It was my mate Charlie who started it off. “Do you still have access to the media?” he asked at work one day. “Can you still get stories published?”
“Why? What have you got in mind?”
“I’ve got a story which I think you’ll like,” he said.
We sat in the recreation room. It’s not often used these days, except by managers. They are the only people with time left over to make use of the facilities and, as it happens, one of them came bustling through while we were talking.
I’m certain he caught a whiff of what we were discussing. He turned on his heel and left in a kind of embarrassed huff. Royal Mail politics. It doesn’t do to have an opinion.
Charlie told me a fascinating story of intrigue and deception, involving the amount of mail that was actually passing through the delivery office, and what the Royal Mail was doing to manipulate the figures.
He used to be a union rep himself, and he’s very sharp about the ongoing devastation of the mail service and what he thinks is behind it.
I took several pages of notes and promised to have a go at writing the story.
Essentially the story was this. Royal Mail and the government have been saying that the number of letters sent is down by 10 percent. They estimate this by counting the number of boxes the mail arrives in.
The union and management had agreed that, on average, the boxes contained 208 letters.
Later we heard that management had unilaterally reduced the estimate to 150 per box. So the union did a count and discovered that, actually, there were more like 267 letters per box.
Figures were being manipulated to make it look like there was less mail than there actually was.
The piece I wrote was published in the London Review of Books and became an overnight success.
The article was all over the internet. Everyone was reading it, and forwarding it on to their friends. It was republished in the Week, and then in the Independent.
The strike was impending and our union, the CWU, was typically inept about stating its case. My story seemed to have struck a chord.
After that I had a phone call from a publisher asking if I’d like to write a book based on the article. “It’s called Dear Granny Smith,” the editor said. “Granny Smith” is a postal worker’s pet name for members of the public.
I liked the title very much. “What’s the deadline?” I asked.
“November 3rd,” she said.
I laughed. This was just before the strike in mid-October 2009.
We had a few more conversations in which I tried to negotiate a more realistic date, but she was insistent. After that it would be too late for the Christmas sales, she told me.
I wrote the book in the two weeks of the strike. It was partially based on a series of interviews I did with people at work. It’s about what the job was like 30 years ago, and how it has changed.
Thirty years ago being a postman was one of the best jobs in the world. You were up at the crack of dawn, out in the fresh air, someone that everyone knew and recognised, serving a responsible role within the community, not only as the carrier of mail, but as a kind of watchman for the health of the community too. Someone who always knew what was going on.
These days the job is all relentless pressure, to work harder and faster, to do more duties, to carry more weight. No one has time for community values any more.
A new breed of bullying manager has entered the workplace, arbitrary and aggressive, imposing the new work rates with sadistic pleasure.
All of the joy has gone out of the job.
Writing the book was a cathartic experience. It felt like a case of right person, right place, right time. But it was right publishers too.
The day after I handed it in I rang the Short Books’ office to see what they thought of it. They were already working on the proofs and the cover. A few days after that I was making final adjustments to the text.
And that was it. Within three weeks it was back from the printers, with just one little spelling mistake to indicate that it was the work of mortal beings.
It is an exquisite, miniature jewel of a book, the summation of my life as a Royal Mail delivery officer, and a testament to the dedication and integrity of postal workers everywhere.
The book has been a spectacular success.
Just before it came out I was interviewed by the Times. The reporter asked why I thought Royal Mail was fabricating the figures.
I stumbled, and muttered something about Adam Crozier and his share options, but the truth is I didn’t really know.
I do now though.
Everything that Peter Mandelson and the government has been saying is based upon the Hooper Report, a so-called independent review into the state of the Royal Mail.
This claims volumes are down due to the incursion of new technology into the communications business.
The Royal Mail is under threat from its rivals. A major pensions deficit of £10 billion is draining the coffers. What it needs is a new strategic partnership with a more efficient private company which will help it find its direction.
We are given an impression of an old-fashioned and beleaguered Royal Mail struggling with its more modern and efficient rivals in an open market.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Royal Mail is actually in a very healthy state. What is wrong is the way it is being regulated.
What’s to stop the Royal Mail putting up the prices, I thought? If it’s an open market, all it has to do is to increase prices to its rivals, which are dependent on it to deliver the mail.
The Royal Mail will thrive and the competition will just fade away. It was after this that I started looking into the regulatory process.
The fact is it’s not a free market at all. It’s a rigged market. The Royal Mail is overseen by Postcomm, a supposedly independent regulator.
Take a look at the Postcomm website. Almost every member of the commission has a personal interest either in a private mail business or in deregulation. All of them were appointed by the government.
The Royal Mail actually subsidises private mail companies about 2p a letter, according to CWU general secretary Billy Hayes.
So not only do they take the profitable trade away, leaving the Royal Mail with the expensive and hard to run universal service obligation, but the Royal Mail actually pays them to do this.
The whole story is a carefully constructed front for the real motivation behind it all – which is privatisation. It’s ideology, not the market, which is leading this process.
As for the book, it was chosen as the Book of the Week by Radio 4, and read out in a beautiful North Midlands accent by the actor, Philip Jackson.
There’s a forum on the internet called Royal Mail Chat. I recommend it to anyone who wants to know what postal workers are thinking.
The week of the radio broadcast there was a lot of discussion on the forum. One person said they had been downloading the programme as a podcast and listening to it at work.
“It felt very subversive,” he said.
“If it felt subversive listening to it,” I replied in the thread, “imagine how it felt writing it.”
I’ve been enjoying that feeling ever since.
Dear Granny Smith by Roy Mayall, Short Books, £4.99. It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, » www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk