Brian's Blogs

Strange Brits and a dose of reality

They say we British are a strange lot; and the longer I stay away from "blighty" the more I am convinced that "they" are right. As a nation we hate success. We're much happier when our sports teams end a contest as mere runners up.

It has been reported that British FA bosses have booked a private jet home from Euro2012 the day after England's final group stage game and before the final rounds, convinced that they would never get that far in the competition.

We're also happier celebrating "down to earth" people and those with little talent strutting about in a TV studio rather than admiring successful entrepreneurs; and our government and public servants love "fixing things" that aren't broken rather than not fixing things that are!

Take the case of the UK's Royal Mail system – at one time the envy of the world. With a history dating all the way back to 1516 when King Henry VIII established a "Master of the Posts", the Royal Mail service was first made available to the public in 1635 (with postage being paid by the recipient). In December 1839 a Uniform Penny Post was introduced whereby a single rate for delivery anywhere in Great Britain and Ireland was pre-paid by the sender. And as Britain was the first country to issue prepaid postage stamps, British stamps are the only ones in the world that do not bear the name of the country of issue on them.

The service used to be so good that even people living in remote rural areas could be all but guaranteed to have letters delivered to them within 24 hours after they had been posted anywhere in the country. And it is said that by the late 19th century, there were between six and twelve mail deliveries per day in London, permitting correspondents to exchange multiple letters within a single day.

I'm afraid I'm old enough to remember when there were still three deliveries on weekdays: two in the morning and one in the afternoon. Nowadays, the afternoon deliveries are usually letters that should have come in the morning.

But politicians being politicians, they just couldn't keep their hands off the great British success story that the Royal Mail had become. It's now little more than a shadow of its former self, thanks to a mix of interfering politicians and over-powerful unions. And it seems that hardly a week goes by without some fatuous story filling the tabloid newspapers of yet more examples of how this once great institution has gone to the dogs.

In the northern English town of Doncaster, for instance, a number of businesses have been told they will not have mail delivered on rainy days after a postman slipped on some moss on a pavement and hurt himself. Instead, customers have been told to collect their post from the town's main sorting office during bad weather. (It would appear that it is OK for them to slip over, but not the postmen!)

Meanwhile, in another move, the Royal Mail has decided to scrap leaving advisory notes - saying they tried to deliver mail when you were out - and instead will try to leave things with a neighbor. Unsurprisingly a number of people have complained saying they don't want neighbors prying into what they might have bought online.

And so as to "clarify" for the customers that the pile of junk-advertising-mail (that make up the majority of letters posted these days) sitting on your doormat was actually delivered by Royal Mail employees rather than a privatized courier company, the Royal Mail has decided to stamp a "Delivered By Royal Mail" postmark on all letters and other items to distinguish post delivered by the group and its competitors. The Chief Executive said the new mark would ensure that postmen and women get recognition for the vital task they complete every working day.

To which I can only say…. Why? Why is it that everyone has to be "recognized" for simply doing the job they are being paid to do?

Mind you if ever a postman deserves recognition, then surely it is a guy called Graham Eccles, who lives in Bude in the south west corner of England, who was so disgusted with the sky-rocketing price of mail deliveries that he applied for – and won - a license allowing him to deliver letters locally and for which he charges half the rate demanded by Royal Mail to deliver them six days a week on his 20 mile round. He launched his service on April Fools' Day and sold out of his first stock of 480 stamps within two days.

The fact is that we, as a nation, have been having a public debate on the future of the Royal Mail for over 30 years. With the coming of the internet, email has all but killed off letters, while at the same time the Royal Mail appears just to be a glorified parcel delivery service for Amazon and other online retailers.

But in fairness, the norm is for letters and parcels posted in the UK to (eventually) reach their destination, unlike many countries around the world where the only guarantee of delivery is to use a dedicated courier service. In the decade in which I lived in the Middle East I can honestly say I never once received a letter addressed to me in anything less that a month after it was posted, if at all. And I'm sorry to say that here in Beijing I am still awaiting a Christmas present posted to me six months ago and which I doubt I will ever see.

Yes, we Brits certainly love to whinge about anything and everything, especially state run enterprises; but sometimes living away from one's own country can open one's eyes and treat one to a good healthy dose of reality.

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