Saturday, April 14, 2012

an extinct tube station called post office

For some years now, every time I have asked for stamps for my post, I have been given a print-out label. I know this is easy and efficient and that the postmistresses and masters have long lunchtime queues and other important requests like phone bill payments to deal with, but really, has the perforated, lick-able and often (although less and less these days) beautiful stamp really disappeared so much from our consciousness that even those who work in postoffices can't recognise what it is?

In my local 'postoffice' in Exeter - a completely unromantic place in a characterless mall, akin to the shopping complex-style cinemas we are now forced to put up with - there is one window where you can buy 'interesting stamps';that is stamps which are not just multicoloured variations of Elizabeth's profile (as iconic as that is!). This is of course one step up from the Netherlands, where the only option is standard issue local and international stamps sold in newsagents, but still, the stamp buying experience is somewhat diminished when you have to wait for the right window to call your number. I know that there are other stamp lovers in Exeter though, as the post office's fantastically foxy Roald Dahl stamp stash is now depleted, with only the dreary prospect of Olympic stamps ahead.

The relegation of interesting stamps to the corners of postoffices and their disappearance from our mail is part and parcel of a larger decline in postal practices. The Guardian ran a story last week farewelling the great age of the post office, a great age that had already started to disappear early last century when post offices were demolished in London and tube station names changed from Post Office to St Paul's. More recently postal services the world over are losing money, lots of money. "Weightless electronic words" (Meek 2011) have proved too powerful a competitor to the written word. In 2005 the letter market went into absolute decline, falling ever since and by 2015 it is predicted that letter volumes will decline by another 25 - 40 percent.

A rather grim picture of Dutch and English postal networks is painted in an excellent essay by James Meek in the London Review of Books last year. Meek follows letters ethnographically, meeting the Dutch postal workers who sort out crates of mail (catalogues and magazines) in their flats and the bureaucrats reorganising Royal Mail services. Before Meek started the essay he had planned to set up the interviews by post, but he didn't think about it very long. Instead he phoned, emailed, texted, skyped, chattered and googled.

So here is yet another rant to add to the many moans about the loss of postal magic from our lives. This is more than nostalgia for the past, but rather sadness that slow, time-consuming, thoughtful practices such as correspondence by post are disappearing in contemporary society, as are the infrastructures which support them. So I am going to sign off now, go and make myself a cup of tea, and write a letter.

For other blogs celebrating post see for example: letters of note (thanks Joeri) letterheady and everyday should be a red letter day.

Photo my own, taken during conference trip in Oxford, 2011.

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