True gripes; post offices

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Some time back in the 1950s, an Oxford don, collecting evidence for his divorce petition, followed his wife to the main city post office in a taxi. He entered, unobserved, and watched as she wrote a telegram to her lover. When she had dispatched her lovegram and left the post office, her husband simply ripped off the underlying sheet from the telegram pad and read her message in the indentations which her passionate pen had left behind. This story of amateur detection made fascinating reading, and gave a seedy glamour to a place which had always been the epitome of dull but steady respectability.

Post offices, like banks and churches, used to be shrines to the Seriousness of Life. The main post office in any town was always a solidly built structure, with a long sweep of counters, plenty of room for filling in forms, writing telegrams or standing in dutiful lines for counter service. You had high expectations of the discretion and knowledgeability of the counter clerks, because they were public servants with a standard to aspire to. A large part of their special quality lay in the fact that only they could transact the business they did.

We all know things have changed. The Post Office's own television advertising now depicts its outlets as places where the neighbours can learn your business as they transact their own. Where once it might have boasted its discretion, it now unflinchingly claims to lack this. A large volume of its work is with the stuff of people's lives: bills, benefits and savings. What it is anxious for you to know about, are the number of things it sells. Our local post office, to this very end, is extending its premises. A perfectly good, solid old building is being ripped apart to accommodate the passport photo booth, the greetings card stand and the stationery displays which will validate it as a proper shop.

Call me sentimental, but I think a post office should command respect and have a certain ethos, one not of the market place. If, like the don's wife of my story, I wished to conduct an adulterous correspondence, I wouldn't care to do it in anything as vulgar as a shop. Post offices should surely look as serious as the business they transact. If they insist on being retail outlets, then caveat emptor, they're only after your money.