Posts Tagged ‘post office’

blake-newtonI wanted to get a pension forecast from the Government. It used to be that you stuck in your National Insurance number and out the forecast popped. But now you have to verify your identity, online. This was an interesting, though ultimately fruitless waste of a few hours with neither the Government nor the Post Office happy I was who I said I was.
I’d offered my driving licence, recent P60, debit card details, and national insurance number. I’d offered my address, email, mobile phone number, and mug-shot. Still, they would not oblige. Did I have a passport? No, mine expired years ago. No matter, what will really do the trick are those records of credit history held on file by the mysterious credit ratings agencies.
Well, that’s fine, except I’ve never had a credit card, or a mobile phone contract. I’ve never paid HP for my car, television, fridge etc. But without that credit history, one is only part way towards a verifiable identity.  I’ve always suspected my credit history was a problem – I mean the fact I don’t have one. So far as I know, it’s not against the law not to have one, not against the law not to have a credit card. It’s a personal choice, but it also makes you something of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.
The use of credit exploded in the nineties as a result of wage stagnation. It enabled us to maintain the illusion of a shiny consumer lifestyle in the face of a chronic economic downturn that was not and will never be fixed. Can’t afford that nice car? No problem, £300 a month and it’s yours.  I appreciate the world’s entire economy is based on debt, that indeed debt is how money is created in the first place. I don’t understand how that works so, to whatever extent it is possible, I prefer not to partake of it for fear of accidents.
My approach is called Granny Economics, at least according to one smarmy economics lecturer I encountered, around the time of that credit explosion.  But I’ve stuck with Granny Economics. One of the lessons of the depression of the 1920’s, that my grandma lived through, is there’s always a risk your debts will drag you under. Plus, when you work it out, you’re paying twice the price for something on tick than if you paid for it up front. Sure I can see the advantage for the guy who collects on that debt, but I am not that guy. I’m just trying to manage my finances as best I can within the bounds of my means, and my competence.
So the question is, who am I? Do I even exist? Well, it depends on who you ask.
A while ago, the cameras on the Dartford bridge decided I’d driven over it and not paid the toll. They were sure they knew who I was from a computer’s scan of a car registration plate. The same computer posted out the fine. The fact I live three hundred miles away, that the photograph of the miscreant vehicle was clearly not my car, that the computer could not tell the difference between a “V” and a “Y” on a number plate, cut no mustard. Indeed, the help-line guy was rude, and perfectly assured he (or rather his computer) knew who I was.
“It was clearly you, sir.”
Thus, we have a sense of the world forming itself into the image of a machine. It’s not a particularly smart machine either, and lacks the discrimination of a human being who can easily tell the difference between a “Y” and a “V”, and if not, they can be persuaded to admit to the possibility of a mistake. But if you don’t fit the narrow mechanistic parameters defining “identity”, you’re going to have a hard job accessing any of the services afforded by your membership of this increasingly Kafkaesque society, whose foundation is a system that admits to no error, yet makes errors all the time.
I’ll manage without my pension forecast for now, thanks, Mr Gov.uk. I won’t be drawing it for some years yet, and can guestimate it pretty well for my present purposes. I suppose I could try to renew my passport and thereby try to convince you of my identity that way – though I would rather spare myself the expense, since it’s unlikely I will be needing it for travel any time soon. Plus already I am imagining the bureaucracy it might involve. Will you, for example, want details of the passport I have not got? As for obtaining a credit card, I mean, so I can start racking up an identifiable trail of serviceable debt to verify my existence that way, well, without any credit history to begin with, I can forget that, can’t I?
The conclusion I draw from all of this is, while I clearly exist to myself, the machinery of the state remains unconvinced.  Is that a bad thing? We’ll find out in due course, I suppose, like when I come to apply for that state-pension. In the meantime, it’s given me something to write about, and to further ponder the meaning of my existence, when my existence has apparently acquired itself, as yet, no verifiable details.

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portrait of the artists wife - La Thangue - 1859-1929I posted a letter today. Not much to comment on about that, you might think, except the whole experience of that letter has given me pause. I wrote it with a pen on plain A4 paper – four sheets, two for the letter, and a further sheet each for a poem. No, I wasn’t submitting work to a publisher – heaven forbid, and thank goodness those days are over! It was to a friend of a friend, an amateur poet, like me, but of an older generation for whom the idea of email, or blogging, or indeed any form of digital communication are alien concepts. She had written to me before Christmas, a personal hand-written letter, and I had felt awkward responding with impersonal print.

So, out came the Harvey Makin pen, (note shameless brand-dropping) I had thought it a somewhat redundant Christmas present to myself, since I rarely “write” anything with a pen at all these days. But suddenly, there I was, pen poised over a sheet of paper. (£16.99 from the local garden centre – the pen, not the paper). I don’t know who Harvey Makin is, and forgive me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like an “antique” brand targeted at the old fuddy-duddy traditional types, who frequent garden centres on wet winter Sundays, while hiding its usual ultra-modern Chinese manufacture. But the pen has a good weight, and makes a smooth mark. Yes, Harvey Makin, whoever he is, made the writing of that letter feel special. He added a sense,… of occasion.

I did cheat, however.

It seems I have forgotten how to write spontaneously. I sat a while staring at that first sheet of virgin paper, afraid to make a mark because, well,… a pen-mark is not deletable – there are no second chances, no back-tabbing. Short of a clean sheet, we have no choice but to plough on, once we have begun. So, I drafted it first on the computer before copying it all down by hand – rather a backwards way of working, but never mind.

The first thing I noticed was how inefficient the written word is, compared with print. What had been a few column inches of 12 point type on the computer screen expanded like crazy-foam to fill two sheets of A4 in no time at all. Perhaps the sheer physical volume of the hand-written word discouraged a verbosity in olden times to which we are more prone today. The other thing I noticed was how using a pen for anything more substantial than a shopping list makes your hand and arm stiffen painfully.

Stamps are quite expensive things now – 60p for first class. I’m not sure how much it costs to send an e-mail, but it must be fractions of a penny. Demand for hand-written letter deliveries is falling. We’re therefore losing economies of scale, so the price of stamps must go up still more, thus further hastening the decline of posted letters to the point where the post boxes are being decommissioned and all the postman brings me these days, apart from my online purchases, is machine franked junk.

That stamp added a seal of something to the envelope, conferring upon its contents a degree of worth they perhaps did not deserve. It also got me thinking about the slower snail-mail way we used to do things. It got me thinking too about that box of love letters in the attic.

My girlfriends wrote good letters, their handwriting always so much better than mine. And stamps, looking so quaint in their design, and the Queen so young, perhaps even moistened by a kiss – the stamps, not the Queen – still have the power to fire the imagination. I mean, that these women should have taken the trouble to sit with pen and paper, and aching hand, spontaneously expressing themselves, without back-tabbing or endless redrafting,.. and it’s not without significance – at least to me – that they thought of me, while they wrote! My last love letter is dated 1986, marking the end of an affair. It echoes fresh from long ago, and bitter-sweet memories rise anew from the flow of a woman’s hand, porting me back in time a quarter of a century. Ah,… the abiding magic of the written word!

Emails by contrast, I tend not to keep. They lack gravity, and personality.

It’s a pity – this decline in the hand written form – though inevitable, I suppose. But we have learned so much about the lives of others through their letters, ribbon bound and kept in shoe-boxes, preserved as each the encapsulation of a moment from that person’s life. Now the world is criss-crossed with invisible aether-channels into which we tap with our devices – devices to which we are enslaved, emailing, blogging and tweeting our sweet nothings – things of no import and to nobody in particular – and which can be so easily deleted to save precious cloud-space, or embarrassment. What shall we leave for future historians to ponder? Will our blogs, our emails, our tweets, still be around a hundred, two hundred years from now?

The letter sat upon my desk for a few days while I found the opportunity to take it to the post-box. And as the time passed, it assumed a more self-important air – those contents, sealed with gum, seeming to mature within, and the address so boldly displayed, a magical incantation that would speed my missive to its goal. I posted it this morning, outside the Post Office in town – pushed it, after a momentary pause, into the red pillar box with the official markings, gave it up into the care of the almighty postal system. It’s a system that’s been establishing lines of communication, and mapping out the bounds of civilisation, for centuries, but seems suddenly anachronistic. In a generation, it will be gone, this way of doing things.

I had not realised.

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