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
“In Dear Granny Smith (A Letter From Your Postman) We join Roy as he vividly describes some of his working experiences both the good side and the bad side. We learn how a once happy traditional job is being spoiled by “modernisation” and “Team Talk” meetings in which nobody talks and there is no team…”
Roy Mayall’s book now available to order on Amazon:
alone and for whom the mail service is a lifeline.