Going Postal, Part Three


Woolwich Town Hall
“Fin Fahey”, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Just before 2000, I decided to give up a well-paid job and comfortable life in Japan to make a new start in my homeland. I had bought a share in a house in south London, and thought I would be able to bring my years of experience in journalism and financial translation lucratively to bear in the City.

Well, it turned out the City was not interested in Joe Slater’s portfolio of talents. After nine months of idleness, I hit the temporary agencies. And so, for the year-end 2000-2001, I became a south London postman …

For my last week on the beat, in early January, they sent me to Woolwich.

“Ooh,” said one of the regulars at Lewisham when I told them. “That’s bag-only country, that.”


He meant that it was not possible to use hand-pulled trolleys, with much higher load capacity, because the scrotes of Woolwich would nick them while the postman was at the door. Same went for bikes, one added. So you could only do Woolwich on foot, with a bag.

“F’I were you, I’d write my will before you start there.”

Indeed, it wasn’t a promising kickoff. For the first day, I took the train to Woolwich station. The seat on the left was ripped, and the one on the right bore faintly detectable vomit stains. As I exited the station, a teenager cursing a ticket machine turned to me and said, “Got a quid mate?” Turned he out he had put a few coins in and then realised he didn’t have enough for the ride. So he started thumping the machine to persuade it to return his money. Then he saw a station employee and shouted, “Oi mate!” down the platform. Then he whistled him, as you would a dog. Classy. The Connex man looked at him with disgust and began shuffling over, with deliberate slowness. Welcome to Woolwich, which would become the last home of Lee Rigby.

The Post Office turned out to be next to a dole office. A bunch of drunks kept a near permanent vigil outside it, boozing from cans and occasionally sporting fresh scars. The postal staff were surly and demoralised. My hours were lousy. And here too, you were expected to take the bus to the delivery area. Take an effing London Transport double-decker, and pay the fare yourself. But I at least only had two routes to learn, not a new one each day.

Sod the bus, I thought, and made the brave and foolish decision to use a cheap bicycle — the padlock was worth more — for getting out to the work area, where I parked it as far away from the estates as I could. I found a littered patch of park among the council tower blocks somewhere. I wasn’t the only person attracted. There I would also find The Sikh in The Vauxhall, gently running the engine as if waiting for a partner to finish an errand nearby. But he never actually moved, just sat there seemingly all day running his engine. There was also a shy, well-spoken old boy who wandered about chatting to everybody, and also to a few of the trees. These were the only friendly faces I encountered in Woolwich.

Much of my time on the beat was taken up by a low-income complex called Coupland Place, which seemed to have been laid out as a kind of maze, much as Japanese castles were, to fox intruders. You would get a run of a sequential numbers in the twenties, say, and then it would jump to the seventies. Here and in some other streets I also ran into sequences like 15, 3, 16, 5, 17, 19, 21, 22. It took bloody ages.

Coupland Place was a development of cheap modern terraced maisonettes, one of those places where wheelie bins seem to fill every empty space. Residents were generally suspicious and couple would not open up for parcel deliveries. One had nailed a panel over his letter box, presumably because of what was shoved through it. And there were a disproportionate number of deep-throated dogs behind those unwelcoming doors. One in particular I got to know well.

It was one of those mutts whose day is made by the arrival of the postman. (I suspect it crouched under the letter box every morning for an hour or two waiting). As soon as it detected my approach, a frenzied barking started up. I would walk through a ridiculous little knee-high gate into what I called the “gardenette,” which extended about six feet from the door. Through the opaque but reassuringly thick door glass, I could make out a Rottweiler-sized beast, slavering and drooling, I imagined, in anticipation of the mail box opening. I would fold the letters into a kind of paper bar — they got a lot of mail — and thrust the bundle through the door as fast and sharply as I could, hoping to catch the brute on the snout if possible. I don’t know if I ever did land a blow, but the outcome was always the same. The thing would go berserk and rip the mail out of my hand like a shark taking a seal.

I hated that fucking dog. I am not one for animal cruelty, but a couple of days I lingered at the doorway, so that the bastard knew I was still there, goading it. I may even gone ner-ner, ner-ner, can’t touch me at it. Driven nuts by frustration, it would prise open the letterbox with its front paws and bark through the opening. All claw and teeth. When I went off, I would hear it several houses further on, still having paroxysms. I never once saw the owner. For I all knew, he was sitting dead in the living room armchair, slumped over the Radio Times. But Fido here did not seem to me to be in pining mode. More tear ‘em-limb-from-limb mode.

And then, one glorious day, as it leapt at the letters, it ripped down the net curtain and knocked over a vase, producing a crash of shattering porcelain, which was altogether the most gratifying thing that happened to me as a postman. Going back, I gave the grinning Sikh in his Vauxhall a big smile. Postman 1, Woolwich 0.

This was not my only canine sparring partner in Woolwich. Over in St Margaret’s Terrace was a more cunning but no less demented adversary. This one, a lab I think, would crouch still and silent under the letterbox, so I would forget about it, and explode into a heart-stopping frenzy of barking when the slot cover moved. I would listen a few moments to it snorting and snarling as it mauled the L.L. Bean catalogues and rent reminders I shoved through. Again, the owner stayed out of sight.

This job, postie, was the first time in my working life that I had to interact face-to-face with the general public. After Woolwich, I vowed it would also be the last. OK, this place wasn’t Malibu beach, but I was astonished at the daily rudeness and disdain you encountered as a humble servant of the public and bringer of sometimes important missives.

At one place where I had to retrieve a letter I had delivered to the wrong door, the female resident, a black woman, stared at me from an upstairs window and tossed it down without a word. Few Woolwich kids could resist calling out names. Some people just would not open up to receive parcels that would not fit through the door, even though I could hear them moving about inside. Sorry, said one through the door, it’s just that “it’s terrible around here.”

On day four, they finally tried to nick my bike. Failing to cut through the chain, which was stout, the scrotes instead decided to spoil my day by letting down the tyres so I had to push it a mile or two back after a full day’s work. An act of pure spite. Postman 1, Woolwich 1.

On the penulitimate day, I staggered down the last flight of stairs after finishing off the 12-floor Azile Everitt house — even with a semi-functional lift, it was a postie’s equivalent of Ben Nevis — and exited the building, only to hear a voice from the 11th floor calling down, in the loveable local argot, “Oi! Postie! Been ’ere yet?” No, I thought, I am NOT going to shout. I said “yes,” just loudly enough, I hoped, for him to hear. He didn’t.

“Oi! I said, you bin ’ere yet?”

“Yes,” I said again, without shouting, and walked off, thinking, if you want to know that badly, sunshine, you can come down here and ask me civilly. From his window, he followed me out of sight, shouting every few seconds. The attitude of these people.

As ill luck would have it, I was not done with Azile Everitt house (no, I don’t know who Azile was, but I expect he was yet another of the Afro-Caribbeans so blindly worshipped by South London councils). I had to go back in the afternoon because I had not been able to finish the morning sort, in which nobody ever helped. It was my pal on the 11th floor who let me into the building. And dragged me straight up to his door; he wasn’t bothered about his place in my round. He was waiting for a late dole giro.

He said in the lift that he got £70 a fortnight, and had a kid to support as well. The cheque was days overdue.

“Who pays your rent?”


“So the cheque is daily spending money?”

“£35 a week. Doesn’t even cover the phone bill.”

He had to wait a bit longer for his giro, as I had again stuffed up the sort for this bugger of a building and had to redo it on the floor of the corridor outside his room. With him looking curiously on as I sat in a litter of undelivered mail, probably thinking, “well, at least I’m not quite the saddest muppet in the building today.”

It turned out he was sharing the flat with another equally desperate young man. They were down to emergency gas and electricity, “below zero on the meters, they could nuke us any moment.” Both were pitifully grateful when I finally handed over the cheque, as if the money was coming from my own bank account. I felt bizarrely like Chris Tarrant on Millionaire. For about a thirty seconds.

Then I walked off on my round and it all became just sordid again. I thought, either one of those lads could have been doing what I was doing; the Royal Mail were always short of staff for one reason or another. There were, in fact, a number of these late giro cheques for residents of this place.

The reason that I made a mess of the sort this day was partly due to distraction. A regular who had a Canadian passport had embarked on a Cockney lecture on Canadian politics. “Mulroney, ’e was their Thatcher, right, shut down all the mines, let the fishing go to hell. Then Chretien came along, and ’e’s a liberal, but it didn’t make no difference. Canadian fishermen get done if they break the quota rules, you see, but foreign boats …” On and on he went. I had nearly half my Vicarage Roads in the Vicarage Park pigeonhole by the end of it.

It had taken a few days to get onto proper matey terms with the regulars at Woolwich Post Office. They still regarded me as some college toff who had fallen on hard times, which indeed I had, but at least we could banter.

So it was a bit of a shock learn, on the very last afternoon, that I had spent all week walking in the footsteps of a dead man. One of the giro cheque recipients told me, in St Margaret’s Grove.

“Postie who usually does the round kicked the bucket just before Christmas. Friend of a friend. He was in his 30s. Left three children. Heart attack, they say.”

I wondered: was it one berserk dog too many? And I recalled that jibe on the first day about “writing your will.” Nobody at Woolwich or the agency had mentioned this, and none of them had ever helped me with sorts or lifts out to the delivery area either, which I had found a bit odd. They had kept the death secret, and left the beat un-serviced for a few days. That was why the giro cheques were all late.

Thus ended my career as a postman, though it was not to be the last time I marched up and down dreary streets shoving stuff through letter-boxes. But all that comes in a later life.

© Joe Slater 2024