Thursday, October 19, 2006

Post Partum

Our local post office, like many in Britain, is at the back of a shop that sells newspapers, sweets, alcohol, limp vegetables and frozen foods with enough ‘E’ numbers to cause an epidemic of ADHD. I do not collect a pension or child benefit from this post office. Nor do I buy car tax, television licence stamps or pay my utilities bills at this post office. I buy stamps and I post parcels. Usually, I take a book to read while I wait in a long queue of people who have come to do the same thing. Sometimes we compare parcel destinations to pass the time.

Today, a delegation of thousands of sub postmasters (people who run a post office in their shop), delivered a petition to No 10 Downing Street asking the Government not to close down any more of our post offices. With four million signatures, it is the largest petition ever presented to Government. The reason for the petition is that the Government thinks that post offices have very little to do now that people can no longer buy their television licence there and wants to close down the ones where there are only elderly and disabled people who can’t get to the next village willing to use them.

I’m having one of my increasingly regular ‘is it just me?’ days over this because it seems to me that none of the arguments for closing a post office acknowledge the fact that it does one thing that no other service does – it takes items you want to give to someone else but, for any number of reasons, you can’t manage to take yourself and gives them to that person, for a reasonable fee.

It is true that other organisations move parcels about. DHL for example will do this provided you live somewhere they feel like driving to and the recipient of your parcel also lives somewhere they feel like driving to. If not you either don’t get your parcel collected and delivered or you have to pay an extra £12.50 ‘remote area’ fee. This is payable for any destination that is not actually a major city. FedEx will also take parcels to other people for you but charge about ten times as much as the post office for the same sized package.

Follicley and prioritorially confused Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair ‘Dear’ Darling said today, 'We recognise that some offices, maybe, will never be commercially viable but play an important social role. Equally, however, we have to make sure that the network is sustainable'. You have to immediately rule out lack of demand for post office services because there are 28 million visits to post offices per day – that’s almost half of the whole population, visiting every day.

Since I myself only go to the post office about once every two weeks, those figures would suggest that there are people for whom post office visiting is a dependency. Mr ‘Dear’ Darling seemed to suggest as much when he recognised the ‘important social role’ they play. I have noticed that sometimes people in our post office queue are drinking Diamond White and they are very sociable indeed. They are not usually carrying parcels though and since the Government insists that nobody gets their pension paid at the post office anymore and they don’t look like people who are queuing for car tax, they can only be there to forge friendships with fellow queuers.

It is entirely possible that post office closures would severely displace people for whom this is their only social interaction. At our post office they’ve put up high petitions where you’re supposed to queue. This is probably to prevent people from nicking the sweets while they’re waiting but it does recall that wonderful, claustrophobic sensation of being stuck in the hallway of a particularly rambunctious party. It’s doubly eerie if someone offers you a slurp of their Diamond White.

I don’t know what these people would do without the post office queue. People aren’t holding parties in their hallways on a regular enough basis to mop up the displacement anymore. Perhaps they would resort to queuing at bus stops. Nothing causes more consternation in Britain than people who queue at bus stops without any intention whatever of getting on a bus when it finally arrives. Chaos would ensue. Self-help organisations would spring up everywhere, perhaps meeting next to post boxes. Inevitably they would be called POAs (post office anonymous). This would lead to mass congestion at post boxes resulting in a return to those dark days of the 80s when post boxes were regularly closed due to high demand, usually the day before Mother’s Day or the week before Christmas.

It’s easy enough to close a post box – all you have to do is nail a metal plate over the opening but closing down post offices is going to be much more far reaching in its long term ramifications. So, we return to the problem of post office ‘viability’. Since post offices have very little to do other than weigh and stamp parcels, there is obviously a need to boost the social capital aspect of the business, a realisation reached by Mr ‘Dear’ Darling after emergency talks were held with the sub postmasters late today,

'I want to maintain a national network, but I want to do it in a way that will last so we don't keep coming back again and again to the underlying problems we have had in the past few years.'

Former Wimbledon champion and postal delivery operative for Southfields, SW19 ‘Postman’ Pat Cash (pictured) has been engaged to be the face of a new campaign to be called ‘Party with Pat’. The campaign will raise awareness of the post office’s commitment to maintaining its position at the heart of the community by holding a continuous party in the post office queue. It is proposed that regular games of ‘pass the parcel’ take place in order to improve the parcel delivery aspect of the business. Sub postmasters are said to be delighted with the proposals and anticipate an upturn in sales of Diamond White. For every problem there is a solution…

Photo from


Dave Hill said...


Lesley Cookman said...

That's almost everything I wanted to say yesterday. Instead, I just got frustrated and swore at the radio. I'm not ALLOWED to pick up the pittance the government chucks at me every week. I would if I could. Despite the queues, I enjoyed going along to pick up my child allowance. Never encountered the Diamond White, though. Must post more parcels...