I’m interested in the way that words change their meaning once they are adopted by bureaucratic institutions. Take deregulation, for instance, as it’s applied to postal services in Britain. It appears to mean an opening of the market to allow competition. But if you look more closely you will see that, in order to achieve this, the Royal Mail’s ability to act in its own interest has been severely curtailed…
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On You & Yours on BBC Radio 4 there was a discussion about Dear Granny Smith, featuring Billy Hayes of the CWU and Richard Hooper, author of the Hooper Report into the future of the Royal Mail. This is Roy Mayall’s response to that programme.
One of the things that has started to get to me since the publication of my book, Dear Granny Smith, is how often it is misrepresented in the press and by the media.
That was odd, because he played a short snippet from the BBC Book of the Week reading by Philip Jackson, in which, after a brief description of how the new Walk-Sequencing Machines work, the narrator quite clearly says, “and there’s not a postie in the whole world who would object.”
In another sequence Richard Hooper, author of the Hooper Reportinto the future of the Royal Mail, described the book as “a witty, mischievous, wonderfully nostalgic piece of writing”, but went on to describe it as “absolutely anti-modernisation, anti the modern way of doing things.”
Then he said: “But let’s get real, we all agree, Billy Hayes has just said it, the union agrees, the management agrees, the government agrees, that if we’re going to maintain our beloved universal postal service…. that the Royal Mail must accelerate its modernisation programme….” adding that the Walk-Sequencing Machines will “save the posties time, giving them more time to be out on delivery.”
This is precisely our fear. As if 3.5 hours is not already long enough to be working flat-out – 3.5 hours which generally turns into 4 hours, often more – now they want to put even more weight on our backs, even more time out on delivery.
You see, when Richard Hooper and the management of Royal Mail talk about “modernisation” it’s actually a euphemism. It doesn’t mean modernisation at all.
No postie would object to machines that took some of the drudgery out of our work, or which speeded things up, or which made the Royal Mail more efficient. This is the trick that is being played whenever anyone says that Dear Granny Smith is a nostalgic book – or as Billy Hayes, the General Secretary of the Communications Workers Union put it: “pining for the blue remembered hills” – that discussing past work conditions is being “unrealistic”, as if having time, having proper tea-breaks, good pay and conditions, time to do the job properly and not being worked like a pack-mule, were all unrealistic goals.
No. What “modernisation”, in the sense that management consultants and senior management at the Royal Mail mean it, is not modernisation. It is privatisation.
There is a passage in the book where I compare the lives of two postmen: one an old postman who started work in the 1950s, and the other, a younger family man, now in his 40s. The first, who I call “Tom”, now lives in happy retirement, having left the postal service a couple of years ago, while the other – “Jerry” – has only a lifetime of hardship to look forward to, and fully expects to be working for a privatised mail service by the time he retires.
And then I say:
You have to ask why this should be? What has changed in the last 50 years? Why is Jerry’s future so different than the one that Tom would have expected at the same age? How come Tom can rest in contented retirement, while Jerry only has a future full of hardship and uncertainty to look forward to?
Us postie’s haven’t changed. Jerry is as committed to his customers as Tom ever was. He is as dedicated, as honest, as straightforward, as hard-working, as decent, as kind. The post hasn’t changed. We still need the post. So why are the workers suffering in this way?
I guess you might say, “it’s the same for everyone. No one has any certainty any more.”
I guess that’s true.
But you still have to ask why? What is the driving force behind all these changes?
In the book I don’t answer that question, but I will try to here.
The driving force behind all these changes is something called neoliberalism. It is the guiding philosophy of the corporations. It basically says that nothing will exist on this planet – no human endeavour will take place, no plot of land will exist – that does not make a profit for them. Humans beings’ only purpose is to work for them. We are indebted to them through our mortgages, in the exact same way that serfs were indebted to the Lords in feudal times, and a portion of our labour will go to pay off our indebtedness in the same way that serfs were made to hand over a portion of their produce to the Lords.
In other words, what they have in mind for us isn’t “modernisation” at all. It is the exact opposite. It is a return to feudal serfdom.
Listen to You and Yours: 18/12/2009. The discussion on Dear Granny Smith is just over 29 minutes into the programme.
- BBC iPlayer – Book of the Week: Dear Granny Smith: Episode 1
Listen to Book of the Week: Dear Granny Smith: Episode 1
This is a website whose views I wholeheartedly endorse.
Michael Billington’s theatre, Carlos Fuentes Happy Families, Nelson’s Navy and why being a postman isn’t what it used to be
By Anna Richards, Brian MacArthur, Toby Clements and Simon Baker
Published: 11:27AM GMT 15 Dec 2009
Dear Granny Smith by Roy Mayall
If you want to understand why postmen go on strike, read this book. Granny Smith is the old lady who lives alone, for whom the postman is a lifeline but who, apparently, doesn’t matter any more. Roy Mayall (a punning pseudonym) is a postman of the old school before the corporate modernisers started applying the techniques of business administration to wrecking the Royal Mail. There is lyricism here – “the lovely, soft, golden light of the early morning” when he sets out – but also a howl of rage as he describes what modernisation means for postmen on the beat. They now spend most of their time on deliveries that will instantly be thrown in the dustbin.
Modernisation agreements. Market liberalisation. Downstream access. Postal services should be simple: sender posts letter, post office sorts letter, recipient gets letter. Yet the Royal Mail strike in October was over issues so complicated that even union officials struggled to sum them up…
You have to read the comments on this. It seems I’m not who I think am…
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Watch Panorama in BBC iPlayer here.
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Dear Granny Smith: A letter from your postman written by Roy Mayall and delivered by Philip Jackson; a heartfelt musing on the past, present and future role of one of the oldest British institutions, the Postie.
Why postmen used to have the best job in the world, and why it’s heading towards becoming the worst.
Christmas is the most important time of the year for the Royal Mail. It is when the company comes into its own.
It’s not only about the volume of traffic, though this is phenomenal. People are receiving ten, fifteen, or twenty times their usual mail. And it’s not just Christmas cards either. Everyone is trying to sell you something. So there are endless catalogues, brochures, special offers, two-for-the-price-of-one deals.
And then, after this, there are the presents. People may not send as many letters as they used to, but they can sit up all night browsing the internet for gift ideas, paying for them by credit card, and getting them sent by post the next day. Most of this comes through the Royal Mail.
There’s something of the Dunkirk spirit in delivery offices at this time of year. It’s a veritable assault of mail, and postal workers are braced for the force of the attack. There are times when we feel like the last troops defending the beaches as a never ending barrage of letters and cards and magazines and parcels is thrown at us. And then, after that, we are like the little ships evacuating the mail through the channel, on our bikes and in our trolleys, safely delivering the post to your homes.
It’s a great feeling. There’s great camaraderie in the office, great spirit, and a huge sense of achievement when it’s all over; after which we get two days off work – Christmas Day and Boxing Day – before we resume our rounds again.
But – as I say – that’s not all there is to it.
There’s something else, something more subtle, but no less substantial.
Because we are not only delivering the mail. We are delivering goodwill. We are delivering keepsakes and remembrances. We are delivering thoughts of our friends. We are delivering Christmas wishes and New Year greetings from across the country and around the globe. We are more than just posties then. We are the thread that weaves through the fabric of society, binding it together.
You see, us posties are being grossly underestimated. You think that all we do is read an address and then stick the letter through the door, but there’s much more to it than that.
These days there’s immense pressure on us. We are carrying more mail than ever, and working at a faster pace. There has been a 30% reduction in staff levels in the last two years and increasing volumes, particularly of parcels. There are more part-time posties and casuals. There are more rounds being done on an ad-hoc basis with no full-time postie being assigned. There’s an ever increasing volume of junk mail being generated by data bases in computers sent to people who moved out years ago, to addresses that no longer exist.
All of this gets lumped under the general name of “modernisation” and when we argue with it we are told that we are like dinosaurs resisting the changes that will save the Royal Mail for the future.
Royal Mail management consultant David Stubbs says that there are three strands to the modernisation programme:
- The introduction of walk-sequencing machines and the measurement of rounds.
- The reduction and the concentration of mail centres, into larger and fewer centres.
- The introduction of more part-time workers and of new shift patterns.
He adds that the model for these changes are the mail companies on the continent. But here’s the problem. The measurement of the rounds is being done by a computer programme called Pegasus which quite often doesn’t get the measurement right. Pegasus actually added about 45 minutes to my round, which already takes more than the allotted 3.5 hours. Walk-sequencing machines will pre-sort the mail into the order of delivery so that the postman will have less preparation to do, but, on average, these multi-million pound machines save about seven minutes on each round, and still don’t always get it right. And if you look to the continent for your model you’ll see that posties over there are losing their jobs, while their rounds are being franchised out to casual workers, thus breaking the bond of trust between a postie and his customers.
The reason that postal workers are questioning modernisation that it is being driven by the requirement of the corporations to make profits, and not for the benefit of the ordinary customer or postal workers. It is for the people who send out the bills, not the people who receive them or deliver them.
If you want to know how long a round will take, don’t get a computer programme to tell you, ask the postie. The postie will know. If you want to know how best to do the round, whether by bike or on foot or with a trolley or a van, ask the postie. The postie will know. If you want to know who has moved in to number 22, and whether Mr Jones still lives at number 27, ask the postie. The postie will know. A walk-sequencing machine can sort the mail fast and efficiently, but could it find a person’s address without a house number or a postcode? The postie can.
This is what “modernisation” in its current form fails to take into account. There is a wealth of local knowledge in every office, residing in every postman’s head. Why send double-gazing catalogues out to council-owned blocks of flats? If the company had asked the postie he would have told them not to bother. Why keep sending letters to Mr Jones when the postie knows full well he moved out years ago. Some of these mass mail-out companies could save a lot of money (and a lot of trees) if they bothered to consult with the postie first.
Some of this detailed local knowledge could be utilised to make the post more efficient, if only the Royal Mail would learn to trust its own employees.
There’s a joke down at our office. “This job is all about give and take,” we say. “We give, they take.”
We are referring to the fact that the Royal Mail utterly fails to appreciate us.
Christmas is the time of year when the commitment and dedication of postal workers can be seen most clearly. Forget about temporary workers: when it comes to the Christmas post the job wouldn’t get done without the good will of the postal workers who run the system for the rest of the year too. Without overtime the Royal Mail would simply crash. But the Royal Mail can’t impose overtime nor can it restrict it. We work until the job is done, however long that takes. The overtime is given as a good will gesture by the postal worker. It is not a requirement, it is an act of service to our customers.
In the same way the Royal Mail cannot impose modernisation. It has to work with its staff. It has to consult about the best way to go about it. It has to be done in the interests of all the customers, not just the corporations. It has to be done in such a way that it will not damage postal worker’s health or well-being.
Only then will the Royal Mail become a truly modern service..
More from Roy Mayall
- The not so jolly postman | Roy Mayall | Comment is free | The Guardian
Postal worker Roy Mayall loves his job the fresh air, the early starts, even the Christmas rush. But this year it’s not quite so much fun
- Roy Mayall London Review Blog
- LRB Roy Mayall Diary
- Listen to Book of the Week online
- Dear Granny Smith Book of the Week on Radio 4 Going Postal