One morning last week, Dear Reader, one found oneself up uncommonly early. On the freeway at a tad before 6am, the result of supporting a football team playing on the other side of the world. No sympathy required: and at least they won.
But it did give me the unusual experience of watching the world at a time when I am usually still snuggled comfortably under the goose-down doona. The freeway was full of traffic and moving very fast, with a much higher percentage of young adult male “tradies” in trucks driving like lunatics on their way to somewhere or other. It was like Monza for pick-ups, all doing a few mph above the speed limit about two feet from my back bumper, and, frankly, it was mildly terrifying to our rheumy middle aged eyes.
Heading into the City, I was also reminded of how many different types of people work at all sorts of odd hours, to convenience the rest of us. The rubbish trucks were well underway with their noisy stop-start rounds, cafés were already open with barristas blearily making perfect skinny cappuccinos for early-to-rise or late-to-bed forex traders, barrels of beer were being delivered to pubs, here a flower stall being set up, there some coppers guarding the as yet empty entrance to the State Parliament, and, incongruously, a lone TV reporter already practising her lines to camera for the morning newscasts.
One rather cold winter – I think it was 1977-78 – I found myself working over the Christmas period. Not coming from a wealthy background it was common for me to work during the school holidays, in fact I think I had done some work or other in every school holiday from the age of 14 onwards, and in this particular break, having reached the very advanced mark of 17, I found I qualified for work as a relief postman.
It’s hard for people to imagine nowadays (those below a certain age, anyhow) but there was a time when most homes had plenty of letters and parcels delivered almost daily, and at Christmastime a virtual blizzard of mail would arrive every day.
The advent of electronic greetings cards and social media has reduced “snail mail” to something of a trickle, and a “postie” has an easier job nowadays than then.
Not to mention they belt around on little mopeds rather than walking.
But way back when, deep in the last millennium, so many cards were posted that extra postmen (and I am not being sexist, as they were all men) had to be employed to get all the mail delivered to people’s homes in time for Christmas.
It was something of a culture shock to the 17 year old me. I had made cups of tea in a beach cafe, washed pots by the mile, waited on tables, sold ice-creams from a kiosk, even worked as a fruit and veg delivery van boy, but nothing prepared me for the rigours of being a relief postie.
For one thing, I had to get up at 4.30 am, fling on some clothes and walk through the murky laneways that linked my home to the nearest bus route, and get the first bus of the day which was the 4.59 am, and it was always sepulchrally empty, except for me.
As the walk to the bus was about ten minutes in pitch darkness I think you can tell, Dear Reader, that I never spent long on personal hygiene, breakfast or my sartorial appearance. I took to going to bed in the clothes I needed to wear the next day. It was so damned cold the extra layer of sweat thus accumulated on my skin undoubtedly served a useful prophylactic purpose.
The bus trip into town was eerie at that hour. All the shops were still closed, of course, and this was before permanent retailer illumination and acres of neon became commonplace, so their windows seemed like so many dead eyes staring at us as the elderly yellow-paint-peeling Leyland double-decker lurched by, wheezing and coughing. Decades-old streetlights would struggle to do any more than bring a damp orange glow to the mist around their heads. Occasionally a battered old Austin or Morris would sneak past us in the other direction, puffing exhaust into the air, its driver swaddled in a bobble-hat, scarf and sheepskin overcoat. It wasn’t just me who felt the keen wind knifing its way inland from the English Channel.
Exactly 47 minutes later – never 46, never 48 – I would be deposited outside the central sorting office, wide awake now, but cold and hungry.
I recall the first time I went in with absolute clarity. Through a magnificent Victorian façade, the building opened up like some vast human zoo, packed with worker bees before dawn had even considered breaking, with vast clouds of cigarette smoke winding up to the distant frescoed ceiling. The regular postmen were already at work, each with their own little cubicle, busily sorting the post into delivery routes. A nervous enquiry at the entrance directed me to one of the cubicles, where I met the cheery, middle-aged chap whose deputy I would be for ten days.
Sizing me up in a glance that lasted mere seconds, he smiled and said “I’m not ready for you yet, go and get some breakfast and come back in 20 minutes” and went back to his work, filling a wall of slots with mail of all shapes and sizes from the pile on the counter in front of him. Every now and then he would put a rubber band around a bunch of mail. I didn’t know it at the time, but not only was this highly skilled individual organising the whole of his round (and mine) by putting the mail in some sort of logical street order, (requiring an encyclopaedic knowledge of his area that was at least as complex as the famed “Knowledge” of London taxi drivers) he was also sorting the mail within each street by house order, faster, it seemed, than the eye could follow. His hands flashed in front of him ceaselessly. Occasionally, with an irritated grunt, he would retrieve an elastic-banded packet, open it up and insert a letter he had missed the first time round, and return it to its little wooden home.
I wandered off in search of breakfast, following my nose, trying not to get in the way. In a side room off the main area I found Aladdin’s Cave. These were the days of “company canteens”, where vast quantities of very-bad-for-you food was served up for a few pennies to working men who were yet to hear daily from nutritionists and national health advisory boards why they shouldn’t start each day with two fried eggs, a mound of bacon the size of St Catherine’s Hill, and some steaming mugs of tea each sweetened with three teaspoons of sugar. I had never seen so much food in one place in my entire life, except just once in a NAAFI eatery on an army base which had a similar quantity-over-quality attitude to feeding the nation’s troops, which was warmly welcomed by a visiting bunch of schoolboy army cadets used to the more meagre rations served up by po-faced kitchen hands in the penny-pinching minor public school where I was perpetually hungry for seven long years.
I found I could afford baked beans on two oil-oozing slices of fried bread for, if I recall correctly, three pence.
And it was unquestionably the best breakfast I had ever eaten, teaching me, for the first time but not the last time, that immutable law of the universe that asserts that timely, accidental simple pleasures outweigh more complex, well organised ones every time.
I sat at a plasticated trestle table wolfing down the beans, looking around me in amazement at the rows of black-coated men looking like a murder of crows bent over their plates and talking ten to the dozen, keeping my own counsel, much too frightened to speak to anyone.
When I returned to pick up my bag of mail, I discovered it was a large as me, and I could hardly lift it. I would have complained, were it not for the very obvious fact that my colleague’s bag was at least twice as heavy. “You’ll get used to it” he encouragingly said, although I was at that moment much more inclined to run for the hills than get used to this strange life. But the money on offer was excellent for a mere callow youth, so I hefted it on my shoulders and walked, bent double, back out the front door, and to the bus stop, where another bus waited to transport me to streets unknown. “Get off by the footie ground, and go from there” he advised, and settled down to do his pools entry.
I did as I was told, and he waggled his pencil at me by way of goodbye, not lifting his head from deciding whether Chesterfield were likely to execute a score draw with Newport County or not. Which is how I came to be standing at the beginning of a long street of fine middle class houses with a brown hessian sack bulging with mail, and very little idea what to do next. Deliver Her Majesty’s Royal Mail, I supposed.
Sink or swim training methods. I opened the sack, which had a flap over its mouth secured by a belt buckle, and found that on its inside face was a list of streets, with the first being the one I was perched on the edge of right then.
I worked out that I should deliver in that street order – someone had written the list for a reason – so I just started. Which led me to my next discovery: that not only were the letters sorted numerically, they were sorted into odds and evens, making it much simpler to walk up one side of the street and down the other rather than cross the road from odd to even each time. I breathed my thanks to my mentor, although I did notice that this would inevitably return me to the same point I was at already, and that the next street was at the end of the one I was in now, meaning I had to walk back again to deliver that street, thus doubling my walk.
In time I would learn to examine the mail for each street to evaluate in advance whether it would be quicker to cross the street as I go, or go up one side or the other and then retrace my outward steps. Of such problems was my teenage mind consumed, and especially when it rained buckets of ice-cold rain or sleet on my grumbling teenage head, which was often if not daily.
As I finished each street I noted that the next street was the next bundle down in the sack, followed by the next street, and so forth until the sack was empty. When I told my mother this breathlessly over the dinner table, she murmured “a stitch in time saves nine”, which was one of her many “little sayings” that leavened my youth.
On the days it rained, the hessian sack became progressively heavier and heavier and more difficult to swing up on my shoulder or to handle in any manner at all, especially when I was huddled into an anorak with a fur-trimmed hood pulled down around my face and using every excuse to keep my brown faux-leather gloves on.
I quickly learned to only open the sack under a spreading horse-chestnut tree or in the porticoed entrance on some of the larger houses, lest the mail inside become utterly sodden.
Nonetheless, sometimes, by the end of the round, it was like delivering a series of obscure papier-mache sculptures to the sentinel homes, watching me impassively as I struggled. Where the inky addresses had run so badly I couldn’t make out the intended recipient I simply delivered the whole remaining bundle to the largest home in the street, figuring that if they could afford a home that large they obviously had money, and money obviously meant time on their hands to sort out the mess, and anyway it would give the occupants a good excuse to actually speak to their less well-off neighbours when they found a letter or card from family members they didn’t know they had.
As one neared Christmas itself, one had the odd and oddly moving experience of receiving “Christmas boxes” – monetary tips, and sometimes quite substantial – from grateful householders who clearly assumed I was their regular postman.
One chap memorably came to the door in a padded dressing gown, bare-footed despite the arctic weather, and wearing a “Wee Willy Winky” sleeping cap. He could not have looked more alien to me than if he had announced he was from Venus. He was carrying a cut glass decanter of sherry and two glasses, and insisted I take “a little something to keep out the cold”, despite me being under the legal drinking age and it being 7 am. It did make the rest of the day a little easier, to be sure.
I always felt tips should not be given to me, so returned them, religiously, to the real postie the next morning, which mildly astonished him, I think.
On Christmas Eve he gave me a pound note, and then an additional ten shilling note, which was admittedly but a fraction of the whole sum collected, but which was nevertheless a small fortune for me, and probably half a day’s pay for him.
It was a cheering moment, and taught me something valuable about worker solidarity.
This was, infamously, the “Winter of Discontent”, the biggest continuous episode of industrial tension in the UK since the General Strike of 1926, and the apogee of trade union influence in Britain, where “the dead lay unburied” and rubbish piled up in the streets. The chaos would usher in the Thatcher years and break the power of the unions forever, but we didn’t know that then. What seemed like the entire workforce was striking for higher pay, with their wage packets being eroded dramatically by a combination of short-time working and inflation at 26.5%.
To say that everyone was a little bit touchy is like saying that winter was cold and wet. There was one hilarious incident that made it all seem very real and close to home.
One morning, arriving early, I waited not in the canteen but by my chap’s desk, sipping a cup of tea and reading a copy of The Sun that had apparently been consumed and then abandoned in a nearby booth. A supervisor chappie breezed by self-importantly, and dropped a big bundle of mail on the desk.
“What are you doing?” he asked, snappishly. “Er, just waiting for Joe,” I answered, anxiously. “Well, sort those while you’re waiting,” he commanded. “Yessir!” I replied, and jumped to it compliantly. In those days any teenager would call an older male “Sir”. I still do, to this day, funnily enough.
When Joe arrived, he was aghast. Incredulous, he called his mates over to show them what the supervisor had ordered me to do.
Within seconds it seemed like the whole place was in an uproar. “You go and get some breakfast, Son”, he murmured in a friendly fashion, “I’ll deal with this.” And he bunged me sixpence. I wasn’t quite clear what was going on but I wasn’t about to turn down free baked beans so I trotted off cheerfully.
Within a few minutes, though, the whole depot was at a standstill. I had sparked – completely innocently – what used to be called a “demarcation dispute”. No mere yoof could be sorting the mail. That was a task reserved for the mailman on the route. This was long before computerised mechanical sorting, and it was part of their skill set, without which the entire Royal Mail service would descend into frightful disorder, and it was a jealously guarded activity.
Senior management came worriedly weaving into the canteen, and quizzed me on the story, which I related without embellishment. No one blamed me, but the supervisor concerned was disciplined, I learned later. After an hour or so of industrial argy-bargy everyone went back to work, but the mail was delivered late that day.
In the more mundane jobs she has taken on to supplement her soaring educational career, the Fruit of One’s Loins has worked in a retail bakery, usually arriving at work just as the bakers themselves were leaving, having started work at 1 am. She’s worked in other busy retail environments too, learning perforce that the general public can be as ornery (and stupid) as a bunch of mules, as well as occasionally charming and good-natured. And she’s often up at the crack of sparrow’s fart to head across town to “nanny” some kids who need to get to school while their parents are already at work.
She’s probably going to end up as a leading academic, a famous psychologist, or a top actor – or all three, knowing her. She’s a natural leader, and the sort of person who will change society for the better, given a chance.
But I particularly welcome her experiencing “real” life in this way. Indeed, I think all young people should. “Real life” is what happens to everyone else: those who aren’t comfortably ensconced in a “professional” career, relaxing over a warm computer screen, usually pushing money around and often making decisions high in their ivory tower.
Those who lead our society need to know what it’s like for the “little people”: we all need to know that there are skills and value in a whole variety of jobs, and it’s not only the Prime Ministers, the Bishops, the Captains of Industry, or Oscar Winners that have stories to tell, and that our common stories as people struggling to get by are what bind us together. Too often, in the political field, for example, we see people rising to the top who have never held “a proper job”, heading straight into their chosen party’s machine from school or University. Or we find medicos at the top of their profession that have never worked anywhere but a leading teaching hospital, or senior public servants who have spent their entire career in the cosseted marble clad halls of government, or educators who never went near a poverty-stricken school or funds-starved kindergarten in their life, and so on, and so on.
I am intrinsically disinclined to prescribe to society what an individual’s life should look like. So I am not about to propose “civil conscription”, where every late teen or early adult needs to spend at least a year working in their choice of society’s less glamorous and perhaps more demanding jobs. But it is a tempting idea, and one that would surely improve our society overall in countless ways in years to come.
But perhaps the next time little Joey or Jemima whinges that he or she hasn’t yet had his or her “gap year” lying around on a beach somewhere – and could Mummy and Daddy somehow magically produce a quick ten grand to make it happen? – more middle class parents should answer: “Absolutely, you need a gap year. Go and work as a postman for a bit and we’ll talk about it.”
I will end this article here, before I get to pointing out that at the age of five I had to shovel coal from the outdoors coal store for the heater/cooker in the kitchen every frozen morning before school, or there’d have been no hot water for washing, and no sweet cup of tea nor yet a plate of baked beans. But we should stop before we get to the seemingly inevitable “and we used to live in shoe box in’t middle of road” end of the tale.
I will content myself with: “Tell the young ones nowadays? They wouldn’t believe yer.”