The Sharp End: Postman dings twice

In MT's monthly snapshot of life at the economic coal-face, Dave Waller heads for the Haymarket postroom...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This month's Sharp End takes a twist. I'm being sent to the Haymarket postroom, for a different slant on how our own firm runs. And if a load of anthrax powder suddenly appears in the editor's mail, that's completely coincidental.

I arrive early at our Teddington office. The young graduate types head for the upper floors, to their ergonomic chairs, ironic posters and sleek iMacs. I'm sent into the bowels of the building - a cold, white-bricked room of mail bags and trolleys. If the company were the Titanic, which it obviously isn't, I've left Kate Winslet to pop to the loo, and wound up in the boiler room.

I'm offered a friendly handshake by Keith Curtis, the logistics manager, who sits at a long desk, one eye on a CCTV monitor. He says the postroom's remit extends beyond handling the mail, to include deliveries, stationery supplies and the warehouse.

It's a hectic place. Keith is constantly interrupted by heads popping round the door to ask questions and couriers wandering in, dumping stuff or taking things away. The postroom sends out £35k of post a month. Keith's small crew also handles all the goods and couriers, signing in 40,000 deliveries every year.

The bulging sacks arrive, and the first job is to sort the mail. It's all about muscle memory - flinging envelopes into the pigeonholes on automatic pilot. My approach is more pedestrian: reading the name several times while trying to remember my instructions, then basing my decision around the words 'that'll do'. Having been at the other end of the chain, I can picture the poor sod upstairs muttering 'who the hell is Sean McGarragle?'.

I'm always impressed when the post guys know who I am, especially as I usually go below deck only when I'm expecting another Seinfeld box-set from Amazon. 'Remembering names comes with time,' says Keith, who reckons he knows 80% of the staff here. Not bad when he's meeting the demands of 1,000 who all appear to be doing the same thing.

That's what hits me when I join one of the temps, Ollie, in the lift to the first floor, with a trolley full of stationery supplies. Ding! The door opens on rows of furrowed brows, bodies motionless save for fingers earnestly clattering across keyboards. 'Look at these poor idiots stuck at their desks,' I think. 'What a way to spend your life.' Then I realise that's what I do all day.

Ollie, who's still on his first week, says he'd be bored out of his skull with a desk job, and a former post at Saga drove him mental. 'I like a bit of graft,' he says. This may not qualify as hard labour, but a recent pedometer test showed Keith's team covering around four miles a day.

It turns out nearly all the post staff are temps. One of them, Marlon, recently got a business degree. The state of the economy inspired him to take the first job he could.

Keith hasn't had great luck recruiting. A bloke he took on in September went sick almost immediately and he hasn't seen him since. The rumours involve the amputation of gangrenous toes. A first-jobber would be looking at £15k a year.

Ollie, 30, was recently made redundant when the warehouse he ran closed down - because of 'this credit crunch thing'. But he's not one for licking his wounds. 'My ethic is that I'll do anything,' he says. 'It doesn't matter, as long as it pays the bills.'

We continue our circuits: back to base, load up the trolley, and back up in the lift. Ding! Zipping around the identical floors delivering post to the right desks. It's like a video game - only missing a time limit, extra lives and people ripping each other's spines out. That's probably happening on the top floor.

The closest we come to an end-of-level baddie is someone to whom we've been told to deliver a chair. 'Apparently she's quite miserable, this one,' says Ollie. Our reception is suitably frosty.

We lunch in the postroom, discussing fights with wives, life in Hackney, and the likelihood of getting stabbed. I notice a courier has come in and made himself at home with a copy of the Sun.

Someone pops down asking whether we've taken delivery of a bird cage. Turns out she's just bought an African Grey parrot. 'I want something that's going to talk to me,' she says. 'Buy a monkey,' Keith suggests. 'I don't need to,' she says, 'I work with them.' Banter is key to postroom life. The job is repetitive, but the constant flow of people makes the whole thing seem a laugh. The woman leaves the boiler room to go back to the promenade deck, asking Keith to watch out for a 15kg bag of bird food.

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