Dominic Sandbrook’s superb series The People’s Post

Radio When I was an undergraduate in the mid-90s, before the proliferation of the web, before mobile phones were a luxury, the postal service was still a vital lifeline home. Away from the nest for the first time and dealing with the personal autonomy implications, I couldn’t wait for the letters and parcels mainly sent by Mum, envelopes littered with newspaper cuttings from the Liverpool Echo (the old school equivalent of email attachments), boxes brimming with provisions, biscuits, noodles, knitwear, sometimes tins. Goodness knows how much the postage was.

A decade and a half later, when food’s even cheaper and communication is ubiquitous, I doubt there are many students looking forward as much as I did to the daily visit to the campus sorting office to pick up the mail. We rather take the service for granted now. There when we need it, not really understanding that without our support it’ll be gone in its present form. Perhaps that’s one reason not to be so guilty about using Lovefilm, or doggedly sticking to paper bills. Hopefully they’re supplementing those moments when it’s still vital.

Not that it would necessarily be at such risk if it had retained the public service imperative, if it had remained a monopoly. But as Dominic Sandbrook’s superb series The People’s Post demonstrates, the Royal Mail and its predecessors have always been closely interlinked with the markets imperative, for much of its life defending itself against commercial operators when it hasn’t otherwise been absorbing its methods, users and employees forever seeking ways to cope or take advantage of its ever changing services.

Little did I realise until listening to these three hours, that the service had its origins in Henry VIII’s power struggle, when in 1516 he wanted a more regular way of sending royal communications whilst simultaneously strengthening his intelligence service. Or that the first penny post was a private service begun in and around London as early as the 1580s until the official office had it shut down for being unlicensed, then utilising its infrastructure for itself. Or did I remember that postcodes didn’t come into widespread usage until the 1980s when they became a vital part of the new speedy sorting machines.

As is often the case when these epic Radio 4 series are transferred to cd, the fifteen daily chunks which were presumably perfectly formed bursts of narrative become quite a dense listening experience. Fortunately, Sandbrook and his producer Joby Waldman pace their story by often focusing on the Royal Mail’s inherent social history, with actors like John Sessions reading extracts from secret missives between loves or reviews of such things as the passenger mail carriage and explanations of the cunning ways in which various users sought to circumvent having to pay what was often a quite expensive price.

My favourite story is from the period of the carriages, when it was noticed that a loophole meant newspapers could be sent at a fraction of the cost of a letter. Suddenly old copies become a communication currency, with pages covered in message written in lemon juice readable by candle at destination or codes produced using pinpricks. One ingenious fellow convalescing at the sea side kept his city dwelling son up-to-date on his health by changing the addressee to that of a politician – a liberal meant he was in perfect health, a Tory that he was at death’s door.

Sandbrook ends his series on a gloomy note, pointing to the various replacement services that will inevitably see to the Royal Mail’s demise, post office functions transferred to other commercial services like newsagents (a trend we’re already close to seeing in Liverpool whose main office is now upstairs in a tiny WH Smiths). If and when that happens, it’s important that we still remember the hard work of the hundreds of thousands of employees who kept the country functioning across the centuries. Even if it just means leaving a tip for the postman at Christmas.

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