Sorting the post

With all this kerfuffle about the post (and allegedly ‘Spanish practices’, by which they mean ‘English practices’: this country is no good at accusing itself of anything and is a pasmaster at deflection), it is hard not to think my own brief three-week stint as an employee of the Post Office. I should stress that this was in 1973, that I was casual labour (not very smart casual labour), that it was Christmas, and that nothing described here should be taken as any reflection on postal workers anywhere.

I had expected to be delivering letters (which would have been a more healthy option), but I was assigned to the sorting-office instead, and to the parcels department in particular. I learned a lot. the main thing I learned was that you need to wrap parcels up very carefully, and never stint on bubble-wrap.

This was the 1973 system. A line of about seven sorters faced a row of about twenty trucks, about eight to ten feet ahead of where we were standing. These trucks were labelled with the names of the various counties, from Aberdeenshire to Yorkshire. Behind us were wheeled more trucks with quantities of unsorted parcels. It was our job to lob these parcels into the correct truck in front of us. It was quite enjoyable, once you had your eye in, and were not (say) lobbing parcels for Bucks into the truck for Cornwall. It was like a fairground game.

You can probably see what might happen. If you were aiming for Tyne and Wear while someone else was going for Cumbria, and if there were seven of you, it was more than likely that your parcels might collide in mid-air, and either drop into Huntingdonshire (and be late), or make an unpleasant sound like something breaking (because something was breaking). Out would come the ‘damaged in transit’ stickers. I am making this sound as if it was a sorter’s error, but some people were quite happy to post things like perfume in what amounted to a cheap paper bag.

There was another sticker: ‘Opened in error’. This was in some demand. In particular, it was in demand by a Mantovani fan who could not have believed his luck when he landed a sorting office job, because that year, there was a Complete Works Of Mantovani being offered on the cheap by some firm or other, and no shortage of volumes flying to and fro. The Mantovani fan – do I need to say that he was a very very sad man? – arrived one morning with a record-player and a cassette-recorder, which he lashed together. As the Mantovani albums multiplied, he opened them, extracted each album, and recorded them, every last one, before replacing them in their packets with ‘Opened in error’ on them. In fact, my whole time at the Post Office, lobbing parcels, was spent with the syrupy sounds of Mantovani’s orchestra in the background.

One Sunday, which entitled casuals to triple time, there was a mistake, and no post arrived to be sorted. I have had hard days and easy days in my life, but I think that was the easiest.


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