In my previous blog-post, I mentioned a nearby post office that doubles as a shop selling party goods. Other post offices near us are set up in shops selling knitting yarn and sewing notions (UK: haberdashery), in newsagents’ (US: a shop that sells periodicals, a newsagent’s can be anything from a sort of indoor newsstand to a big bookstore), or in the kind of small grocery known as a corner shop whether or not it sits on a corner.
These places—officially called sub-post offices—are generally run by families; at the knitting/sewing post office, a young Moslem lady in a headscarf usually sits behind the post office window. An older lady—her grandmother or perhaps an aunt (UK: auntie, especially if we’re talking about a south Asian family), sells the needlework supplies, and if she’s not there, whoever’s on duty behind the glass window will tell me to go behind the auntie’s counter and go through all the tiny drawers of buttons to find what I want, which is a very pleasant way to waste time as well as to find unusual buttons. I once showed up there when the grandfather had just come in from a walk with a little boy who looked to be about 5, who could hardly breathe for giggling as his grandfather “posted” him to his father through the opening in the glass window.
Note: British people don’t mail letters, they—that is, we—post them; when letters are delivered we say “the post is here”, not “the mail is here”.
The Post Office® (yes, it’s trademarked), along with Parcelforce, which handles larger packages (which the British tend to call parcels), are subsidiaries of the Royal Mail group, a company rather than a government service, but a company wholly owned by the government. This is very much a post-modern postal system, with layers upon layers of business organizations owning each other in arcane, intertwined, and apparently incestuous ways. It seems to work though; the Royal Mail recently began to turn a profit, and still manages pretty reliably to get first class letters from any part of the country to any other part of the country, overnight, for just 41 pence (about 65 US cents).
Being able to send something anywhere in the country overnight for under a buck is near to miraculous to my US-adapted eye, though obviously the US Postal Service could never match that just because of the distances the USPS has to cover. And it turns out that the Royal Mail’s first-class-mail-goes-overnight service is seen here as very much a comedown from what the Royal Mail used to offer; as recently as 2004, the Royal Mail delivered the post twice a day in some areas, the first delivery coming in time to catch people before they left for work in the morning, with a second delivery just after lunch. In Victorian times, parts of London had as many as twelve deliveries per day, and in the early 20th century the post moved so quickly that Virginia Woolf could send an invitation for tea by post to a friend in the morning, and get the recipient’s reply by post in time to tell the cook how many to expect at teatime.
I’m happy enough with my once-a-day delivery of post, brought by a Royal Mail employee generally referred to as a postie. Posties traditionally do their routes by bicycle. My least favorite street in Guildford is the road by what used to be the main postal sorting office: too narrow to begin with, it’s got bottleneck after bottleneck because on-street parking is allowed—on both sides in some spots—with taxis screeching through at the highest possible speeds (or tailgating, if they’re behind me) to get people to and from the trains because the station at the other end of the road, and on top of everything else there always used to be fleets of posties on bicycles coming out of the sorting office.
The postie who brought our mail when we first moved to this house did his route by bicycle until he got a repetitive stress injury in his calves from pedalling with heavy saddlebags. These aren’t the standard canvas mailbags, but you can see those at post offices or when people come to collect the mail from pillar boxes (US: mailboxes). Canvas mailbags, by the way, are traditionally produced here by convicts, in the same way US convicts traditionally make car license plates (UK: number plates); at least sewing is a salable skill they can use when they come out, whereas stamping metal may be less called for, though any man who can so much as sew on a button is open to jokes about how much time he’s spent inside.
In any case, the Royal Mail is phasing out bicycles; tradition giving way to the efficiency modern business requires, our current postie covers her route in a bright red van. The Royal Mail— trying to stay ahead of services such as DHL and UPS, who snap up the more lucrative long-distance parcel business and leave the unprofitable door-to-door trudging to the government, which doesn’t have a choice—has to look for profit where it can; it even has a trademark on its logo shade of red. But there’s still value left in the old, sturdy post office bikes; many are being resold in India these days.
Mail vans have long been used in rural areas and, in extremely isolated areas in the highlands of Scotland, the posties’ vans functioned as a kind of bus until last year when the company phased out the use of their vans as transports for civilians, calling it unprofitable, and thereby leaving lots of people stuck for a ride. The economy here is not, as it is in the US, based on the assumption that everybody has a car, but that is—of necessity—changing.
And sub-post offices are closing right and left, although perhaps not as rapidly as pubs are closing. (Of the nine pubs I included in my pub sign safari in April, three have gone out of business, or as the British say, ceased trading.) When we moved to this village in 2000, we had a sub-post office, but on the death of the sub-postmaster there, nobody could be found to take it on. The building, which used to be a general store boasting a butcher counter with a vicious-looking bacon slicer, has been remodelled as a house, and sold.
When a rural post office closes, the community loses much more than a place to buy stamps. You go to a post office to get the forms you need for all kinds of government services, from getting a passport to getting a fishing license. That’s also where we transact all the business that in California we did at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) office.
And post offices here traditionally function very like banks. Until recently, working class people didn’t generally have bank accounts; they would be more likely to open a post office account for what savings they had. These days you can even get a mortgage via the post office. People pick up their government pension payments (US: Social Security payments) at the post office. In a country village, when the post office closes, the elderly and those without cars are really out of luck.
The press is full of dire predictions: 1 in 4 post offices may be closing due to budget cuts, or is it 1 in 3? At the same time, you read about post offices springing up everywhere from pubs to cupboards (US: in this case, means something closer to closet) in community centres. And groups such as CAPOC (Communities Against Post Office Closures) have sprung up to fight the trend.
I confess I haven’t done anything more active in these campaigns than signing a few petitions, but I do hope nearby post offices stay open. If they close, who knows where I’d have to go to buy party hats or buttons?