Old people still write letters the old-fashioned way: by hand, with a biro, folding up the letter into an envelope, writing the address on the front before adding the stamp.
Mostly they don't have email, and while they often have a mobile phone, they usually have no idea how to text. So Peter Mandelson wasn't referring to them in May when he pressed for the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, saying that figures were down due to competition from emails and texts.
I spluttered into my tea at that. "Figures are down." We hear that sentence almost every day at work when management try to implement some new initiative which involves postal workers like me working longer hours for no pay, carrying more weight, more duties.
"Figures are down," we laugh, as we pile the fifth or sixth mail bag on the scales and write the weight in the log book. It's our daily exercise in fiction-writing. We have limits per bag, on a reducing scale: 16kg the first bag, 13kg the last. If we did that we'd be taking out 10 bags a day and wouldn't finish till 3pm.
People don't send so many letters any more, it's true. But then the average person never did send all that many. They sent Christmas and birthday cards, postcards. They still do. Bills and bank statements and official letters still arrive by post; plus there's all the new traffic generated by the internet – books and CDs from Amazon, packages from eBay, DVDs and games from LoveFilm, clothes and gifts.
Royal Mail figures in May had the mail volume down by 5.5 per cent over the preceding 12 months, and is predicted to fall by 10 per cent this year. Every postman knows these figures are false. How come I can't get my round done in under four hours any more? How come my knees nearly give way with the weight? How come something snapped in my back as I climbed out of the shower?
One thing you probably don't know is that the Royal Mail is already part-privatised. An EU "deregulation" directive means that any private mail company – or any of the European state-owned, subsidised mail companies – can bid for Royal Mail contracts.
Look at your letters next time you pick them from the doormat, at the right-hand corner, where the Queen's head used to be. You'll see a variety of franks: TNT, UK Mail, Citypost and others. These companies bid for the bulk mail and city-to-city trade of large corporations, undercutting the Royal Mail, and then have the Royal Mail deliver it.
TNT has the lucrative BT contract. TNT picks up all BT's mail from its main offices, sorts it, scoots it to mail centres in bulk, where it is sorted again and handed to postmen to deliver. Royal Mail does the work. TNT takes the profit.
These companies don't have any delivery obligation, as Royal Mail does. They aren't rival mail companies in a free market, as the propaganda would have you believe. None delivers any mail. All they do is ride on the back of the Royal Mail system and extract profit from it.
So if "figures are down", that doesn't mean volume is. Volume, over that last few miles to your door, is decidedly up. Even if Mandelson was telling the truth, that volume was down by 10 per cent, staff levels are down by 30 per cent. Each postman has a lot more work.
There is increasing tension in Royal Mail offices. There was a strike in 2007 and a national agreement on "pay and modernisation", but this year management has consistently implemented new practices, putting more pressure on the dwindling ranks of full-timers.
There is increasing pressure to collapse more "frames" – a frame is what used to be an individual postman's workstation, with his round divided into roads and numbers and a slot for each address.
Management are becoming more belligerent. For some weeks now the managers in our office have been bullying and cajoling everyone, saying that another frame must be collapsed – "figures are down" – that someone would lose a job, and that the workforce would have to decide which frame that would be.
Everyone refused. No one wanted to be responsible for making that kind of decision, for shafting their workmates. Then last week, it was announced, on the heaviest day of the week, and without notice, that a frame was going to be collapsed regardless. The shop steward's written objection was ignored.
Such was the resentment and the chaos that a lot of mail wasn't delivered that day. There's a feeling that we are being provoked. Everyone is gearing up for a strike.
The truth is that the figures aren't down at all – we have proof. The Royal Mail has been fiddling the figures. This is how it is done.
Mail is delivered to the offices in standard-size grey boxes. In the past, the volume was estimated by weighing the boxes. These days it is done by averages. There was an estimate for the number of letters in each box, decided by national agreement between management and the union: 208. So the volume of mail passing through each office was worked out: 208 letters per box, multiplied by the number of boxes. But in the past year, Royal Mail has arbitrarily reduced the estimate for the number of letters in each box from 208 to 150.
Doubting the accuracy of this number, the union ordered a random manual count. On average, those boxes which the Royal Mail claims contain 150 items actually carry 267. This manipulation explains how the Royal Mail can say figures are down when every postman knows that volume is up.
Like many businesses, the Royal Mail has a pet name for its customers: "Granny Smith". Granny Smith is everyone, but particularly every old lady living alone, for whom the mail service is a lifeline. When an old lady gives me a Christmas card with a fiver slipped in and writes, "Thank you for thinking of me every day," she means it. I might be the only person in the world who thinks about her every day, even if it's only to read her name on an envelope and put it through her letterbox.
There is a tension between the Royal Mail as a profit-making business and the Royal Mail as a public service. For most of the management – who rarely, if ever, come across the public – it is the first. To the delivery officer – to me, and people like me, the postmen who bring the mail to your door – it is more than likely the second.
We had a meeting a while back at which managers laid out the proposed changes: to hours, to working practices, to our priorities. We were told that the emphasis should be on the corporate customer.
Someone, an old-fashioned sort of postman, the kind who cares about these things, piped up: "What about Granny Smith?".
"Granny Smith is not important," was the reply. "Granny Smith doesn't matter any more."
So now you know.
This article first appeared in 'The London Review of Books'Reuse content