’t good. One day, I was blethering with a woman who lived at the Paisley Road Toll. She was always very kind, offering a cup of tea in winter and some ginger in the summer. Over the years she’d told me about how rarely she saw her grandson due to a fall-out in the family. As we chatted about the short span of the Scottish summer, she mentioned that “they’ll be away in Disneyworld… I’d have loved all that, but I’m past it now.” Suddenly, I realised the answer had been staring us in the face. Why would a child send a grandparent a postcard without an address on it? If their parents had been involved, they would surely have filled in the missing details. The next day the Mickey Mouse postcard was duly delivered to “Granny, Govan.”
There is something magical still, in this age of instant messaging and gratification, in receiving a letter. Post can seem old-fashioned, but the modern equivalent, being plonked in front of a computer with access to all the data in the world, doesn’t cut it somehow. Just as I’ve always preferred vinyl to downloads, it seems to me that life is a little better for having the crackle, the scratch, the foxing included. The joy in discovery is made so much better when it comes in physical form, when you can put the pieces together in front of you, following the clues or getting completely derailed. It’s a joy I learned in the library; perhaps it was a love of books that led to my love of post. The purist reader may gasp at what I now write, but no-one who has read an article online can leave behind a pencil mark (I draw the line at pen!). Emphasis with an underscore, initials, date it was gifted, date it was read, or even the odd note or question in the margin. Just like the miscellaneous marks on an envelope, these traces tell a story. The crackle and scratch of the library, the human touch of the letter.
Christmas, of course, is the time of year when most post is sent, and when posties do the most to make sure it all arrives safely. It’s the time of year when long-distance friends and family send cards and gifts to one another, and every year letters are kept alive by postal workers who know what public service means, the human value of communication.
When I hear it said that people don’t send letters any more or that they don’t matter, I’m reminded of an old letter my Papa once showed me. It was from his mother, and he received it while fighting his way towards Berlin in the closing months of the war. She had written it, smudges, idiosyncrasies and all. It was his mum, living, breathing, and still talking with him decades later. He never kept the telegram he received months before her letter found him, informing him of her death. The letter had somehow reached him, delayed but alive, and with it, her.
Long Live the Posthorn! ends in 2011, the Norwegian postal service win their battle against Brussels’ plans for privatisation, and Ellinor’s love of writing returns. The joy at the victory is a little bittersweet when viewed from this side of the North Sea. Privatising the postal service was a line even Thatcher refused to cross. But the groundwork laid by Lord Mandelson, and the EU directives (a phrase which sounds like the name of the worst boyband ever), laid the way and Royal Mail was privatised in 2013. Its profits given to the private sector for a song whilst the pension liabilities and assets were nationalised and misrepresented by the then-chancellor to claim he'd cut the deficit, (for a quarter).
In 2013, as Royal Mail’s monopoly drew to a close, our manager in Govan infomed us,“things are changing, and downstream access will mean the business will have to cut its cloth”. He didn’t seem comfortable with his own words, but he knew what they meant: the writing was on the wall. “It costs the business £10 to take a letter from Glasgow to Barra, and we need to compete on business mail to pay for that”. The service Royal Mail provides, a universal “one price goes anywhere” offer was now under threat. Not only had it lost the cross-subsidy to fund rural services, but it was now legally obliged to deliver competitors’ mail at a loss.
The fastest, cheapest, mail system in Europe is now sliding down the rankings while corporate pay has sky-rocketed. Somewhere, amongst the asset-stripping, political game-playing, and cronyism, the service limps on. We’re told it must now ‘modernise’ to focus on parcels, and while I can see that that is where the money is, we can also see that it signals a race to the bottom in terms and conditions for workers.
People are being conditioned now to believe that prices based on geography are just the way it is with parcels, to believe that Royal Mail is just another courier firm, rather than an essential public service. Time and again, we are told in actions and words that it doesn’t matter if you get the same postie every day, or even that it’s somehow ‘efficient’ to have half-a-dozen different delivery people at your door in an afternoon. I could, of course, urge this as a textbook case in how neo-liberal policy knows the price of everything and value of nothing. I’ll leave that to the economists though.
Instead, I make the case for post, as Vigdis Hjorth does, in a different way.
I make the case for the crackle, scratch and foxing; for the context, the human contact here, now, and through the ages passed, and the ages yet to come, that which we get and give from the page and from our mark made upon it.
Long live the crackle, scratch, and foxing!
Long live the human touch!
Long Live the Post Horn!
Long Live the Post Horn! is one of our December Book Club reads. You can find the others, and more information about the Book Club and how to subscribe, here.