Postal Revival

The art of the post-office queue.

There is so much to write about and yet I feel at risk of just being on the current-affairs-critique bandwagon. Commenting on political moves, our day to day in our little home bubble, management of social distancing, the emergence of further and new social divisions, the simultaneous disassembling of divisions as people help one another, the rise in car use, what our homemade face masks are going to look like etc etc… However today I want to instead turn my attention to the postal service.

Prior to coronavirus and this lockdown (I’m calling it this lockdown because I’m thinking this may not be the only time we have to alter life like this), I was starting to accept that we would soon be mourning the loss of a rather incredible part of history. Post. Here in London, there is a museum called The Postal Museum. Its obvious calling card is the now out of service underground electric train that you can have a ride on. This train is part of an underground network of tracks and tunnels that zoomed mail across London. The trains are comprised of little cars, much like a mining situation. They were used until not that long ago (2003) and not many people realised they even existed. The train ride is accessed after passing through a gift shop that spills out its merchandise of a theme with endless possibilities. Down a big flight of stairs, and within a cavernous basement where fascinating relics of the past are exhibited, you board this train. And the journey is beautifully orchestrated, stopping at underground platforms as projected images tell the story of the service. When you surface again, you can cross the road to another site where there is a fulsome and interactive museum all about …. POST! Everything from Postman Pat to pneumatic mail, it’s there and it’s exciting. Oh, and then there’s the most perfect theme for a soft play area. Kids dress up as postal employees. They run around moving parcels and letters, posting things, operating a post office, sorting centre etc. Brilliant. All the ingenuity and romance of sending and receiving mail realised.

I have to admit, my visits to the museum have involved chasing, and then as he’s matured, following Oscar around (including preventing inadvertent shoplifting from the spilling gift shop), so my absorption of information has been in little snatches. However, one thing that sticks like a stamp (sorry!) is that our need for the classic postal service in the 21st Century as we knew it pre-pandemic was waning. To survive, it has had to evolve, offering all sorts of other services. And that seems to have just shrouded the postal experience in a blanket of frustration, despite this versatility on offer. Can you be serious? The twelve people in front of me in the queue are withdrawing money, setting up a mobile phone contract, filling in their driving licence, collecting their pension, changing their address, paying a bill… Is anyone sending a letter? Buying a stamp? What, stamps cost how much?? I have come to dread visits to the post-office, opting to buy ever-increasing priced books of stamps from unexpected places like the department store so I have them on hand and in order to avoid a post-office visit. For larger items I stock them up, take a deep breath and issue a visit to the post-office for a bulk send – contributing myself to the queue-frustrations. Ultimately it is and was evident that a mail service was a tiny portion of people’s concerns and lives. And each time I am encountered with frustrated visits to the post office, I am hit by a nostalgia for the letter; the straight forward act of taking time to write and for the feeling of potential each day – what was twice a day when I first moved to the UK – when the post person arrived, delivering a letter to read. Now it’s just bills. And advertising. (More the latter than the former as online billing has become more au fait.) So now, cue (and queue) the package. For letters/cards I can pop in the post-box.

May is a month full of birthdays for us. One of my closest friends, my parents, my nephew. All stacked up in May. So, yesterday we gathered ourselves and headed for the post-office. This is our third visit since the lockdown. The first time we must’ve been lucky as we were the only ones there. Or was that a dream that I’ve confused for reality? The next two visits, yesterday included, meant an extremely long wait in a queue. People standing with literally bags of parcels. (No letters) Stuff. We all need to ship stuff. Meaningful no doubt, but I cannot help but notice all the stuff! I can’t wait for my family and friend(s) to get our gifts. Suddenly without knowing when we’ll ever see each other again, the value of these items so much more precious. So there we are. Stood in a line. Waiting. Laden with our packages.

A strange thing happens in a queue for a post-office. One enters the queue-orb and you become raggedy. Shoes don’t fit properly, your shoulders slump, you become uppity or forlorn. It’s depressing. I look around at the queue as it bends around the corner of the street. Yup. Everyone has been infected by the postal queue slump. We all look miserable overburdened by our parcels, no matter how strategically one has worked out how to put the address on, tape up a new envelope, reuse some packaging with way more heavy duty tape than the recycling is of any ecological value. Everyone’s brow furrowed. Where’s the romance in this? If air travel for humans is going to be increasingly miserable and hard to do, can you imagine how a letter or small parcel feels? This is the send off? Even the stamps are dull. Faceless. (Sorry Queenie, I can’t count your head here.) Where is the design? What about a corona-stamp? There is beauty in the viral cell design after all. What about honouring the service itself? What about the other national services like the NHS? I see this opportunity has been missed. Philatelists’ must be severely concerned.

I look around. It’s filthy. Depressing. I can’t wait to get out of here. Parcels all packaged up, addressed, the fight to get everything into the smallest version of a padded envelope, the corners ripped and repaired quickly by the Sellotape I’ve remembered this time to bring along. I’ve using my own pen, not the manhandled one with the broken pen chain on the grubby too-small-for-the-parcels-these-days desk. I’ve tapped my debit card as relatively vast sums of money are parted with for the tickets for the packages to fly. We scoot out of the office, bits of peel-away from the sticky back paper floating in my now empty bags. Relief.

My mind slips to a memory of when I was in India and decided to send a box of my overpacking back to the UK. With the rational of it’ll be easier to have a lighter bag without the items I find I don’t really need, I sourced an empty box from a spice stall. I set about emptying my backpack, packing my things in the waiting area of the steamy 1930s post-office, all the tellers looking on at me bemused as I strategically folded items I would need in the future but not now along with gifts I’d picked up along the way, into the box. I addressed the box and proudly took it to one of the curious tellers who’d watched the entire time.

Sorry, but you have to sew your box.
Pardon? Sew my box?
Yes, and we close in 5 minutes.
So you've just watched me pack this box. Everyone. And now you're telling me you're about to close and I have to sew the box? How? Why? Nevermind why? How??
There is a tailor in the market. He'll do it for you. We'll wait 20 minutes. Hurry. 

Right. I put my backpack on, balance my box on my head and rush out to try and locate this magical tailor somewhere in the market. It’s stonkingly hot. I’m sweating buckets. This box is heavy on my head. After asking frantically in the market, I twist and turn down tight market alleys and locate a linen shop with a tailor at the back. As it happens my request to sew up a box was not unusual in the slightest. Quick to it, the tailor, his family members and I, all helped sew up the box as if as usual as… – well, I’m not sure, usual as what? Nothing is normal if you really think about it. Is this the strangest thing I’ve ever had to do? I rush back through the market, back to the post-office covered in sweat. I drop the box relieved at the feet of the teller now ready with key in hand to lock up for who knows how long. Stamp, stamp, pay, pay. I’m sure I’ll never see the box again. Miraculously, a few weeks later, I get a message from the friend I’ve posted this to for safe keeping. It’s arrived. I’m amazed. And I also notice on all my remaining Indian train journeys how every bit of cargo is sewn up in white/beige fabric or heavy plastic. Anonymous lumps of stuff. Everywhere.

It’s good to have achieved our postal chore yesterday. I somehow feel I’ve received a badge of honour. as we make it home packages anonymously on their way. Like doing sit-ups. Not fun, but better for it. It’s reassuring to see the importance of the postal service experience a resurgence: postal relevance revived, despite the still lack of letter writing. I’m sure to warmly greet our post person when ever I see him. He’s working so hard. For the complexities and the proportionate expense of our items’ price of passage, I feel a sense of virtue and completion. And now all that’s left to do on the frontlines of sending and receiving goods is to take another deep breath and track down missing packages with various unfortunate courier services, navigating their help lines and dubious drop off points… Maybe tomorrow.

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