Thursday, October 22, 2009

Queuing In The Post Office With The Old, The Infirm and the Merely Discombobulated, Is Like Waiting Around To Die

Today, the posties are on strike. Post will be delivered, but not sorted. Tomorrow, apparently, it will be sorted, but not delivered. The day after that, when the men return from their braziers, sorting and delivering will resume, but will be hampered by the backlog of mail which has accumulated during the strike. The postmen will have more work to do, and less time in which to do it. They will have sacrificed wages and public sympathy, and the Post Office - one of the great state institutions - will be further weakened.
This is a matter of some sadness, but also bafflement. We are continually told that the Post Office cannot survive in its current form; its business model must be opened to the brisk winds of private finance. Yet, whenever I visit the Post Office, I am forced to queue, rather in the manner of a dustbowl farmer heading west in The Grapes of Wrath, with the old, the infirm, and the merely discombobulated. Some of them have heavy objects to post, many are paying bills, or receiving benefits. Some come only to drool. Whatever their business, the office itself is always busy, and always understaffed. There are many more serving windows than there are clerks. The clue is the queue. It snakes around, through roped lines of the type you find at celebrity red carpets, except that the ropes here are designed to show that in this context, the customers are Very Unimportant Persons. In their captivity, they are "entertained" with advertisements for insurance, and banking. Standing in these lines feels very much like waiting around to die.
What, to quote Vladimir Ilyich, is to be done? At the Labour Party conference there was talk of turning the Post Office into a People's Bank. That sounded like a good idea, though how it will be achieved, I cannot foresee. The banking wing of the Post Office is currently domiciled in Ireland, so - with all due respect to the Irish, who need all the help they can to pay for the upkeep of the pebbledash bogside bungalows - it is not doing a great deal to help the British people.
But what of the post itself? Apparently, it is in decline. People no longer send letters. They text, and tweet, and generally behave like sub-literate twits turned indolent by a diet of mechanically-recovered meat and the idiot fantasies of reality television. They are richer than any previous generation, yet feel poorer, and take umbrage at everything. The horizons of their mornings blush red with anger. At night, they cook TV dinners and watch TV chefs. They are encouraged in their fury by a media which prizes participation over intelligence and reaction over reason. They shout at everything and understand nothing. Politics is reduced to a football phone-in, where merely being aggrieved is enough; or a reality show, in which serious political pundits, and the profoundly un-serious Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, Mr Cameron - a blue-blooded PR man whose big idea is to be a Stars-on-45 remix of Mr Tony Blair's more vacuous tendencies - make political capital from the Prime Minister's reluctance to reveal his favourite biscuit to the babytalking interlocutors of something called Mumsnet.
There is much heat in this dispute, and little light. But it seems clear to me that the talk of the post's decline is exaggerated, as it comes at a time when internet shopping, and eBay, and many other methods of spending money without standing up, are leaving our High Streets full of nothing but betting slips and discarded chicken buckets. The post, I suspect, is like the trains, which were privatised and condemned to a condition of expensive chaos, followed by collapse, and the further intervention of the state.
In the meantime, I write letters I cannot post and wait for mail that never comes. Outside my door, there is a mountain of red elastic bands.