Bunhill: Passion of a postmaster

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One of the most head-scratching jobs around must be that of the people who write the blurbs on book jackets. These are the unsung heroes of marketing who get to describe steamy, bodice-ripping yarns as "a steamy, bodice-ripping yarn", and steamy, bodice-ripping yarns by "serious" novelists as "an extraordinary tour de force offering a trenchant insight into man's isolation within the urban maelstrom".

So what racy prose would the gurus of blurb use to sell The National Federation of Sub-Postmasters - 100 Years of Proud History 1897-1997? On reflection, and after consulting the vast lexicon of dust-jacket puffs, I'd suggest they try "a steamy, bodice-ripping yarn" since that is just the sort of Mills & Boon write-up that one passage in this centennial history of the federation invites:

"Of medium height, spare of build, with not an ounce of superfluous flesh, he seems to be filled with electricity ... a face set in a serious fashion, sometimes a gleam of mirth passes over it and reminds one of the glories of April sunshine in the midst of April showers". Step forward Joseph Ranns, founder and first president of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters - you could have been a contender.

Sadly, this florid imagery soon subsides because after he'd finished setting up the federation, Mr Ranns decided against ravishing a maiden with a cascade of golden tresses, red-wine lips and legs like an Amazonian Unicorn. Instead, we read: "The momentous first-ever meeting broke up to be followed by tea at the George Hotel".

It is easy to be flippant about a book with such an inauspicious title, and slightly unfair, for sub-post offices, while being the hubs of many communities, have faced an epic struggle in winning either recognition or respect from successive governments.

At the time the federation was established, for instance, sub-postmasters had to pay for all fittings, fuel and stationery out of their own money, as well as meeting the cost of putting up telegraph wires. Despite this, they received no rent allowance from the state, no annual holidays and no sickness relief. Such outgoings, the book relates, "left some sub-postmasters earning two pence an hour"; by 1964 the salaries of the worst-off had risen to pounds 6 a week, from which many of the same expenses had to be deducted. Add to this the escalation in armed robberies, and the threat of closures brought by automated credit transfer, and you can see there's a book in it.

Nevertheless, mixed in with all these struggles are passages that seem almost surreal in their determination to capture every aspect of the federation's history. My own favourite is this poem penned in 1936 by a sub-postmaster who must have foreseen the coming of rap music:

Thanks to our federation

It has been their ambition

To get better condition

And higher compensation

Now we are in expectation

For better consideration

Our work is a variation

Often causing aggravation

We're not told who wrote these lyrics - maybe it was MC Postmaster or Grandmaster Giro featuring Postie B - but surely no self-respecting sound system would be without it.

Rave reviews

IF YOU think it unlikely that the federation's book will feature any racy blurbs, think again, for gushing prose is now turning up in the most unlikely places.

Take Superscape VR, the virtual reality company, which has taken the unusual step of dotting warm reviews from the critics throughout its annual report and accounts. Opposite the group profit-and-loss account, for instance, readers are treated to this quote from the magazine 3-D Design: "It's good to know that there's a reliable, stable product out there." And on the same page, part of a review from my previous incarnation, David Bowen: "The list of companies using Superscape's software is impressive."

It is out of the question, of course, that perusers of the accounts would be in any way influenced by such selective extracts, and it is to be hoped that the trend catches on. Then we can look forward to summaries of company reports like these:

"A masterful work of fiction" - the Independent.

"Side-splittingly funny" - the Guardian

"Bodice-rippingly good" - the Amalgamated Union of Bodice Repairers.

"Like April sunshine in the midst of April showers - the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters.

"Where's the sex and violence, then?" - the Financial Times.

"I think you sent this brochure to the wrong place" - Hello.