THE CHRISTMAS POST
in the 1960's
As Beethoven said to his publisher in relation to the Opus 132 Quartet, “I write not for this generation but for future generations”. All the same, I have no intention of being a laudator temporibus actis, that is, a praiser of bygone times. I think that some readers will smugly thank themselves for being alive in a more enlightened age, while others may concede that occasionally things were done better in the distant past. This account of working for the Post Office (which was a Department of State, directly responsible to a Minister of the Crown, in those days) is full of gaps. Some characters may have been conflated, while I am dependent on unreliable memory for the little anecdotes that make up the story. All the same, here goes!
I can't remember if I worked over two Christmases or three. I was sixteen years old when I was accepted as a temporary Christmas postman. I was assigned to parcel deliveries, working out of the sorting office next to Watford Junction Station. The Post Office used to hire in extra vehicles with drivers. One such was a bright pink ice cream van with serving hatch. This provoked ribald comments from the general public. I must have been regarded as expendable, because I was assigned to a van that belonged to a Romany rag-and-bone man from the Woodman behind the old Covered Market. This vehicle had no brakes, hardly any steering, only three firing cylinders, and at least one gear missing. I doubt whether it had tax or insurance. I, another student, and a regular postman made up the crew.
We used to cling to the back of the van and jump off while it was in motion with the parcel or parcels when we approached the appropriate address. We did not like the van to stop, because we would have to push it downhill to get it restarted. The van was not powerful enough to carry both the crew and the parcels uphill, so we had to run along beside it. And because it had no brakes we did not like to be in it going downhill either. As far as I knew, this vehicle and its owner had been hired for year upon year without its ever having been repaired. Oh! I forgot to mention that the van leaked poisonous gases into its interior. It had no silencer and no synchromesh. The gipsy used to spit on both hands before trying to wrench it into another gear.
The regular postmen told us exciting stories about premises where women would answer the door stark naked. This never happened to me, so perhaps it was a ploy to keep us interested in our work. An alarming thing happened to one of my colleagues on the ice cream van, however. He was taking a parcel down somebody's garden path when a huge hound bounded out, seized it, and ran off. This dog was described as being the size of a small donkey; it could look the postman in the face while standing on all four paws. It turned out that it was a cross between an Irish wolfhound and a mastiff. It had played the title role in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
A partition divided the parcels operation from the letters. Both halves had access to a cubicle, always full of dense smoke, where a senior postman used to repair parcels that had become unwrapped, and identify the destinations of the many letters and packets that were insufficiently addressed. His prowess at finding the correct recipient was legendary. Even he, though, was powerless to stop the odd item addressed to just “Wellington” being sent to New Zealand by surface mail. The letters section was dominated by enormous racks of pigeon holes. There were two special pigeon holes on the extreme left. One was reserved for kiddies' letters to Father Christmas. The other gradually filled up with letters addressed to:
Miss Lavinia Likes
all of which came to Watford from original humorists throughout the British Isles. The parcels section was dominated by rows and rows of labelled racking holding mailbags with their mouths open. When a mailbag was judged to be full (there was an official weight that might not be exceeded) it was bound round the neck with twine with a preprinted label, and secured by a lead seal that was firmly clamped in place by special pliers called a “plonker”. It was then moved to the loading bay to be taken on to the railway station.
The foreman in charge of the parcels section was a rubicund red-headed Welshman who came from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Not many people come from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. In fact, I have never met anyone else from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. He told me that he didn't know a single word of English until he was fourteen years old. Everybody was afraid of our foreman's rages. When he had a paroxysm it was like when all the small birds go quiet and disappear when a hawk is spotted. All the staff would go into hiding. At these times he was tremendously fluent in certain aspects of his adopted language that he shouldn't have learned in school anyway. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the country's postal network. We never caught him out.
“Ballachulish, that's Fort William. It goes in the Inverness bag.”
I do not remember any of the other regular staff, and only a few of the Christmas temporaries. There were only two girls, who had come to a working environment rather like that portrayed on the television series “On The Buses” only much more hostile. The pretty blonde one fended off approaches with the proverbial shitty stick. The other one used to spend her lunch hours having sex up against the external wall of the letters office with the regular posties. The male temporaries were a motley crew indeed. There was a short, dapper man called Howard who knew more about everything than anybody else, in his own opinion, who claimed to be the foreman of the temporaries, though I believed he had arrogated that status without official authority. I think he was a scoutmaster. Another regular temporary was Paddy O'Riordan. He was a comedian's idea of an Irishman, immensely strong, tremendously hard-working, utterly honest; he walked with his head jerking backwards and forwards like a pigeon; he wore an Irish Tweed suit with a green tie and navvy boots; he had no sense of humour or apparent evidence of possessing a brain. Paddy was a native Gaelic speaker, which he was ashamed of. I, who rather liked Paddy and wished him well, told him he should be proud of having two languages instead of one, but whether this cheered him up I could not be sure.
Two others stand out in my distant memory. There was a man who was far more camp than any stage comic. He claimed to have been “a dresser to all the stars”, whom he would name given the slightest opportunity. I wondered why, if that was the case, he was working in the Post Office during the pantomime season. John Inman, on being given the role of Mr Humphreys in “Are You Being Served?” said he based his character on a real person, but he had to tone it down a lot to achieve credibility. I did occur to me in later years that John Inman had met our temporary postman in some theatrical environment.
The other unforgettable character was a strange, introverted, pallid youth who always appeared to be in slow motion because he never moved more than one limb at the same time. Unsympathetic regular postmen were certain that they had the correct diagnosis for his condition. Howard called this youth “Greyhound” and the name stuck. One evening some of us temporaries put Greyhound in a mail sack, secured it in the approved manner with a label to Newcastle, and deposited him in the loading bay. Apparently the train was just about to move off when his sloth-like movements were observed. No enquiries were made into this incident. Presumably everybody agreed that Watford's postal services would have been undertaken more efficiently if Greyhound had been in Newcastle.
It used to amaze me, the sort of things that people sent through the post. We would often get broken bottles that had obviously been provided with no protective packing. I particularly remember a brace of pheasants, tied together by the neck with a label attached, that must have begun to putrefy long before they were committed to the care of the Post Office. These things were “hit and run” items: you placed them on the doorstep, rang the bell, and ran like hell. Another package springs into mind. It consisted of a large metal cube weighing maybe ten kilograms, carefully wrapped in brown paper. In the dead centre of one face of the cube was an unwrapped iron crank, maybe one metre long. If you picked the object up by the crank, the cube spun round and barked your shins. So you carefully picked it up by the cube, whereupon the crank spun round and bashed you in the face. “What do you think that is?”, you would then ask a colleague. He would in turn pick it up by the crank and then by the cube, with the same results. As you left him, you saw that he was asking another colleague “What do you think that is?”
In those days Watford's economy was said to generate a higher value-added than the whole of Lancashire. There were many specialised engineering companies; one, the then government-owned S G Brown assembled the first United States satellite, something that is not widely publicised especially in the United States. Another company made extremely high-quality nuts and bolts in special steels. Some of these were exported to Sweden! This company used the Post Office to deliver its merchandise, so that large numbers of small but very heavy packages would pass through our sorting office. It came about that, for some never-to-be-explained reason, Greyhound spent an entire lunch hour filling a mailbag with these packages. The place where he chose to do it was in the roadway that served the loading bay. When Paddy O'Riordan came back from lunch, he found this bollard causing an obstruction and tried to move it out of the way. But no matter how much he heaved at it and tugged it, it would not move an inch. When the foreman came back from lunch, he saw a queue of vans in the road waiting to get in, a queue of vans waiting to get out, and Paddy straining and pulling for all he was worth. The foreman exploded in the most incredible display of incandescent fury that any human being has ever witnessed. It was not funny; it was absolutely terrifying.
An annual event was the visit of the Mayor or Mayoress to thank the Post Office staff for their devoted efforts getting the Christmas mail sorted and delivered. The foreman was always taken by surprise, though it happened every year just as I am about to describe. It should be explained that every vertical surface in the depot was covered by a picture of a naked woman. (Printing such pictures, and indeed modelling for them, was an important Watford industry.)
“The Mayor's on his way. Get those pictures down quick!”
Everybody had to drop what they were doing and make the place respectable. Even so, the foreman would be found desperately trying to interest the Mayor in the contents of a mailbag in one corner while the posties were still stripping the walls in another corner.
One thing I admired hugely about the postmen was their dedication. On my first day we finished early, and I was given strict instructions to go away and come back at five o'clock to sign out. But as we got busier it was standard practice to work until every item of mail had been cleared. One day the squad on the Gipsy's van worked thirteen hours without a break, only to be accused by some of the posher householders of slacking because their deliveries were late.
After the finish of work on Christmas Eve, the regular postmen would take the temporaries to the nearest public house. That is where I was introduced to “Colne Springs”, a kind of fortified ale brewed by Benskins, the local brewery, and supplied in third-pint bottles. The first one tasted like the brown medicine that doctors used to prescribe to discourage their patients from bothering them. The second was not much better. The third was quite tolerable. The fourth was delicious... At the tender age of sixteen I fell flat on my face in the hallway when my mother opened the front door.
I hope these notes have proved instructive and educational.