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December 16, 2009

The Post

If I had to pick just one thing about the English novel, I don’t think I could, but if pressed to pick five things, one of them would have to be the post. Much in the same way that cell phones are pivotal to contemporary plotting, the British postal system is essential to the 20th century Englist novel. As are teacups, spinsters, knitting, seaside B&Bs, and the vicar, or maybe I’ve just been reading too much Barbara Pym, but the mail is always coming and going– have you noticed that? Someone is always going out to post a letter, or writing a letter that never gets posted, or a posted letter goes unreceived, or remains unopened on the hall table.

My day is divided into two: Before Post and After Post. BP is the morning full of expectation, anticipation, and (dare I?) even hope. AP is either a satisfying pile on the kitchen table, or acute disappointment with fingers crossed for better luck tomorrow. In my old house I was in love with the mailman, but that love remained unrequited because I was in grad school then and he only ever saw me wearing track pants. When we lived in Japan, I once received a parcel addressed to me with only my name and the name of the city where we lived (and humiliated myself and was given a sponge, but that’s another story.) When we lived in England, the post arrived two times a day and even Saturday, but the only bad thing was that when I missed a package, I had to take a bus out to a depot in another town.

All of which is to say that I love mail as an institution, as much as I love sending or receiving it. I once met a woman who told me that her husband was a mailman (though she called him a “letter-carrier”, I’m not sure if there’s most dignity in that), and I think she was taken aback when I almost jumped into her arms.

So when I read this piece in the LRB by a Royal Mail employee regarding the recent British mail strike, I had mixed feelings. I was troubled by the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Royal Mail of late, the compromise that comes from profit as the bottom line, the explanation of how Royal Mail is part-privatized already, their focus on the corporate customer. “Granny Smith doesn’t matter anymore,” this piece ends with, and they’re not talking about apples, but instead their Regular Joseph(ine) customers. Those of us whose ears perk up at the sound of mail through the letterbox, at the very sound of the postman’s footfall on the steps.

I took some heart, however, from the article’s point that it is a falsehood that “figures are down”. “Figures are down” appears to be corporate shorthand to justify laying off workers, increasing workloads, eliminating full time contracts, pensions etc. Apparently the Royal Mail brass has no experience on the floor, they’re career-managers (and they’ve probably got consultants) who come up with ingenious ways to show that “figures are down”. Mail volume, for example, used to be measured by weight, but now it’s done by averages. And during the past year, Royal Mail has “arbitrarily, and without consultation” been reducing the number of letters in the average figures. According to the writer, “This arbitrary reduction more than accounts for the 10 per cent reduction that the Royal Mail claims is happening nationwide.”

So yes, none of this good news about the state of labour or capitalism, but what I like is this part: “People don’t send so many letters any more, it’s true. But, then again, the average person never did send all that many letters. They sent Christmas cards and birthday cards and postcards. They still do. And bills and bank statements and official letters from the council or the Inland Revenue still arrive by post; plus there’s all the new traffic generated by the internet: books and CDs from Amazon, packages from eBay, DVDs and games from LoveFilm, clothes and gifts and other items purchased at any one of the countless online stores which clutter the internet, bought at any time of the day or night, on a whim, with a credit card.”

This is hope! I do love letters, namely reading collections of them in books (and particularly if they’re written by Mitfords), but I’ll admit to not writing many of them. My love of post is not so much about epistles, but about the postal system itself. A crazy little system to get the most incidental objects from here to there. I like that I can lick an envelope, and it can land on a Japanese doorstep within the week. I like receiving magazines, and thank you notes, and party invitations, and books I’ve ordered, and Christmas presents, and postcards. I like that in the summer, Harriet received a piece of mail nearly every single day.

And I really love Christmas cards. Leah McLaren doesn’t though, because she gets them from her carpet cleaner and then feels bad because she doesn’t send any herself. I manage to free myself from such compunction by sending them out every single year, and in volumes that could break a tiny man’s back. Spending enough on stamps to bring on bankruptcy, but I look upon this as I look upon book-buying– doing my part to keep an industry I love thriving (or less dying). Yesterday, I posted sixty (60!) Christmas cards, though I regret I can no longer say to every continent except Africa. Because my friend Kate no longer lives in Chile, but my friend Laura is still working at the very bottom of the world so we’ve still got Antarctica, which is remarkable at any rate.

I love Christmas cards. I send them because I’ve got aunts and uncles and extended family that I never see, but I want them to know that they mean something to me anyway. And it does mean something, however small that gesture. These connections matter, these people thinking of us all over the world. Having lived abroad for a few years, I’ve also got friends in far-flung places, and without small moments of contact like this, it would be difficult to keep them. It’s impossible to maintain regular contact with everybody we know and love, but these little missives get sent out into the world, like a nudge to say, “I’m here if you need me.”

I also send them because I’ve got these people in my life that I’m crazy about, and I want to let them know as much. Particularly in a year like this when friends and family have so rallied ’round– let it be written that it all meant the world to me, then stuck in an envelope and sealed with a stamp.

But mostly (and here I confess), I write Christmas cards because people send them back to me. I’ve never once received as many as I send, but the incomings are pretty respectable nonetheless. I love that most December days BP, I’ve got a good chance of red envelopes arriving stacked thick as a doorstop. And if not today, there will be at least one card tomorrow. I love receiving photos of my friends’ babies, and updates on friends and family we don’t hear from otherwise, and the good news and the hopeful news, and just to know that so many people were thinking of us. We display them over our fireplace hanging on a string. It is a bit like Valentines in elementary school, a bit like a popularity contest, but if you were as unpopular as I was in elementary school, you’d understand why strings and strings of cards are really quite appealing.

I love it all. That there are people in places all over the world, and they’re sticking stuff in mailboxes
pillared or squared, and that stuff will get to us. That at least one system in the universe sort of almost works, and that I’ve even got friends. And then– this is most important– what would the modern English novel be without it?

3 thoughts on “The Post”

  1. Rebecca Rosenblum says:

    I am very in love with holiday cards. I send them to people I love, people I like, people I want to remind that we're friends, people I'm hoping will be my friends later, and people I just saw yesterday but who still might like to receive something in the mail. I never send them out of duty, though, and I don't expect anyone to do so for me. I actually rather like the corporate cards I receive, but I don't respond to them–are we supposed to?

  2. Kerry says:

    No, we're not meant to. Perhaps you might if your carpet cleaner's was the only one you received, and you wanted some friends? But I know you have no problems in that area.

    "I am very in love with holiday cards."

    Which is part of why I love you!

  3. Rona Maynard says:

    The festive red envelopes arriving at my door have dwindled to a trickle now that everyone knows I'm not a Christmas card person. So maybe it's memories of Saturday mail deliveries right here in Canada that endeared this post to me. As for the letter's role in English novels, let's not forget its role in song: "Please Mister Postman" (American, but so rollicking as sung by the Beatles).

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