The last post?

How Royal Mail fiddles the figures

It is easy, working in an office where we deal with a lot of incoming and outgoing post, to forget the reasons behind the intermittent CWU industrial action and see it as a minor irritation -- after all, if something's really important, we can always bike it, can't we? So it's good to see this timely (and shocking) report in the current LRB on how Royal Mail is fiddling its figures in order to justify part-privatisation:

Mail is delivered to the offices in grey boxes. These are a standard size, big enough to carry a few hundred letters. The mail is sorted from these boxes, put into pigeonholes representing the separate walks, and from there carried over to the frames. This is what is called "internal sorting" and it is the job of the full-timers, who come into work early to do it. In the past, the volume of mail was estimated by weighing the boxes. These days it is done by averages. There is an estimate for the number of letters that each box contains, decided on by national agreement between the management and the union. That number is 208. This is how the volume of mail passing through each office is worked out: 208 letters per box times the number of boxes. However, within the last year Royal Mail has arbitrarily, and without consultation, reduced the estimate for the number of letters in each box. It was 208: now they say it is 150. This arbitrary reduction more than accounts for the 10 per cent reduction that the Royal Mail claims is happening nationwide.

Fewer letters being sent these days, due to email and mobile phone use, is a truism repeated by everyone from Royal Mail managers to the Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson. In fact, as the piece makes clear, the real crisis affecting Royal Mail is not one of technology, but of a conflict between public service and private profit. The LRB's correspondent illustrates this point with a telling exchange:

We had a meeting a while back at which all the proposed changes to the business were laid out . . . We were told that the emphasis these days should be on the corporate customer. It was what the corporations wanted that mattered.

. . . Someone piped up in the middle of it. "What about Granny Smith?" he said. He's an old-fashioned sort of postman, the kind who cares about these things.

"Granny Smith is not important," was the reply. "Granny Smith doesn't matter any more."

For an indicator of what might lie ahead, I recommend you track down a copy of Jonathan Franzen's essay collection How to Be Alone, and read his gloomy but revealing mid-1990s investigation of Chicago's decrepit postal service.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt