Monday, June 27, 2011

About Postmen

Another little book from D. Richardson's 'Introductions to Citizenship' series published in the 1930s by Ginn and Company of Queen Square, London. Another book about work.

I sought this from a British bookseller. It arrived at my house in New Zealand in a little protective envelope of thick cardboard. Postage can't have been more than a couple of pounds – moving things is marginally more expensive than moving information these days. Yet I am old enough to remember the special thin note-paper and the light envelopes one used to send letters by air without incurring a surcharge. Back when you still had to weigh your words carefully.

(But in fact the most expensive words of all were the ones you sent electronically. In the countries where they even still exist, nobody sends telegrams anymore – except when somebody is born, or dies. It's not hard to find ritual and symbolism in our use of communications technologies.)

About Postmen takes us back to those times, when 'the Postman [was] everywhere' (8), and 'every home in Great Britain [had] an address' (9), but still relatively few of them had a phone number, and so the postal service was the nervous system of the nation, and ensuring its smooth operation was one of the key functions of the state. The postman really had to be everywhere, go everywhere. His reach was the reach of society itself.
Across the suspension bridge and up and down 403 stone steps goes the Holyhead postman, when he delivers the post to the South Stack Lighthouse, Anglesey.

Richardson lets us briefly savour some of the implications of this ubiquitous presence when he observes in passing that '[t]he postman’s work sometimes takes him into strange and lonely places' (9). But mostly his focus is in the Taylorist efficiency of the postal service, as measured by time: in the minute that it takes a novice postman to sort 25 letters, or an expert one, as many as 50; or the nine days it takes to be trained on the job; or the rigorous demands of next day delivery, prompting the occasional reminder to please post your letters early.

Timeliness is next to godliness, and the first rule of the postman's rule book – informs us the author – is that he must be punctual.
To help him to be punctual, he is not allowed to call anywhere when he is on duty, except to collect and deliver letters and parcels.
Letters bringing important news might be seriously delayed if the postman were to stop to talk to his friends.
The postman never stops long at your house, does he? (25)

Nowhere is this need for speedy, synchronous and silent operation exemplified more sharply than in the exchange of mail bags at train stations when the train in transit is travelling at full speed.
The apparatus on both the carriage and the line side consists of a rope net for picking up the pouches, and iron arms for dropping them.
The man in the Travelling Post Office and the postman on the line side have to be ready for the exact moment to work the apparatus so that the pouches can be exchanged.
A moment too late and the train will have rushed past; a moment too soon, and the pouches may be lying on the wayside. (73)
The TPO apparatus

But the life of a postman is not measured only in instants and minutes, but in longer timeframes as well. A postman is expected to put in forty-one years of service between employment at nineteen – with exceptions made for former soldiers, sailors, or airmen, so long as they are at least 5 feet and 4 inches in height – and retirement at sixty. During this time he will be required to work for 48 hours a week, including night shifts reserved for sorting the mail and excluding the occasional Sunday shifts, that are accounted and paid for separately. The salary for this work varies from region to region according to the local cost of living and starts for a nineteen year old in London at 34 shillings per week, going up to 54 shillings by the time the postman has reached the age of twenty-five. On the subject of retirement and the virtue of the old age pension, Richardson offers his young readers the following suggestion:
When you are deciding what kind of work to do when you grow up, it is a good idea to enquire if that work will give you a pension when you grow old and have to stop working. (34)
We may read into this advice outdated ideas about job security for life – with the attendant social immobility – and a sense that the present can be seamlessly projected into the future, without disruption, for the five of six decades that separated the book's readers from retirement age, and this at no less than the eve of World War II. As if to emphasise this point, Richardson includes the facsimile of a National Savings Certificate issued in 1935 that, for an investment of 15 shillings, would accrue a further 5 shillings in value by the end of its ten-year term. One pound in ten years, and nothing but a war in between.

It's hard to fault the book in one principal respect, namely that the British postal service was a well-oiled machine that operated very efficiently and one could say – the pride it took in its royal livery notwithstanding – almost invisibly. Richardson makes this point by implication when he asks the reader to spot the postman in this picture.

Or tells us about the Royal Mail's own dedicated tube that shifted the mail underneath the Londoners' feet.

And what's a mail sorting office if not the city's double, a three-dimensional map in which each address has its own pigeon hole, and blocks of pigeonholes together track the movements of a postman in the course of his shift? This highly complex human-made system was perhaps the apex of the centralised state, operating not only as an efficient and cost-effective public service but also as a blueprint of a particular idea of the orderly society. And so the postman – like the dustman, the fireman and the policemen who complete the Introduction to Citizenship series – becomes an agent of this order, a function that is reflected in the decorum expected of him
A man who wants to be a postman must be clean, neat, and well mannered. (15)
as well in the uniform, which in the copy in my possession was just as neatly coloured-in by the original owner.

By contrast with all this I am fascinated by, and an assiduous collector of, instances of postal services failing to deliver, either by sending the mail to the wrong destination or, more pointedly, to the right destination but with immense delay. These stories never fail to make the papers, like the one about the postcard sent by a World War I Bosnian soldier that reached his family 95 years later; or the one about an almost identical case in Norwich: or the one about the Christmas card that took 93 years to cover the distance between Oberlin, Nebraska and Alma, in neighbouring Kansas. It is not so much that all of these messages trapped in time and space undercut the myth of postal efficiency – by and large, they don’t. It’s rather that they are like little tears in the fabric of modernity itself, and on the ideal of rational, timely and transparent communication on which it is founded.

When an Italian inmate at the German labour camp of Stablack writes home to reassure his family that he is okay, and the postcard reaches his widow 66 years later, it creates its own little painful hauntology. ‘I want to tell you about my health, which is excellent’, lies the man, but there is nobody to be comforted at the other end.

Richardson’s postmen are also something of an anachronistic relic, and not just because the profession has evolved, or because the Royal Mail is about to be privatised after holding out for so very long, but chiefly in terms of what they stood for, of the idea of society for which they acted as silent and efficient messengers for as little as 34 shillings a week. Postmen everywhere is the title of the first chapter of this little book, and it contained a promise of which the state itself was guarantor: that every message would reach its destination. But the book’s own message was about work itself: work for deserving men only – clean, neat and well mannered, no less than five-foot-four in height – but work with a dignity nonetheless, and a specificity of rhythms and gestures worthy of description and to form part of an education. That idea too is stuck in its time, like a lost message that can no longer be delivered.

D. Richardson. About Postmen. Ginn and Company: London, 193?

See also About Dustmen.


Robyn said...

A recent urban exploration of the old London postal railway system.

Unknown said...

The postman never stops long at your house, does he? (25)

From a technical writer's point of view that is a very interesting tactic.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Robyn: wonderful! Merc: yes, I'm glad you liked that...