Sunday, 11 October 2009

You've NOT got mail

Everyone loves getting post. Not the boring bills or endless takeaway fliers, obviously. The proper stuff - thick, glossy catalogues for things you can never afford but can't resist torturing yourself with, parcels with surprises inside, proper letters and cards from friends, family, love-letters. Currently, however, not much is turning up on our doormats here in London, and invariably all that does are the bills and fliers. London, like several other regions in the country, has been suffering (and if press reports are to be believed will continue to suffer until Christmas) at the hands of the Royal Mail and its strikes.
Inconvenient as these disruptions may be to Londoners, our personal lives and our businesses, the strikes and their motivation herald a sad era and the potential loss of something which is very British. As thousands of postal workers prepare to strike in protest of job cuts, a once entirely national organisation founded in the seventeenth century, is close to collapse, taking with it much more than jobs.

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to visit Mount Pleasant, the Royal Mail's main sorting office; a visit I found both fascinating and rather saddening. Even then, before the industrial action really took off, the 7.5 acre site felt strangely eerie for a place through which 17 million letters pass a week.

The vast warehouse seemed to be running on standby power, lacking the full compliment of people to man the huge silver sorting machines. Nevertheless the main sorting office was an impressive sight, and we watched the post arrive fresh from the pillar box and make its way through the miles and miles of machines and sorters to be loaded back onto vans, and head off to the labelled addresses. The sorters we encountered were a jolly lot, tossing packages and letters into bins, like NBA stars slam-dunking basketballs. Huge silver drums and conveyors sifted letters quicker than the blink of an eye. Hand-sorting a misdirected letter can cost the Royal Mail up to £60 to return to sender - no wonder the company is in trouble!

Up above the main cavern of the sorting floor are endless offices, faith rooms, medical facilities, staff briefing rooms, and a huge canteen. This is so much more than an industrial processing site. It is a 24 hour community of workers committed to keeping our city connected, supporting companies and families. If we think the strikes are inconvenient, imagine what life would be without the Royal Mail completely.
For this is the future which awaits us, which I was told about over a cup of tea high atop Mount Pleasant. A senior Royal Mail employee, a postie himself for years, told me that in 3-5 years the company will be gone, its constituent parts sold off to entirely private competitors such as TNT or DHL. Sorting, distributing, collection, all part of one historic organisation will be cut apart and bought up by newer, foreign companies, and Mount Pleasant will change forever. No more bright red post-boxes or vans. The Royal Mail holds a trademark on their specific shade of red, a colour bestowed upon them by the nation's royalty, but this too will be lost with the company. The traditional letter boxes, icons of Britain invented by author, and former-postal employee, Anthony Trollope, will take on the colours of their new owners, and our streets will look very different without their jolly red presence.

So don't desert the Royal Mail, frustrating though it may be to lose your post for days or even weeks. This fabulous British institution needs our support in recognition for all their unsung hard work. Job cuts may be just the tip of the iceberg and there is certainly a whole lot more than just Christmas at stake.


  1. The Royal Mail is a great institution. I suspect that rural areas would lose out if the Royal Mail lost its monopoly on delivering letters in the UK.

  2. "Send me a postcard, drop me a line,
    Stating point of view" As one who lives in a village currently (mercifully) still served by a wonderful post office and two regular posties, I am certain that rural areas like ours - where a surprisingly high number of small individual businesses rely heavily on the Royal Mail (as I do myself) - would lose their self-sufficency and ingenuity were Royal Mail to disappear. Any service needs to evolve and develop to survive, and this is the challenge the Royal Mail must face - and we must support them.


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