We were on strike on Thursday. Actually I don’t know if I was on strike or not. The strike fell on my day off so I was both striking and not striking. I’m Schrodinger’s Scab. I won’t bore you with the full details of our ongoing industrial dispute but it’s safe to say that the future of the company isn’t looking especially bright at the moment. Across the country offices are being closed or moved into the corners of other comically ill-suited businesses. The Taunton branch is now inside a sweet shop. I assume they use the same set of scales for the post and the Pick and Mix. Their stamps must be the only ones in the country that are sticky on both sides.
I was on holiday in Devon a couple of months ago and ventured into a local shop to buy sun cream and hay fever tablets (I’m not built for the great outdoors.) I was halfway through paying for my goods when I realised that the lady behind the counter was wearing the same uniform that I wear to work.
“Is this a Post Office?”, I asked confusedly.
“It is for three hours on a Wednesday”, she replied.
She told me that she spent her days travelling around the West Country doing shifts at tiny offices in seaside towns. This lady was single-handedly running about five Post Offices as well as giving great advice on which hay fever tablets were likely to make me dizzy. (All of them.)
Things aren’t much better in Bristol. Keeping track of the fate of Bristol Post Offices is like keeping track of the wives of Henry VIII. Divorced, beheaded, moved to WHSmith. I doubt if Anne Boleyn was ever blown up by over-zealous burglars in Shirehampton but I’m not a historian. The Galleries branch where I work seems safe for now. We are the Catherine Parr of this now frankly irritating Tudor metaphor. However, our customers are having to travel from further and further afield as their local offices dwindle. “I’ve come all the way from…” is now the standard opener to most of our conversations with the public. Sometimes subgroups of pensioners from different parts of town will form in opposite corners of the office, like Sharks and Jets if they were from Redfield and Long Ashton. As fun as this is to watch, the fact remains that elderly people are having to travel a long way to pick up the money that they rely on.
It’s tempting to blame all of this on the company’s obsession with cutting costs. While this undoubtedly plays a big part, a lot of it comes down to one unpalatable question: Do we need The Post Office anymore? You can’t save a business that serves no purpose. Objectively, there isn’t much that we do that can’t be done online or elsewhere. Post is no longer a monopoly. Private companies have sprung up offering cheaper prices and home pick ups, although most of them still have a lingering reputation for throwing laptops over garden fences which has served us quite well. We should capitalise on this by changing our logo to a stick figure throwing a laptop over a garden fence with a red line though it. (Our trademark shade of red of course.)
On some days it feels that we are little more than a glorified cash point. Our customer base is now largely made up of people who won’t use outdoor ATMs because “You never know who’s about.” When I was a child I was convinced that there was a person inside every cash point feeding the money through the slot. Little did I know that twenty years later on slow Saturday afternoons this would essentially be my job.
The real value of the Post Office is, sadly, one that doesn’t make any money at all. Namely it’s function as a community hub. Along with libraries, Post Offices have traditionally been a safe haven for misfits. I’m not a conspiracy theorist but the closure of libraries and Post Offices does seem like an attack on the right of weirdos to have a nice sit down. Presumably it’s easier to catch them in big nets if they’re made to wander the streets. For many customers, particularly the elderly, we represent their entire day’s social interaction. It’s frustrating when the same people come in every day to buy a single stamp, until you realise that buying a book of twelve would mean that they would only get to see their friends 1/12 as much.
Along with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, we act as a first point of contact for all things official. This is a world that can seem impossibly remote for many people, particularly those without internet access. People come to us with questions on a multitude of topics that have absolutely nothing to do with us, but which we do our best to answer anyway. In recent weeks I’ve faced such diverse queries as “Is this the Post Office?”, “Can you book me a flight to Marseille?” and “Is it Thursday?” (For the record the answers are “Yes”, “No”, and “Sometimes.”)
This may sound patronising but I worry that some of our customers wouldn’t survive without us. Last week I served a man who had lost his Post Office card. He was worried that his account had also been emptied. I got him a new card and then we checked the balance of his account. It was good news- his money was still there.
“Yes!” He shouted, punching the air in triumph. To everyone’s surprise, he then proceeded to tear off his own shirt, like a joyful Incredible Hulk.
“I’m going shopping!” he declared as he left the building, happy and shirtless, forgetting his brand-new Post Office card in the process.
Throughout the day we caught glimpses of him passing the entrance. Each time we tried to flag him and down and return his card but to no avail. He was impossible to catch, presumably because his shirtlessness made him more aerodynamic than us.
I hope for the sake of people like him that the Post Office finds a way to remain relevant and profitable. (Also, from a selfish point of view, I quite like having a job.) I guess the moral of this is to make the most of your public services while you have them. And if you see a happy shirtless man wandering the city centre laden down with shopping bags, tell him that I have his Post Office card.
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