Vol. 31 No. 21 · 5 November 2009

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In the Sorting Office

Like Roy Mayall writing in your issue of 24 September, I am a postman and concerned at the absence in the media of any account of how mail delivery is organised and what Royal Mail’s modernisation programme entails. The programme was introduced because the popularity of email and texting has caused a drop in mail volume. Royal Mail’s first step was to reduce the number of walks. It did this by cutting some walks in each area and making the remaining walks longer. A postman who normally delivered mail to six streets, say, now found himself delivering to eight or nine. During the summer months, when mail volumes were low, he could, perhaps, just cope with this. But as autumn begins and the Christmas catalogues start to come out, every week and sometimes every day can be heavy. In the run-up to last Christmas, there were postmen who only finished their walks at 7 or 8 p.m., sometimes two or three times a week. In one depot alone, around 15 postmen phoned in sick. This Christmas, with the even longer walks, it could be worse. Royal Mail is a strong promoter of general health and safety, but as the walks lengthen and the loads increase, many of us feel that our own health isn’t being taken into consideration.

The next step in the modernisation was to stop overtime. The new, longer walks were generated by a computer program called Pegasus. We were assured that Pegasus had made all the new walks around three hours long. Some of the walks were indeed three hours long, and the postmen on those rounds had no trouble completing them in time. But a significant number turned out to be considerably longer – some of them up to four and a half hours long – and mail began piling up as postmen brought post back at the end of the day because they couldn’t deliver their loads without working extra, unpaid time.

The most recently introduced measure is to return from a four-day week to a five-day week. For postmen working a 40-hour week, this means there will be two hours fewer each day to deliver the same amount of post. It is now no longer possible for any postman – including those doing the three-hour walks – to complete his or her walk in the allotted time, no matter how fast they walk. As the pressures increase, many postmen who have been with Royal Mail for a long time are taking voluntary redundancy. A lot of knowledgeable, hard-working postmen are leaving.

Postmen speculate endlessly as to why Royal Mail is making it impossible for us to do our job properly. The most common theory is that Royal Mail actually wants to get rid of us and replace us with casual workers. Traditionally, Royal Mail hires casual staff to help deliver the heavy Christmas mail. This year the casuals never left. As required, they can be phoned at a moment’s notice to come in and help out. They may be asked to work for just a few hours or a whole day. If mail volumes are low, they are not called and are not paid. When paid, they are paid less per hour than the full-time postmen. And because, as casual workers, they cannot join the union, they have no representation if and when things go wrong. At present Royal Mail favours the casuals, but in time, if they start experiencing the pressures the postmen are facing now, there won’t be a union to protect them. In contrast to the casuals, postmen are mostly on 40-hour-week contracts. When they go on holiday or get sick, Royal Mail continues to pay their salaries. All these costs and difficulties fall away with casual workers. From a financial perspective, Royal Mail may think that getting rid of its long-serving postmen is worth it.

Maybe the fact that Royal Mail is now run by managers who have little or no hands-on experience and who use computer-generated models to organise everything is the explanation. We experienced this directly with Pegasus when some walks turned out to be considerably longer than others. The data that had been fed into Pegasus were standardised: each walk had a set number of destinations, with so many seconds to walk up a garden path, so many seconds to put letters through a letterbox etc. Not only did Pegasus get the total timings spectacularly wrong, but the walks made much less sense than when they were organised by the postmen themselves: for instance, a postman could find himself walking an extra 200 yards down the road to deliver mail to six letterboxes that would have more easily and naturally fitted into someone else’s walk.

A more cynical theory is that Royal Mail is being deliberately run into the ground so that when the next opportunity to privatise it comes around, people will be so fed up that they will accept it as the unavoidable solution to getting their post on time again.

A postman on a 40-hour contract works an eight-hour day on average. He or she spends the first two or three hours sorting the unsorted mail in the depots. He then takes 30 minutes for breakfast. For the next two or three hours he sequences the mail for his own walk so that he can deliver it door to door. He then has to travel to and from his walk and deliver his mail in the remaining time. It can’t be done, at least not without overtime, which Royal Mail has stopped altogether. Casual workers, however, don’t have to sort mail at the depot – this is done for them by the postmen on 40-hour contracts. Instead, they move straight to sequencing their door-to-door mail. When they leave the depot, they can take as long as they need to deliver their mail. On the heavier walks, some work 12-hour days. That’s how long it really takes to sequence and deliver some walks – and that’s without sorting!

Working for Royal Mail has become a bewildering experience. Depot managers pressure and harass us to comply to rigidly fixed unworkable schedules. They insist we take out full loads of mail, which they know and we know cannot be delivered in the allotted time. We therefore constantly bring back the undelivered surplus and waste time the following day getting it ready to take out again. Meanwhile, the depot managers can report the walk as cleared to their superiors, who are obviously putting them under pressure too. It’s evident that some depot managers are just as unhappy with this state of affairs. Their orders are to push out as much mail every day as possible, regardless of the amount that comes back at the end of each shift.

Of course the strike is adding to the chaos, but it is not causing it. The one-day-a-week strike – now countrywide – is an attempt to pressure Royal Mail to come to the table to discuss the dire situation and a way for postmen to express support and solidarity with one another as we face an onslaught of unmeetable demands.

Pat Stamp
London W10

The Mysterious Tioli

There’s even more to George Tioli than Robin Dibblee suspects (Letters, 22 October). The main point is that he was irresistible to women. (Superficial reasons for this are conveyed in the celebrated photograph of the original British International Column, taken in Barcelona in August 1936, where, clad in Tyrolean gear, Tioli squats stage front next to his captain, Tom Wintringham.)

George Tioli in Barcelona

The list of his conquests included a woman I met some years ago: she fell in love with George while a member of the Young Communist League in Oxford. She attended a lecture I gave more than 60 years later and was keen to discover what had happened to him in Spain. Well, among other things, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, Angela Guest, Eileen Blair and Jeanne Spero happened to him (not all in quite the same sense). So, I rather suspect that Dibblee’s Great-Aunt Vera happened to Tioli in Felpham. The story about Folkestone pier seems too good to be true even in the fabulous context of Spanish Civil War (and MI5) stories. A good deal of circumstantial evidence indicates that – helped by fellow agent Georges Kopp – he betrayed the Blairs and other ‘dissident elements’ to the NKVD in Barcelona. Other survivors from Jeremy Harding’s ‘snakepit’ believed that the last thing that happened to Tioli was Stalin. He was apparently arrested in summer 1937, placed onboard a Soviet supply ship returning to Odessa, and ‘disappeared’.

Rob Stradling

Compliments of Sorts

Thomas Jones, in his review of Inherent Vice (LRB, 10 September), asserts that those who haven’t liked the last Pynchon books ‘often complain’ that his characters are not proper characters, ‘in the sense that developed over the course of the 19th century: basically, there’s never anyone to sympathise with.’ When? I haven’t seen this complaint in two recent negative reviews by Louis Menand (in the New Yorker) and by Sam Anderson (in New York magazine). Speaking for myself, as a hostile reviewer of Against the Day, the question has nothing to do with whether you consider Pynchon’s characters fully rounded in a 19th-century sense (19th-century characters not being all that rounded, anyway, in the end); or whether you ‘sympathise’ with them: does one ‘sympathise’ with, say, Peter Verkhovensky, or Stavrogin, or Verloc, or any of the people in a Michel Houellebecq novel? Surely the issue is not what a novel’s characters are (round, flat, major, minor, caricature, sketch etc) but what a novelist does (or doesn’t do) with them: what is seriously at stake in the entire novel of which they form the fabric. And what Pynchon does with his characters, increasingly, is juvenile vaudeville. If you like that, fine. But in his review, Jones unwittingly gives two reasons why one might not: reading Pynchon’s new novel, he writes, ‘is probably as close to getting stoned as reading a novel can be’ (which he takes as high praise); and – apropos of Pynchon’s relentlessly jokey treatment of 1970s California – ‘But there’s something profoundly bleak about the inability to take anything seriously’ (which he also envisages as a compliment, of sorts).

James Wood
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Taxonomy in Crisis

In his exploration of the Darwin Centre, Peter Campbell misidentifies the species of scientist present, and thereby does a disservice to taxonomists (LRB, 8 October). Taxonomy explicitly involves the naming and identification of species; natural history, by contrast, is the collation of information about organisms. The former is a specialist enterprise, while the latter has for centuries been augmented by the work of amateurs, who depend on the names to make their observations meaningful. The task of piecing together the evolutionary relationships between species falls to systemacists. While systematics creates the tree, taxonomists are required to label the buds. Yet taxonomists are a threatened species. Natural history attracts the glamour and publicity, systematics hogs the funding, and the number of trained taxonomists continues to fall.

Markus Eichhorn
University of Nottingham

Fond Memories

Lord Beaverbrook, as Jenny Diski describes him, may well have seen himself as a protector of family values, but in the final years of his life the old man was in need of some protection himself (LRB, 8 October). I worked for the Sunday Express in 1961 and have fond memories of the Jacob Epstein bust of Beaverbrook that reigned over the foyer of the Express building. It was a typical Epstein work, with a small gap between slightly parted lips, and it was into this tiny orifice that fag-ends were constantly being placed by disrespectful employees. Removing them became a full-time job for a harassed commissionaire.

Garth Clarke

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