Dear Granny Smith: free audiobook read by Philip Jackson

Philip Jackson, the voice of Roy Mayall


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.

First broadcast on Book of the Week Monday 14th December 2009. A Pacificus production for BBC Radio 4.

Episode 1

Why postmen used to have the best job in the world, and why it’s heading towards becoming the worst.

Episode 2

The special relationship between the postman and his clients, and what it’s like to be up at the crack of dawn.

Episode 3

Delivering letters is just the tip of the iceberg – how does the right letter end up in the right letterbox?

Episode 4

The end of the team talk and the beginning of new-fangled machinery.

Episode 5

The tale of Tom and Jerry and the big grey boxes.

My thanks to Clive Brill of Pacificus Productions for permission to use this material.



The Royal Mail Attendance Procedure

“Stage 3”: Illustration by Frank Stamp

At the Royal Mail you are sometimes made to come into work even when you are sick or injured.

They monitor your attendance. If you are off work more than a certain number of days they put you under threat of dismissal. It doesn’t matter how ill you are, they still threaten you.

If you are off work for sickness or injury more than three times in a year, or for more than three weeks in a row, you are given a warning. This is a Stage 1 warning. If you go over the limit a second time you are given another warning. This is a Stage 2 warning. If you exceed the limit for a third time you are given a Stage 3 warning and threatened with dismissal. After that you can’t afford to take time off from work no matter how severe the illness.

The Attendance Procedure works whether you are ill or not. All absences are assumed to be illnesses, but all illnesses, no matter how severe, count towards your absences. So a day off from work with a hangover is counted the same as a week off from work for a hernia operation; and a month off work after a heart attack will count the same as three separate days off for sheer laziness. Hernia operations and hangovers and heart attacks are all counted the same in the Royal Mail book of illnesses.

So say you have an accident and you’re off work for more than three weeks. At this point the office starts to ring you up asking when you will be back at work. They will ring you up daily, hassling you to come back to work. And no matter how ill you have been, you will get a warning when you do eventually come back.

You could come in on crutches, and you’d be given a warning. You could be bandaged up to the eyeballs. You could have coughed up your oesophagus. It makes no difference. You’ve been off work, so you will be warned. Three weeks off twice in a year and you’re up for dismissal, and that’s that.

We’ve all seen it. People who have had heart attacks or hernias, or some other major illness, crawling into work to avoid the warning, or hauled up before the “lino” (as we call the manager) and given a reprimand. People under severe stress, or with depression. People with broken arms or legs or twisted backs. People on medication, too drugged up to walk in a straight line, pleading for some understanding.

It’s no good protesting that you are ill. The lino loves his job. He will smile at you – sweetly, or gravely, or maliciously, depending on his personality – and say he’s sorry. But he’s not sorry really. He doesn’t have the choice, he’ll say, the computer has flagged you, and you have to be given a warning. No space for personal initiative here, or judgement, or an intelligent weighing up of the circumstances: you’ve had too much time off and you will be punished.

Also, one day off counts the same as a week. So if you’re off for one day you might as well take the week off. If you underestimate your illness and come back to work too soon, only to find you are still ill, or the illness recurs, and you take another day off, this will count as two absences, and the computer will flag it, and you’ll be one step nearer a warning.

The result of all of this is twofold. One: you will take a week off work even for the slightest illness. Two: you will sometimes have to go into work even if you are sick and contagious.

In other words, the Royal Mail would rather you came into work and make everyone else sick than allow the possibility that occasionally people might ring in sick and take a day off because the wife is feeling horny that morning.

Such is life in the modern Royal Mail.

Dogs and Postal Workers


We are strangers, not friends. We are not invited.

There are a number of dogs on my round.

As you may know, dogs and posties have a very particular relationship. This is not a myth. It is very real. Dogs are territorial creatures and we break into their territory. We break the bounds of what they consider their own by walking up the garden path and then sticking something through the door. We are strangers, not friends. We are not invited. The owner of the house doesn’t welcome us in with a handshake or an embrace. We simply stand at the door, a dark shadow, and intrude into their space. We shove something through the door and it makes a noise. The door flaps and rattles and the thing falls on the floor with a thump, and after that we turn and walk away again.

We excite something in dogs which is primal and deep and they react to this in a variety of different ways.

I meet the first dog on my round within about a minute and a half of starting. I don’t see much of it as it only appears through the frosted glass of the front door. It is small and white, a terrier of some sort, about a foot long, and nine inches high. It sees me and it starts to bounce. I mean that literally. It’s like a rubber ball or a yo-yo. It bounces up and down, up and down, about five times its own height, to the level of the letter box, this hazy white blob through the glass, yapping as it leaps.Yap, bounce, yap, bounce. It’s hilarious. It looks like some mad oscillator, pulsing out a precise rhythm, always rising to the exact same point behind the glass, like the blip, blip, blip of a hospital monitor. Well at least we know the patient is healthy. It has a very strong heartbeat.

We have this game. I shove the letters through the letterbox, and it grabs them, dragging them from my fingers. Then it “kills” the letters by shaking them about and growling, after which it drops them on the mat and goes away satisfied. Occasionally I have to knock the door to get a signature, and the householder will pick the dog up. It is really very small. It lies cradled in the man’s arms, snug and secure as he answers the door, but it is always fighting to get free, yapping and growling and baring its teeth. You can see it wants to kill me.

“Oh be quiet Pip,” the man says, affectionately. But I can see it in his eyes. If Pip was a few feet bigger, and I was a few feet smaller, and we’d met in a clearing in a wood somewhere, I would be dead by now. It would have me by the throat and would be shaking me about like those letters in order to break my spine and I would be a doggy breakfast by now, a feast for all its brood.

I measure my day out in dogs. Dogs are my principle form of entertainment.

The next dog is called Barney. Barney has a very aggressive sounding growl, but you soon learn he only wants to play. There’s a little yard outside the house with a gate and as soon as Barney hears me coming he grabs his rubber toy and he starts growling, padding from foot to foot as he does so, chewing on the toy. He’s wagging his tail and looking at me from under lowered brows. He’s obviously saying something profound about the nature of reality. “Look at my rubber toy,” he’s saying. “See, I have a rubber toy.” It’s like the opening salvo in a philosophical debate.

You have to be introduced to the dogs before you pet them. Some of them are friendly, while others would take your hand off. Barney is one of the friendly variety. He only wants to show me his rubber toy.

The next set of dogs are three Jack Russells opposite each other either side of the main road. I don’t know if they are related or not. There are two in one house and one in the other. They are all equally vicious.

The first is in an old farmhouse with an extensive garden which runs right around the house. For some reason the dog doesn’t like magazines. It doesn’t mind ordinary letters, but when a magazine goes through the door it startles it and the dog goes into a kind of frenzy. It goes at that magazine like it was a rat from the sewer requiring immediate disposal. It “kills” off the magazine and then it is coming straight for me. It scatters through the house to the back door making this throaty growl. Occasionally the owner has left the back door open and it can get out. I have to exit the garden fairly quickly, closing the gate behind me, at which point the dog appears in the garden, yapping and barking and chasing up and down the length of the fence.

On one occasion the dog and the owner were in the back garden as I pushed the letters through the letter box, and the dog got to me before I could get to the gate. It was going straight for my ankles. I jumped back, startled. I was holding my bag up in front of it, trying to divert its attention, like a bull fighter does with his cloak. I wasn’t too worried whether it would bite me or not, I was more worried that it might chase me out onto the street, in which case it could have run into the road and under a car. So I was defending myself like this, waving my bag in front of it, fending off its little snapping jaws, backing away towards the gate, when the owner came round. “Ah poor little Alfie,” she said, picking the thing up and cuddling it. “Ooo you poor little thing, your heart is beating so fast. You are so scared.”

She was saying this like it was my fault the dog had gone for me, like I had scared the dog on purpose. You try to explain it to people, but they don’t understand. The relationship between dogs and postal workers is a fundamental one. It is written into the very fabric of life, part of the struggle for existence, like the relationship between predators and their prey. There will always be a rivalry between us. They don’t trust us and we don’t trust them. That dog wouldn’t be happy till it saw me lying immobile by the front door, covered in blood, my letters scattered up and down the garden path. Never mind poor little Alfie. What about poor little me?

The dogs on the other side are even crazier. I’ve only just left one Jack Russell yapping and shrieking along the garden fence, when I’m confronted by two more. These ones are in the bay window of a large detached house opposite. They jump up onto the windowsill and are barking insanely, trying to get to me through the glass. Well, one of them is. The other is in the background, bouncing around on a table, obviously brought to a pitch of hysteria by the other’s frantic yelping. The first one is so obsessed with getting to me that it is banging its nose repeatedly on the glass. It’s a wonder it doesn’t have a callus on the end of its nose, it bangs it with such persistent force. I’ve spoken to its owner. “That’s an insane dog you’ve got there, “ I say. She mutters apologetically and tells me that there are scratch marks on inside of the window where the dog’s teeth are coming into contact with the glass. That’s how mad that dog is.

We shove something through the door and it makes a noise. The door flaps and rattles and the thing falls on the floor with a thump, and after that we turn and walk away again.

A game

OK, I have to be honest at this point. I enjoy all of this. Like I say, dogs are my principle form of entertainment. In the case of the crazy Jack Russell in the bay window, I will flap my letters in front of its face as I’m coming to the door. That makes it even more frantic. It falls off the windowsill, doing a back flip, before leaping back onto the sill, and banging its nose on the glass even more. I can make it chase around on the windowsill by flapping the letters up and down in front of its face. The other dog yelps and shrieks and scatters away, spinning on its hind legs. I’m causing mayhem in that front room. This is all part of the sport.

I have various games with the various dogs on my round. I’m sure this is mutual. Most of the dogs are awaiting my arrival. There’s one little lap dog that sits on the back of the settee. As soon as she sees me she leaps into the hall to the front door to receive the letters. Her part of the game is that she has to catch the letters before they fall on the mat. My part of the game is that I have to approach the house very quietly. If I make a noise and she knows I’m coming she will go to the front door before she’s seen me. That spoils the game as I count it as a score if I can catch her eye before she leaps down from the settee. There will usually be a few seconds of frantic barking as we hold each others gaze. She doesn’t quite know whether to confront me there through the front window, or to go to the hall to collect the letters.

I’ve spoken to the owner, a well-to-do lady of independent means. Once or twice she has had occasion to collect the letters before the dog gets to them. Or she picks the dog up. Or she might have closed the door between the living room and the hall. Whichever way, the game is spoiled. So I’ve told her: “you’re ruining our game. You’ve got to let your dog get to the door to catch the letters before they fall on the mat.”

The owner has agreed to this. “You’re the highlight of her day,” she says. “She waits for you. She is very disappointed if you don’t come.”

We enjoy the game so much that sometimes, even if I’ve not got any letters to deliver, I’ll shove something through the letter box – some junk mail or something – just to hear the frantic yelping from the other side.

And so it goes on, through a succession of dogs throughout my round. There are dogs behind doors that wait like silent predators till you shove the letters through the letter box, before grabbing them with their teeth. You have to be careful of these dogs as they could easily take your fingers off. There are dogs behind fences that chase up and down. There’s one Rottweiler that bounds at me as I come up the garden path, leaping against the wire mesh fence with incredible force. That one would kill me for sure. He shares the garden with another dog, a venerable old collie. This one is philosophical. It fixes you with a questioning stare, as if to ask, “and who do you think you are?” while the Rottweiler is circling around again getting ready for its next leap against the fence.

There are dogs in front rooms that hop about and yelp. There are dogs that chatter and dogs that whine. There are some dogs that make such a mess of the letters that the owner has had to fix a box by the front door and block up the letter box. There is one dog that tries to climb the fence to get to me. It’s one of those wire mesh fences and the dog can get about five feet up, lodging it’s paws in the interlocking diamond shapes. It is the world’s only climbing dog.

Each dog has its own personality. I have a particular relationship with every dog on my round.

In fact I know the dogs more than the owners in many cases. Most of the owners take me for granted. I’m just the postie, the feller who brings the mail, and I can be safely ignored. But for the dogs I’m an integral part of the drama of their day. I am Iago to their Othello. I am Shylock to their Antonio. I am the villain to be conquered, the enemy at the gate. I am the threat to their master or mistress, and that bunch of letters I hold and thrust through their door could easily be a bomb. Often they are locked up in their houses and I’m the only highlight till the family returns. I am the single incidence in the long hours of their day, and such is their frantic welcoming of my arrival that it would be churlish of me not to reciprocate in some way. That’s why I make a game of it. We are both bound by routine, me and the dogs. We help each other to pass the time of day.

Dangerous dogs

Some dogs are best avoided

Not all dogs are fun, however. Some dogs are dangerous. That Rottweiler, for instance: that would definitely kill me. Fortunately I know all the dogs on my round, so I know which ones are safe. But occasionally I have to do another round to cover for someone who is away, and then I might not be so up to date on which dogs are OK. There is a procedure for this. There are instruction cards for most rounds. If you are doing a new round you are supposed to take a look at the cards to see what particular requirements there might be, what threats there are. But these are not always kept up to date, and things can change very quickly.

Once I walked into a yard and a dog that was normally locked up had been let out. It was an Alsatian. It was summer. The people, who were normally at work, were on holiday. So they’d let the dog into the yard to run around, and when I came through the gate it went for me. I have two means of defence: my boots and my bag. If the bag has some mail in it, it could be heavy enough to use as a weapon. Or it could act as a diversion. You throw the bag at the dog and the dog will maul the bag first, before it comes for you. That way you can get to the gate. In this case, I didn’t have time. I was holding the bag up in front of me, dangling it in front of the dog’s nose, backing away towards the gate. But the dog had fixed me in the eye and was padding towards me, growling menacingly. It definitely meant to do me harm. Fortunately the owners came out and grabbed the dog before it could make that fatal leap. They were apologising profusely as I handed on the letters and dived out of there, my heart thumping away in my chest. That was a very near miss.

If a postie comes to a gate and there’s a dog on the other side, he can refuse to deliver the mail. He can put the letters back in his bag and walk away from there. If a dog is loose on the street, he can refuse to deliver to the whole street. Most dog attacks happen in the summer months. The kids are at home, and they forget to close the doors behind them. The dog gets out and the unsuspecting postie comes whistling up the path only to be confronted by the family pet miraculously transformed into a ravening beast.

This is a regular occurrence.

Also there are a lot more casual posties now than there used to be. They don’t get proper training. They are just thrown out on a round and told to get on with it. No one ever gets told where the dangerous dogs are and which houses to avoid. There are many more incidences of dog attacks than there used to be: approaching 5,000 a year according to the latest figures.

One regular injury caused by dogs is bites to the fingers. I alluded to this earlier. The dog waits behind the door till you shove the letters through and makes a grab for them. Sometimes your fingers can get caught. If it’s a vicious dog you can get your fingers bitten off. It helps if you know the dog is there. Fortunately the Royal Mail have provided us with the proper equipment to avoid this particular injury. We have these little plastic implements about six inches long and one and a half inches across, like a school ruler with a slot in the end, so we can shove the mail through the door and avoid using our fingers. I don’t know what the technical name for these items might be. I call them “mail shovelling through the door thingies.” Every postal worker in the country has been issued with one of these in the last few months. I don’t know how much they cost, but, knowing the Royal Mail, they will have paid over the odds for them. Unfortunately it takes an extra five seconds or more to load the mail into the slot and to wheedle the thing through the door. It’s a complex and delicate manoeuvre, so we tend not to use them. Mine sits on a shelf on the back of my frame and I’ve never had occasion to take it out. I’d be very surprised indeed if any postal worker actually uses theirs, but I might be wrong.

Badly Addressed Mail

Postal worker delivering mail

Badly addressed mail

The Royal Mail have just introduced brand new walk-sequencing machines to sorting offices throughout theUK.

They are fantastic machines. They read the address, then sort the mail into the exact order they will be delivered in.

All a postal worker has to do these days is to pull a handful of letters out of the tray, and then to “throw them off” into the sorting frame. They are already in the sequence we are going to deliver them in, so it takes virtually no concentration whatsoever.

More time for workplace banter then, for discussing the football results and making jokes about your workmates’ numerous personality defects.

Sometimes, however, there is a letter which slips through the net, which evades the machine’s ability to read the correct address.

A few Christmas’s ago I had a Christmas Card addressed to Bill and Mary, The Big White House with the Double Garage, On the Corner Opposite the Oast House, the name of the village, and then the name of the county, which is Kent.

No walk sequencing machine would have stood a chance. Given a little thought on which of the Big White Houses opposite an Oast House it might have been (there were 2 Oast houses on my round) I delivered the card to who I thought was the most likely candidate.

A week after Christmas I saw the lady of the house and mentioned the card. She laughed and said yes it was for her. It was from some old friends of theirs who had only been to the house once. She had since rung, she said, and given her friends the proper address.

Here’s another story, from a colleague of mine. He’d only been a Postman for about 3 weeks, when a letter turned up that made him think that Royal Mail staff really must really care about the service.

The address read: Mrs V O’Brian, Windermere, Kent. Well there is no Windermere in Kent, of course, so the mail centre staff had looked up the nearest Delivery Office to have a Windermere Road. The name had not been recognised there and so written on the margins of the envelope was “try Tonbridge” then “not here, try Tunbridge Wells”, then “try Maidstone” and so on through 5 different towns until it had finally arrived on my friend’s desk.

As I said: 3 weeks a postman, he had no idea. So he showed it to one of the old lags who’d been in the job for 20 years or more.

“Oh yes,” he said, “that’s probably the woman at No.7, or her son up at 34. Give her a knock as she’s bound to be in.”

He did, and yes, it was her.

Another colleague told me this story. He said he had a letter addressed to a Miss so-an-so, the house with the blue door, down by the sea, near the sea front, and then the name of the town.

Like my other friend, he was new to the job, so he had no idea what to do.

Again he showed it to one of the old timers, who, by a spark of genius, recognised the name.

It wasn’t even her current name. It was her Maiden name. And the door had since been repainted. But the old postie, who knew most of the rounds in the office, and most of the customers, had a shrewd idea of who it might be.

“Try this,” he said, and gave my friend an address.

My friend delivered the letter, knocking on the door to find out, and it turned out to be the right person.

What are the chances of that?

All of which goes to show that local knowledge beats new technology when it comes to badly addressed mail.

If you don’t like the 60p stamp, wait till you see Royal Mail privatisation

‘Sixty pence to deliver a first-class letter from the Outer Hebrides to the Scilly Isles: it’s still a bargain by anyone’s reckoning.’ Photograph: Kevin Foy/Rex Features

Royal Mail may be viewed with a high level of affection by the public now, but will that still be the case after it’s privatised?

From the Guardian Comment is free

The inevitable has happened. The government has announced its schedule for the privatisation of the Royal Mail, due to begin in 2013.

It’s not clear yet whether it will be full privatisation or part-privatisation, whether it will be sold off to another mail company or to a private equity firm, or whether it will be floated on the stock market as an IPO (initial public offering) and advertised to the public in the manner of the “Tell Sid” campaign for the sale of British Gas way back in 1986. “We see no reason why this company should not be IPO-able,” said one senior figure. “Royal Mail is viewed with a high level of affection by the public.”

The reasons given for the privatisation were outlined in the Hooper report in 2010.

They are as follows:

1) Falling volumes of mail due to competition from electronic media such as email and texts.

2) The inefficiency of the Royal Mail compared with its competitors.

3) The need for modernisation and the private investment to complete this.

4) The pensions deficit, the headline figure for which seems to rise on a yearly basis. It currently stands at £9bn according to some reports, less according to others.

Hooper consulted widely throughout the industry. However, he has never, as far as I know, spoken to any postal workers.

What we would have told him is that while it may be true that mail volumes have fallen, staff numbers have been falling at a faster rate. Up to 50,000 job losses since 2002.

In other words, the weight of mail for the average postal worker has been increasing. We are carrying more mail, to greater numbers of people, on larger rounds than ever. Our sacks are heavier. We work longer hours, and we’ve taken an effective pay cut since the postal agreement of 2010 in which door-to-door (junk mail) – which we were previously paid for separately – has now been incorporated into our workload. In other words, falling mail volumes have been more than compensated for by staff efficiencies.

We would also have told him that the so-called inefficiency of the Royal Mail is due as much to market liberalisation as it is to anything inherent in the company.

Private mail companies have access to the Royal Mail network through a mechanism known as downstream access. They bid for the most lucrative contracts from corporate customers, but have no obligation to deliver the letters. They leave that up to the Royal Mail, dropping it off on our doorstep for final-mile delivery. In other words, our so-called competitors have a peculiar market advantage. They take a cut of the profits, while we do the actual work.

As for modernisation, that is being subsidised by the taxpayer. The government has already loaned the company £1.7bn and is proposing to write off £1bn of that.

Which brings us to the pension deficit, which has already been taken into government hands. Even then it was never as great a problem as has been made out. The deficit currently stands at £9bn but the assets stand at £28bn. That’s three times as much. The deficit only becomes a problem if all Royal Mail workers cash in their pensions immediately, something that is not going to happen.

These are just some of the ways in which the argument for privatisation has been skewed.

Meanwhile, in preparation for the event, the new regulator, Ofcom, has announced a lifting of the cap on how much the company can charge for first-class mail. The public are hardly likely to enjoy that. Nor is this going to increase public affection for the company.

However, here’s the problem. The cost of mail delivery has been way too cheap for way too long. Sixty pence to deliver a first-class letter from the Outer Hebrides to the Scilly Isles: it’s still a bargain by anyone’s reckoning.

Traditionally the profitable parts of the company were used to supplement the unprofitable parts. This is the means by which the Royal Mail has been able to deliver the universal service obligation (USO).

It is the breaking up of the company that has lead to the threat to the USO, one of the reasons Hooper gives for the need for privatisation. (Indeed, his report is called “Saving the Royal Mail’s universal postal service in the digital age”.) The irony here is that the USO might be dropped in order to sweeten any future deal.

Anyone who wants to know what privatisation means for staff only needs to look at the Dutch model, where postal rounds have been franchised out to home workers in a system known as “sort and deliver”. Boxes of mail are dropped on a home-worker’s doorstep, who then has to sort the mail and deliver it on an agreed day. The worker is paid per item, not by the hour.

The trick here is that there is often a gross underestimation of the time it takes to do the work. Casual workers get no sick pay, no holiday pay, no health insurance, no pension and – depending on how long the round takes – often end up being paid below the minimum wage.

All of which is likely to erode that “high level of affection” felt by the public for the Royal Mail.

Read more here.

Dogs v. Posties

Snarling dog, from the CWU website

There used to be a vicious old Boxer dog on my round. He lived at the end of a long drive with a gate. There was a post box outside where I used to leave the mail. Occasionally the owners forgot to close the gate and left the dog out. It would spot me as I was parking my bike, and begin padding in my direction, head down, growling, until it got close enough to launch itself at me.

There’s not much you can do at this point. I’d have my post bag at the ready to swing at the dog’s head. One smack in the jaw was usually enough. I’d complain to my manager, who would contact the owners, who would agree to keep the dog under control, which was fine until the next time it happened. There was a warning about the dog in the office, but that didn’t stop the owners forgetting to close the gate.

Dog attacks on postal workers increase significantly during the summer. Children, off school, run in and out of the house, leaving the door open. The Communications Workers Union estimates that there are around 5000 dog attacks on postal workers every year. Sometimes it’s little more than a nip or a scrape, but Keith Davies nearly lost an arm when he was attacked by two Rottweilers in Trumpington in 2008. The owner couldn’t be prosecuted because the attack took place on a private road. Most attacks on postal workers take place on private property as we have to enter people’s property to deliver the mail. The CWU launched a campaign in 2008 to change the law, but so far it hasn’t been successful.

Some dogs lie in wait behind the door to grab the mail as it comes through the letter box. Postal workers have lost fingers this way. A few months ago we were issued with a tool to deal with this problem. It’s like a child’s ruler, about six inches long and one inch across, made of red plastic, with a slot in the end. You put the letters in the slot, then shove the thing through the letter box.

The Royal Mail has been promoting it heavily for the past few weeks. Hardly a day goes by when we’re not called to the front of the office and given a warning about dogs behind doors and offered one of these tools. I’ve yet to see a single postie accept one. They’re clumsy and awkward to use. It takes a certain amount of concentrated manoeuvring to fit the letters into the slot, and then to wrangle the whole lot through the letter box. It is only really of any use if you happen to know there’s a dog on the other side of the door. But then, if you know there’s a dog on the other side of the door, there’s a much simpler solution: don’t stick your fingers through the letter box in the first place.

– See more at:

Modernisation has put the snail in Royal Mail

Bikes for postal workers are being phased out by Royal Mail, slowing down delivery. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

The amount of lost or delayed mail is no surprise – ill-conceived new working methods have slowed postal workers down.

It’s been a bad week for the Royal Mail. What am I talking about? It’s always a bad week.

First it comes in the form of a Which? report, stating 72% of its respondents had letters delivered to the wrong address, while 71% received their post at a time they considered late in the day. Only one in four received their letters before 10am, it says.

This doesn’t surprise me. In fact, what does surprise me is that anyone reports receiving any letters before 10am. It’s very rare for us to leave our office before 10am these days. Very often it’s more like 10.30am.

For those of you who are puzzled by this, the explanation is very simple. It is called “modernisation”. Modernisation for the Royal Mail means spending millions of pounds on a large number of high-tech “walk-sequencing machines“, which actually slow down the process of delivery. They do, however, remove any vestige of skill from the job; so while they are considerably less efficient at getting the mail out on time, they nevertheless have the distinct advantage that they undermine the workforce, allowing the company to hire more and more casual workers.

The same survey also reports that 51% of their respondents received a “Sorry you were out” card even though they were in – 6% said they actually saw the card arrive through the door without the postal worker stopping to knock. Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph reports that 120,884 complaints about lost mail were made in the first three months of the year: up 37% on the same period last year. The Royal Mail blamed the increase on disruption caused by severe weather conditions. A Royal Mail spokesman said: “This resulted in significant delays to mail services in some areas, and many customers logged complaints for ‘lost’ mail which were subsequently delivered.”

Thank God for those severe weather conditions, that’s all I can say. It has allowed the Royal Mail to cover up one of the most gigantic cock-ups in its entire history. I’m talking about a wholesale revision in working methods that was begun in a number of offices in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In fact I suspect that, if you could break down the figures into individual offices, you’d find that the vast bulk of lost or delayed mail in this period occurred in offices that were going through their revision at the time. The snow was a secondary issue in many cases.

To name some offices: Dundee, Kenilworth, Warwick, Formby, Herne Bay and Stratford upon Avon. The rest of the country is undertaking their revisions now. Most will have been completed by the end of the year. So if you are noticing a marked deterioration in the quality of your service, at least you know why it’s probably happening.

To be clear: the new working methods involve the scrapping of bikes, the restructuring and reassignment of rounds, the sharing of vans and a massive increase in the workload, all at the same time. Instead of cycling, posties are now expected to walk, pushing golf trolleys in front of them. Walking, of course, is slower than cycling, and pushing golf trolleys means you can’t walk and sort through the mail at the same time, which means you have to stop at every gate and look at your bundle before selecting out the mail for that address and then delivering it. In effect, they have slowed us down while expecting us to do more work.

And they wonder why things are going wrong? You can tell these new methods have been designed by people who have never delivered a letter in their lives.

And it is here, too, that we find the answer to the earlier question: why are posties leaving more and more of those “Sorry you were out” cards than they used to?

It’s down to the revisions again. The new methods demand adherence to a strict set of timings. Every step and every manoeuvre is timed and logged and processed through a computer. So an “attendance delivery” – when a postal worker has to knock on the door and wait for a response – was allowed exactly 57 seconds, no more, no less; and with more and more packages to deliver – up to 100 a day in some cases – many posties are feeling the pressure to cut corners and get everything done in as short a time as possible. Hence writing “Sorry you were out” cards before leaving the office.

The attendance delivery timings have been increased since the revisions were first introduced, by the way – along with most of the other timings – for the simple reason that during the first few months almost every revision turned into a complete disaster, with backlogs amounting to hundreds of thousands of items building up in many offices. Hence increased complaints about lost and delayed mail.

There is one positive note in all of this, however. According to the Which? report: while they received more than 500 items of correspondence about people’s experiences with the Royal Mail, the majority of them critical, many of the correspondents took time to praise their own postmen and women. The management may be incompetent, but at least us posties are still appreciated.

From the Guardian Comment is free. Read more here.

Junk mail – the facts

A Panorama programme on postal junk was compelling, but didn’t mention that the market is skewed against Royal Mail

Junk mail. We all hate it don’t we?

Postal workers probably hate it more than anyone else, as we see more of it than anyone else. You only have a few items a week to deal with, we have hundreds of items a day. Sometimes we have as many as six separate items per household to load into our frames. That could be well in excess of 3,000 items a week. You can’t imagine how tedious this is.

And whereas in the past we were paid separately for it, as a supplement to our wages (which compensated us for it somewhat) these days it is part of our workload; and whereas the general estimate for the number of houses we cover on a daily basis is about 85%, for junk mail it is 100%, meaning it takes longer to deliver than ordinary mail.

Now a Panorama programme has been aired all about junk mail. It seems as if the Royal Mail is addicted to it – at least if you believe Richard Hooper, author of the Hooper report into the future of our postal services.

As he said in the programme: “There is absolutely no question that advertising mail, which the critics describe as junk mail, is central to the viability of the Royal Mail in the 21st century.” As proof of this he gave us some fairly compelling figures: about a quarter of the total letters market, of around £5.4bn, is advertising mail. Or as Tom Heap, the reporter, summarised it: “On the face of it, it seems the best way of ensuring the survival of our beloved postal system is to sign up to as much junk mail as you possibly can.”

Unfortunately, as the programme also pointed out, there are some pretty serious consequences to this, not least in the cost of disposing of the stuff once it comes through our doors, and – almost immediately – is chucked into the bin. Millions of pounds a year is spent by councils around the country, either in recycling the material, or in shovelling it into landfill sites.

It seems we are stuck with junk mail. Or are we?

The problem is that we were not given all the facts. There are a number of issues that Hooper – the acknowledged expert in the field – omitted to inform you about.

Central to this is something known as downstream access (DSA). This is the means by which rival companies are allowed access to the Royal Mail’s delivery network, at a loss to the Royal Mail. According to Royal Mail’s chief executive Moya Greene in December last year, this is in the region of 2.5p for every item of DSA mail we deliver. Some price changes have since been introduced by the regulator and the extent of subsidy and loss since the changes is as yet unclear [see footnote].

Yes, that’s right: we deliver our own rivals’ mail for them, and then we take a loss on it. By law. Or, to put it another way: we postal workers, and you members of the public, are made to pay so that rival companies to the Royal Mail can make a nice profit. This is what Hooper refers to as “modernisation”. It is the real drain on the Royal Mail’s revenues, and the reason why it is now so dependent on junk mail to survive. Sometimes we are made to deliver our own competitors’ junk mail.

It is achieved through a process known as headroom. What this means is that the price the Royal Mail is allowed to charge for bulk mail delivery – the bills and statements sent out by banks and utility companies, which is the prime source of all revenue in the letters market – always has to allow headroom for its rivals to make a profit.

Without this artificial skewing of the market – in the name of the so-called “free market” – the company would not be anywhere near as dependent on junk mail for its future survival.

Actually, the Panorama programme was effectively two stories in one. Only the first part was about junk mail, the second part was about scam mail. What the programme failed to come up with was a solution to this particular problem, but I can provide that: allow postal workers to identify scam mail and to report it, and then allow the Royal Mail the legal means to stop it at its source.

There’s one old lady on my round who has been receiving scam mail. Day after day she gets a pile of letters from someone who is described on the envelope as “the world’s most trusted psychic”. The envelopes are always the same, but the return addresses are from all over the world. Sometimes I’m delivering 10 or 15 of these letters a day. I reported it to my manager and asked if we could stop delivering them, but he told me we couldn’t. It is paid-for mail and we are obliged to deliver it.

This is a perfect example of what I have been suggesting over and over again: the company should learn to trust its own workers. Because unlike the high-tech machines which are being introduced in the much heralded modernisation programme, us postal workers actually know our customers. We can tell the difference between scam mail and real mail. We know who is vulnerable and who is not, and we can alert our managers when a vulnerable person is being targeted.

I’m certain that every postal worker would recognise this material. If there was a system by which we could report it, and a legal means of stopping it, we could get rid of it overnight.

• This footnote was appended on 7 July 2011. TNT contacted the Guardian after publication of the piece to say the reference to the DSA agreement is not applicable in the context mentioned. “In fact there has been a 22 percent price increase in charges by Royal Mail this year alone which renders this argument obsolete”, a company representative said.

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