Based on lawyers' hourly rate, 60p is still a good deal to have a letter delivered by the Post Office, says Richard Barr
Let me introduce you to Sam, Lyndsey, Del, Sharon, Charlotte and Phyllis. You don’t know them, nor are likely to unless you frequent the same small Norfolk market town as I do. However, all will be revealed.
I had to sign the Official Secrets Act when I started one of my first jobs. I suspect that in writing this piece I may be committing several breaches of the Act, so this could be the last contribution from me as a free man for many years.
It was like this. There used to be a time when stamps were cheap and post was plentiful. Never more was this true than in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In the village of Elm in Cambridgeshire, the local sub-post office (now a private house) would recruit child labour to assist in the task of getting the mail out to the good citizens of the village.
I cannot remember how old I was, 16 maybe – possibly younger. I duly signed up (and signed the Act) and was allocated my mail bag (I had to bring my own bicycle – it was to be many years before those little trolleys were provided).
Cautiously I set out on my Black Raleigh bicycle, with Sturmey Archer gears (hardly necessary in the Fens as the altitude never varied by more than a few feet, but this was my pre-macho period so I had to have something to show my manhood). I was soon confronted with a bewildering choice of houses many of which were – in the Fenland tradition, where the soil is unstable – leaning at odd angles. There were the usual names that grace any street: Shangri-La, Chez Nous, Bide a Wee, Sans Souci and Dunsoliciting. Other houses were named after exciting moments in the occupants’ lives: El Alamein, Dunkirque and Didcot (no doubt because of pleasant times standing on the railway station there). Then there were the composite names derived from blissfully happy couples. When Mavis and David tied the knot they moved into Mavid, while Gladys and Herbert called their dream cottage Gladbert.
With my normal level of competence I managed to deliver many cards to the wrong address, and would be frequently pursued by elderly (or so they seemed at the time) men and women waving their post and shouting “This isn’t mine. What have you done with my cards?”
The thing that these people particularly objected to (and, I thought at the time, quite unreasonably) was bent calendars. But there was no way that the average calendar would make it through the letterbox unless it had been bent at least in half. I have to admit that there was a certain satisfaction in the crack of the cardboard as the calendar split in two. Needless to say Mr Crown the sub-postmaster was not pleased and I received a formal warning before my next round.
So, having failed to become a postman, I did the next best thing and became a solicitor and a deliveree as opposed to a deliveror of mail. That did not always fare well. At an early stage in my career I was in charge of our primitive franking machine and one night franked all the office post at £5 an envelope. Fortunately there were not many letters sent that day (it was the branch office) but it did make a dent in that month’s profits for the firm, and probably gave the Post Office a welcome boost.
Don’t knock it
The Post Office has now come in for a lot of flack over its price rises, which – it has to be said – are pretty insensitive bearing in mind the economic climate. Now that I work on my own, stuff my own envelopes, pay for and lick my own stamps (except most stamps are peel off these days), I have a much closer appreciation of the cost of postage than I did when my post went to the post room (where presumably well-trained people did NOT frank every letter at £5). A sheet of a 100 first class stamps now costs nearly as much as a tank full of petrol. It is not cheap. Or is it?
Imagine what would happen if we had to deliver our own letters. At £200 an hour, and assuming a solicitor walks at four miles an hour, the 60p price of a stamp would get the envelope just 21 yards before the solicitor demanded a further payment on account. Obviously a legal aid solicitor (at £50 an hour) would go four times as far, but even then it would have to be a very local delivery to reach its destination before money ran out. Imagine if a solicitor had to deliver a letter in Cornwall. Even if we were to give him a post van he would still take many hours and would bill at least £1,000.
When I arrive breathless and dishevelled at the North Walsham post office at about 5.27pm with my clutch of letters for far-flung destinations I am always treated with courtesy and humour by Sam, Lyndsey, Del, Sharon, Charlotte or Phyllis even though I am sometimes the last customer to arrive before closing time.
Sixty pence is a lot for one stamp but I am always pleasantly surprised at how many letters arrive at the right addresses all over the country by the following morning. You get a lot for your 60p. There is also something old-fashioned and special about the counter service at local post offices. The staff are infinitely patient and invariably helpful – even if all you are asking for is proof of posting (which hardly nets a big fee for the organisation). So let’s not knock the Post Office, because solicitors would not make good postmen. I know. I’ve been there.
Richard Barr is a consultant with Scott-Moncrieff & Associates LLP (firstname.lastname@example.org)