Alan Johnson on Christmas as a postman

Christmas was always a special time – we battled to process the tidal wave of mail that washed up in our sorting office.

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I recently entered a closed world, a part of London’s infrastructure that has existed for 87 years but that few Londoners have ever seen. The Post Office Railway (or “Mail Rail”, as it later became known) was opened in 1927. Its purpose was to avoid the congestion on London’s streets by transporting mail speedily from sorting offices to the mainline rail network via the Post Office’s very own Tube system. Its driverless trains on two-foot-gauge tracks could cross the capital from Liverpool Street to Paddington in just 14 minutes.

Mothballed since 2003 after the main rail hub was moved to Willesden, it is to be developed into part of the British Postal Museum and Archive. I’d been invited to join the last group to visit the control centre at Mount Pleasant in Farringdon before the two-year task of restoration begins.

We descended into a subterranean landscape that had remained frozen in time since the last shift left. A Royal Mail jacket was draped across the back of a chair; a mug rested on the workbench where it had last been emptied; on the noticeboard was an update from my union on the Sars outbreak – the viral respiratory disease that worried the world 11 years ago.

At its zenith, Mail Rail ran for 22 hours a day and employed 200 staff. Now our footsteps echoed down its ghostly tunnels as it awaits discovery at last by what I’m sure will be an appreciative public.

 

Commercial casualty

Christmas was always a special time when I was a postman. Our ranks were swelled by a huge influx of Christmas casuals as we battled to process the tidal wave of mail that washed up in our sorting office. I’ve lost count of the number of people eager to tell me that they, too, were once postal workers but who, upon further inquiry, turned out to have been a casual during their student days.

Perhaps Vince Cable was a casual. Used as an adverb rather than a noun, it certainly describes the way he sold off a great public service. And his dismissal of the concerns expressed by Royal Mail’s chief executive, Moya Greene, about the threat to its universal service obligation was casual to be sure. He accused her of “scaremongering” for pointing out that the company will not be able to deliver mail to every address, no matter how remote, six days a week, for a single price if unregulated competition continues to cherry-pick its most lucrative customers. Royal Mail should never have been broken up and privatised. Vince Cable, as the architect of that policy, needs at least to ensure that the universal service doesn’t follow Mail Rail into extinction.

 

Looking for Gordon

Gordon Brown’s announcement that he is leaving parliament was hardly unexpected. Of recent prime ministers, only Ted Heath stayed on for any length of time after losing office and his brooding presence didn’t set a happy precedent.

My fondest memory of Gordon doesn’t relate to my time as his health and home secretaries. It goes back ten years to when I was first appointed to cabinet at the Department for Work and Pensions. As we approached Christmas, Gordon invited me up to address his local constituency party. The meeting was in the evening and I spent the afternoon visiting various towns in Fife while Gordon was travelling up from London. It was in Cupar and Anstruther and Cowdenbeath that I caught a glimpse of Gordon’s psyche.

These communities, built around industries as diverse as fishing, coal mining and the manufacture of linoleum, were fiercely political, with a probity and passion for history that were truly remarkable. They were immensely proud of Gordon and it made me realise how this landscape between the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth had shaped his spirit and entered his soul.

 

Working-class hero

My good friend John Monks (or Lord Monks of Blackley, if you prefer) is the chair of the People’s History Museum in Manchester. He asked me to speak at a parliamentary reception to launch its “Sponsor a Radical Hero” fundraising campaign. The museum relates the history of democracy in Britain, focusing on the lives of the working people who shaped it over the past 200 years. I sponsored my political hero, Jimmy Reid, who led Upper Clyde Shipbuilders to victory in the early 1970s. Reid was inspirational. His speech on alienation to Glasgow University students after they’d elected him as their rector was printed in the New York Times, which described it as the greatest speech since the Gettysburg Address.

To me, he epitomised the best in working-class culture: a self-taught man as comfortable talking about literature as he was about football. He was promiscuous as far as political parties were concerned but he remained faithful to his own ideals and is the finest MP that Scotland never had. You can choose your own radical hero and sponsor a good cause by going to: phm.org.uk.

 

Cyberspace Santa

John told me a story that demonstrates how the internet has invaded every corner of our lives. His immediate predecessor as TUC general secretary, Norman Willis, who sadly died in June, was playing Santa Claus at a charity event last Christmas. When he asked the first small child in the queue what she wanted for Christmas, the little girl looked up at him with a furrowed brow and a question on her lips. “Didn’t you get my email?” she asked plaintively.

I hope Norman advised her to send a letter to Reindeerland and help to preserve the universal service obligation. 

The second volume of Alan Johnson’s memoir, “Please, Mister Postman”, is published by Bantam Press (£16.99)

Alan Johnson is a former home secretary and MP for Hull West and Hessle.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014