The price of a first-class stamp has gone up to 32 pence, almost 16 times what it was when the two-tier postal system was introduced in September 1968. The first first-class stamp cost 5d, a penny more than second-class. Like most innovations, it took a while to catch on. The secretary of the National Chamber of Trades called it a ‘confidence trick’. Now, almost a third of the more than 80 million letters posted in Britain each day travel first-class. The Royal Mail loses five pence for every letter with a first-class stamp on, and eight pence if it goes second class. Franking machines are where the money is: last year’s profit of £537 million came from ‘business mail services’, which subsidise ‘social mail’ – the kind with stamps on – ‘such as personal letters and birthday cards’. They’ve still got some way to go – a £2.5 billion pension fund deficit needs filling – but it’s an impressive turnaround for a company that in 2002 was losing a million pounds a day. A portion of last year’s profit was divided among postal workers, who each received a ‘Share in Success’ payment of more than a thousand pounds – a relatively modest amount when you consider that the chief executive’s share of the success was upwards of £2 million.
As well as the cash incentive and the threat of not getting a pension, postal workers are under pressure from high delivery targets, the opening up of the service at the beginning of this year to competition from companies like TNT, UK Mail and Express, and multi-million-pound slaps on the Royal Mail’s wrist from Postcomm, the industry regulator, for such disparate offences as losing letters and not playing fair with the new competition. It would take a lot more than any of that to faze Helen MacKenzie, who was recently named Postwoman of the Year. Out on her rounds on the Isle of Lewis last October, MacKenzie encountered a millworker, Stephen MacKay, who had nearly lost his arm in an industrial accident and was bleeding heavily. MacKenzie took him to her van, applied a tourniquet and called an ambulance. After saving MacKay’s life, MacKenzie finished delivering the post. It’s like an X-rated version of a Postman Pat story.
At the other end of the spectrum of community service, and the other end of the country, is Lisa Harvey, a postal worker in Plymouth who over a period of seven years – how did she manage to get away with it for so long? – hoarded 111,383 letters and parcels at her house. Harvey’s not the only culprit. If we assume, for the sake of argument, that she accumulated her stash at a steady rate, her siphoning off of mail represents less than 0.1 per cent of the more than 14 million items that never reached their destinations between August 2004 and May 2005. According to the Royal Mail, 99.93 per cent of items are safely delivered. This means that nearly 60,000 letters and parcels go missing every day. Harvey was jailed for a year at the beginning of March. Pleading guilty to theft and delaying the delivery of letters, she said she’d done it out of curiosity, which seems a peculiarly weak motive. It’s hard to imagine tolerating, let alone actively seeking such heaps of other people’s post, accumulating like an indestructible malignant fungus steadily taking over the house.
Some postal workers have taken to delivering the mail in their own cars, which puts it at greater risk of being stolen and is anyway illegal if the car isn’t insured for business use. (As a pizza delivery boy, I was forever getting pulled over by beady-eyed policemen who’d spotted my natty bright-blue Domino’s uniform and hoped to nab me for being inadequately insured.) In order to get his round done on time, my postman has taken to ringing the doorbell and running away. At least, I think it’s in order to get his round done on time, rather than an attempt to revisit the carefree days of his boyhood by playing harmless pranks.
Because I live on the top floor of a four-storey house, it takes me a few seconds to answer the front door (the external trappings of an intercom are on display, but it has never worked). Sometimes there is a little pile of post leaning against the door when I open it; sometimes nothing. A couple of weeks ago, expecting the gas man, I got to the door in time to catch the postman hurrying away down the steps.
‘Hello,’ I said.
He stopped, and turned round. ‘Does your doorbell work?’
‘Why don’t you answer it?’
‘That’s what I’m doing. You need to wait to give me time to get to the door.’
‘How do I know you’re in if you don’t answer the bell?’
‘The intercom doesn’t work. You need to wait a few seconds so I can come downstairs.’
‘You need to get your doorbell fixed.’ Having, in his view at least, won the argument, he presented me with an armful of post, some of it too large to fit through the letterbox, all wrapped up in red rubber bands like the ones scattered tastefully across the doorstep.
I started to sort through it. ‘This is all for the basement,’ I said. ‘Their door’s round the side there.’
The postman shrugged. ‘It’s all the same house, isn’t it. They’ve all got the same number on them. How am I supposed to know?’
‘Fair enough. But I’m telling you now. The basement has a separate entrance.’
He shrugged. I was the one holding the parcels. Sneaky bastard.
‘Fine,’ I said, bristling with middle-class indignation. ‘I’ll just do your job for you then.’
No one in the basement was in. I didn’t have a pencil to write them a note. The elusive postman had done a runner. I took the basement’s parcels back upstairs, and left them in the hallway, on top of the heap of letters for people who used to live there in the 20th century, and other misdirected mail, accumulating like an indestructible malignant fungus steadily taking over the house.