The United Kingdom postal service is a curious enigma. In days gone by, when postmen were real postmen, and people wrote to each other using the prehistoric ‘Pen Method’, one could guarantee that one’s letter sent by First Class post would arrive at its destination the following morning. Similarly, one could guarantee that a letter sent by Second Class post would arrive at its destination exactly two days later. Not only that, but postal deliveries were twice a day, regular as clockwork. The first would arrive before eight o’clock in the morning, the second delivery would appear around midday. And that’s how life was when we were young and innocent, postmen were happy chappies, and the government was content with a national non-privatised service.
Today, you have none of the guarantees you once had. ‘First Class’ mail now takes anything up to three days to reach its destination, intact or otherwise. ‘Second Class’ mail just arrives when it feels like it, either damaged in an apologetic plastic bag, or not at all. ‘Recorded Delivery’ is just what it says on the tin – a record that your item has been sent, and paying more for the privilege, but with no guarantee of delivery. And ‘Special Delivery’ isn’t that ‘special’ at all, now having seemingly replaced what used to be the old ‘First Class’ service, but costing a lot more. Thus, there is nothing particularly ‘royal’ about the Royal Mail these days, other than often turning out to be a right royal cock-up - usually when one has to rely upon it. Where most writers rely on the Royal Mail to distribute their latest commissioned works, struggling writers like myself generally rely on it to distribute prized possessions sold on eBay in order to subsidize a diminishing income.
During a particularly healthy turnover period recently, I found myself making the trip to my local Post Office branch in Canary Wharf. I was going there to ship off a parcel containing a pile of magazines I had never read, accumulated via monthly subscription over the course of ten years. Queuing at a Post Office is a strange phenomenon. Post Offices don’t just deal with your post anymore – they offer several other services completely unrelated to sending mail. Adverts for these services line the walls and writing benches which you can read and digest while you wait, and there’s even a free pocket magazine which explains everything about these extra goodies one can take advantage of.
Another thing you find dotted around the branch is something called a ‘thickness indicator’ which is a plastic board with several slots of different sizes cut out of it. Sending mail is not a simple operation anymore. Postage for items is no longer calculated merely by weight, but also by size, and these ‘thickness indicators’ are a way of confirming how much extra postage you are now paying, compared to how much less you paid when it was the old system. It is fascinating to watch customers using this guide, and I was rather intrigued to witness one customer sizing up her large packet against each slot before deciding that, yes, it was a parcel, not a letter. I’m convinced she had misinterpreted the sign instructing all customers to use the ‘thickness indicator’ and panicked that she may have been penalised if she had ignored the procedure.
Having queued for twenty minutes, and read my Post Office pocket magazine in its entirety, I reached the front of the queue only for two of the three attendants to close their counters and start talking to the remaining active attendant. I noticed the queue behind me was lengthening quite fast, and people were giving me one of those looks suggesting that it was my personal duty to hurry along the chatting attendants as I was the next in line. Why it should be my job to do this I do not know, but I decided to cough politely in the direction of the counters nonetheless. Naturally, this made no difference; but after two more polite coughs, a semi-loud throat-clearance, and a deep hawk which almost resulted in unintentional vomiting, the chatting attendants disappeared altogether and an electronic voice instructed me to go to ‘Position Four’.
I always make a point of being very specific about the service I require when I go to a Post Office. This, however, often turns out to be utterly pointless. After stating that I required delivery to the UK mainland and that the item was of no significant monetary value, the attendant looked at me blankly and asked if I was sending my parcel to the UK mainland and was the item of any significant monetary value. I just shook my head and, after weighing the parcel, the attendant analysed it against his ‘thickness indicator’ and confirmed to me that my item was a parcel and should be sent via the ‘Standard Parcels’ service. I considered at this stage that it would probably have been more practical for the attendant to analyse himself against the ‘thickness indicator’, or at least for the Post Office to introduce it to their interview and selection process for new staff.
So, having established that yes, my parcel was a parcel, I read out the delivery address to the attendant whilst he programmed it into his computer – only for him to then tell me that, according the computer, the address did not exist. I told him that it very much did exist as I had printed the address label directly from the buyer’s PayPal invoice page, and it was exactly as he had typed it. This made no difference to the attendant who said the buyer must have made a mistake as the computer did not recognise the address because there were ‘too many lines’. I asked the attendant if it would be simpler to write down the address with a pen and paper, but he said this would ‘not be possible’ as they did not ‘have the facilities’.
After finding a way to convince the computer that my buyer’s address did actually exist, the attendant stressed there was now no guarantee the parcel would be delivered. I paid the postage, and just as I was about to leave, the attendant asked me if I had a car. At first I thought he was going to suggest that it would be safer to drive my parcel to its destination in person, but he was, in fact, asking me if I wanted car insurance. I told him I did not have a car, so he asked me if I wanted home insurance instead. I asked him why the Post Office kept offering me things which were nothing to do with sending my parcel, but he just looked at me blankly. I then asked him if he could absolutely guarantee on behalf of the Post Office that I would receive car or home insurance, to which he replied ‘Yes’. Next, I asked him if he could absolutely guarantee on behalf of the Post Office that my buyer would receive his parcel safely. But he just looked at me blankly again and said ‘No’.