There was a time when it was simple, or it seemed so. There was the Post Office (with real, working Post Offices across the land) and there was the Royal Mail which had its coat of arms on the pillar boxes. And they seemed for all practical purposes to be part of the same thing.
I am now utterly confused about who pays out pensions, prices parcels and sorts letters. Somewhere along the line there was a brief flowering of something called Consignia (pronounced, as I recall, with an ugly hard "g"), after which the Royal Mail loomed back into view, and now plans – as behoves a retro-institution – to call a thoroughly 1970s-style national strike.
If you are subject to the current "rolling" strikes, you might well ask whether a one-out all-out withdrawal of labour could be worse. At least you would know not to post anything. As it is, I tend to treat a delivered letter like a rare gem; I turn it over in wonderment, checking its markings for clues to its provenance and route. The temptation is to leave it unopened, as a relic proving that the system can, on occasion, work. But I'm becoming less and less sure. Consider my Exhibits A and B.
Last weekend I witnessed a little episode that deserved to be immortalised as a Turner Prize installation. The scene: a traditional pillar box in Chelsea. A young man, possibly a foreign student, tries to post a card. A passer-by lunges to stop him. "Don't do that," he cries. "Can't you see, it's not safe." He puts his hand in to show that the letters are piled so high they can be removed.
The bewildered would-be card-sender nods and asks whether it would be OK to use the adjacent opening. Passer-by puts his hand in and judges it "secure". Not 30 seconds later, a policeman saunters past – apparently, miraculously, on the beat. The passer-by points out the risk posed by letters sticking out of the box. The PC takes a good look, puts his hand in, and declares the situation unsatisfactory, but not his to solve. It's up to the Post Office, he says.
Exhibit B. My local Post Office. Or rather, let me qualify that. My actual local Post Office was converted a while back into something obviously much more useful and necessary, like government offices, complete with porter, locked door, and colour-coded terrorist alert. So it's the next-closest Post Office – a brisk 15-minute walk away across two major roads – and I noticed that it was being "refurbished", for the second time in, at a rough guess, five years.
Sparkling new signs appeared – though they could have done with a spirit level to make them straight and given the old post boxes a polish while they were at it. But the changes outside are nothing compared with those inside. The chaos of non-postal services – cards, toys, electronics, etc – remains. But the central area now boasts a "greeter", as found in restaurants, and large, curvy pink settees.
Of course, the queues for what I will call, in the cause of speaking truth to bureaucracy, "core functions" – such as sending a parcel – are as long as ever. But you can now sit in comfort. Is it wrong to think that if more counters were staffed, we wouldn't need the sofas? Or are they softening us up for an even longer wait?
London basks in its own celebrity at the art shows
You don't have to be an aficionado of the Frieze Art Fair that has just opened in Regent's Park to appreciate that London brims with art shows through the autumn. I prefer the smaller, less celebrity-studded ones – the British Art Fair at the Royal College of Art last month; Art London in Chelsea last weekend.
But, amid the dazzling variety, a striking trend is the starring role played increasingly by London inside, as well as outside, the galleries. A new generation of British artists is taking inspiration from a city they are discovering anew. And while the glorious view of Westminster remains a favoured view, the same artists are championing edgier and less celebrated areas. What is more, despite the recession, they are finding buyers.
The vanquished, too, have their history
History, it is said, is written by the victors – which does not necessarily make it any less contested or inflammatory. Four years ago, China incited street protests against what it saw as Tokyo's attempt to pass over the Nanjing massacre in its school textbooks.
Now, in a laudable initiative, Tokyo has proposed that historians from Japan, China and South Korea get together to produce a joint textbook, with a shared acknowledgement of what unites and divides them in their common history. Whether or not the project gets off the ground, this is an idea that surely deserves more currency.
I would be happier about the ubiquity of the Third Reich on the curriculum in British schools, if it included some awareness of how the war and its aftermath were experienced in Germany. How about a textbook splicing French and German views of the same events; Russia and the Baltic States; India and Pakistan? Or for Irish schools, north and south of the border, and across the religious divide?Reuse content