To conform with new EU safety regulations our landlord has had to tart up what his managing agent insists on calling "the common parts" with pale turquoise paint, fibre optic lighting and fire extinguishers and has installed a new visual entry phone in every flat. Trouble is the bit you speak into from the pavement is too high, making it almost impossible for short callers to identify themselves. Who is it? I kept repeating the other morning. Speak louder - I can't hear you. In the end someone must have taken pity and given the poor chap a lift up because suddenly this exasperated voice exploded into the hall: "It's the postman with a registered letter for God's sake - you know, the poor sod that delivers your mail every morning."
I wish I had recorded it. That crackling intercom message might well become a valuable item of historic interest to a generation for whom the postman will be as mysterious a species as the unicorn, the Yeti and the bandersnatch. At the rate things are going - remind me someone, is it 3,000 or 4,000 sub-post offices the Government is threatening to close in the next few years? - sending letters by post will be considered as eccentric and old-fashioned as going to church, laying the table or being able to spell.
Oh, well, at least it didn't happen back in the Sixties under Old Labour; otherwise we as a family might well have been confined to the workhouse. Did I ever tell you that my stepfather was a sub-postmaster, not a very good one admittedly, but then he wasn't exactly sub-postmaster material, having spent his entire working life in the teak forests of Upper Burma and Borneo excavating timber with elephants. His dislocation from Brunei to Buckinghamshire is a long story - throw another log on the fire and I will tell you how we ended up in Brill, a hill-top village with a windmill near Aylesbury where my sister and I were invariably referred to as "those toffee-nosed girls from the Post Office".
We weren't toffee nosed. We were red nosed on account of all the weeping and gnashing we had done ever since we had been informed that we would have to sell our lovely house in Hampshire because the farm my stepfather had bought when he retired from colonial service was bankrupt. "It'll be lovely, you'll see," said my mother, putting on a brave face, as well she might because she was having to go back to teaching in an army school in Bicester. "The Post Office comes with a beautiful old house and there's a chapel in the garden with an organ. You'll soon make new friends."
She was right. We did, especially my stepfather the sub-postmaster when he allowed villagers pleading poverty to get their stamps on tick. Sometimes too, dreaming no doubt of happier days in the tropics drinking Harry Squeezers at sundown, he would forget to tear out the coupons from their pension book and have to pay them twice, making up the deficit every week from his own pocket. He was a softie, my stepfather, a reaction no doubt to his own father, a fierce Welsh missionary, so strict with himself and his family that one Christmas he refused to let anyone touch the box of liqueur chocolates they had been given because drink was the work of the devil.
Brill folk were friendlier and more interesting than the stockbroking commuters of Hampshire. The nobs included the Roald Dahls, and the Buchans, distant cousins of the one that wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps. The villagers took longer to accept us, possibly because they had never seen anyone as exotic as my tiny Burmese mother behind a Post Office counter. She wasn't officially the sub-postmistress, but she had a friend who had just started importing Indian kaftans and, recognising both a niche market and a rare retail opportunity, she had a rack of them next to the TV licence and vehicle registration forms.
The high point of our stay - we were there for seven years - was the Great Train Robbery less than four miles away. There were no mobiles in those days and the Post Office was the nearest public phone. All the Fleet Street reporters queued to use it. It's probably why I became a journalist - covering robberies seemed far more exciting than selling stamps.
Funny how things change. Now I'm more excited about getting a letter to Glasgow by tomorrow than reading about crime, but then robberies are 10 a penny and a first-class stamp, besides costing 28p, if it gets there on time is a pearl beyond price.Reuse content