Going Postal, Part Two

Catford and Eltham

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 …

A round in Catford. Mail delivery is perhaps not a job that attracts high-powered, competitive types, but you do get the odd keenie. The fellow whose round I was standing in for (not sure why) did the sorting for me, quickly and perfectly, drew me an excellent delivery route map, then drove me to the start point, pointing out the difficult ones with doors in unexpected places and so on. I began to feel I had certain mail delivery standards to uphold here in east Catford. He said he could do the whole round in 90 minutes, “not quite the record for our office, but close.”

Well, it took me four to five hours. Normally, I enjoy the walk, but this for some reason was a weary trudge. I had a row with a teenager who sat on a noisy little motorbike, just revving it for the half-hour it took me to finish delivering to that estate and get out earshot.

My partner picked me up at the end and drove me back, which was an unexpected kindness. He didn’t think it fair that postal workers should have to make their own way to and from the delivery area, which could be some way from the sorting office, and do so at their own expense. That could happen when all the RM vans were in service.

“If ever you see a postman with full sacks sitting on a bus,” he said, “you know now why. And why we strike.”

The main reason they strike, of course, is low pay. I was getting £4.50 an hour, about a fifth of my last Japan salary, and that sum did not include the waiting at the sorting office or the travelling to the delivery area — that was all unpaid. The wage was so low, I regarded this more as bob-a-job or even voluntary work. Why was I even bothering? I just needed to be doing some kind of work and getting some kind of regular exercise. I enjoyed the walking, especially at that fresh, quiet hour. But you could not just switch off, as I had hoped, and let your mind wander. You had to concentrate all the time to avoid mistakes.

I had another day in Catford. A grey, blustery morning, promising but never quite delivering rain. I was quite enjoying trudging about under the thrashing branches of the street trees and watching the fallen leaves flailing about, when I realised halfway in I had dropped the sodding route map somewhere. That meant I had to go back to the Post Office to drag the supervisor, a rather less amenable bloke than yesterdays’ keenie, out of the kitchen where he was making sandwiches. He drew me another, with much sighing and muttering about the folly of using “casuals.”

Then I took a bus back to the delivery area, feeling a right Charlie amongst the giggling schoolgirls. So, four journeys for one round, three with a full or half-full bag, as you cannot leave a sack of mail anywhere. (indeed, it might have been illegal for a mailman and his bag to be parted outside the post office.) At the end of that day, I got my first wage slip, £67 for 18 hours’ work, after deductions. I was expecting £90 or so. This was around 2000, remember.

So to pastures new. I was sent to Eltham, scene of the martyrdom of St. Stephen of Lawrence. Don’t know if I covered the actual street. What I do know is that Eltham had a lot of council housing and “beware of the dog” notices. But it was not as rundown as Lewisham. Their post office was suffering a wave of absenteeism, for unexplained reasons. I had 19 bundles on this day, which was a lot for a casual, but it was easy work as most houses were terraced and most mail had been neatly pre-wrapped up by the sorting office in a stiff-paper rent-related notice sent to all households by Lewisham borough council. That made it easier to drive the mail through the stupid felt-lining and spring-cover obstructions that make so many letter slots such a pain. Sometimes you wonder, do the owners of these slots defended like a World War 1 trench actually want to receive mail?

Most mornings, there would be a few institutional homes of some sort with an intercom system. Posties were supposed to use the tradesman’s button, but it would often fail to work. So at Clarence Road, where there was an old folks’ home, I had to wait until a carer went in to get at the letter boxes inside. A doddery bloke watched me come into the lobby and separate parcels from the letters, as the former wouldn’t fit the slots.

“Are you the postman then?” he asked.

“You don’t miss much, do you?” I replied, trying to sound jocular rather than sarcastic.

“Actually I do. I’m legally blind.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m the postman.”

“Got a parcel for me?”

And yes, I did have a parcel for him. A folding cane, with the clear wording For the Vision-Impaired in big, hard-to-miss, letters. Eltham 1, Postman 0.

The other parcel was for a lady resident, and she gave me a Christmas tip of a quid, because “that’s what we did” back in Lancashire. This was the only tip I got in weeks of doing this job. I didn’t get many friendly greetings either.

At another institution on this beat, a gap-toothed and batty-looking woman in a gown tottered out of her care home, summoning me imperiously like a duchess with her gardener. I thought I’d cocked something up — I cocked up something every day — but she merely asked if I had anything for her. I heard this question a lot and this time, I got a bit shirty.

“Do you seriously expect me to know your name and address?”

“My name is Lady Caroline Twatt-Coffin (Well, that’s what it sounded like.) They may have put me in the funny farm, but I’m still quite well-known round here. Now do you have anything for me, young man?”

Eltham 2, Postman 0. Her ladyship wasn’t the most memorable name I came across on the beat, by the way. On another round lived Deaconess Joke Akinseye, who probably wasn’t the youngish Joke Ogunmakin Akinseye who pops up on the internet today, two decades later.

© text & images Joe Slater 2024