In London last week I was paying for stamps in a post office, having waited in a queue to do so for the longest possible time, to be met with, “Foreign money, eh?” and a suspicious turning from one side to the other of the crisp £20 note I’d just handed over. Then the very jolly postmaster – originally from Delhi, he later told me – turned to his wife, who was also serving customers, and let out a great pleased-with-himself laugh. “Foreign money indeed, for you see, it’s Scottish!” he cried, and she joined in with the fun. “And therefore,” I was then able to say, when the laughter had died down, “thank goodness, and for now, at least...The money is not foreign at all.”
At this, the whole queue erupted into a relieved discussion about the benefits of Union. “Let’s make sure Scotland never becomes a foreign country to the rest of the UK” was the general consensus in the “post-only” line of Patels Newsagents and Post Office, though the stationery queue – ‘Small items up to £10, including stamps’ – was also in broad agreement. “Never! For where would we all be?” said the woman behind me who’d never even been to Scotland – “I’ve never left Hammersmith, me!” – but had all kinds of friends who had, and family who had moved there or always lived there. “I mean, we’re all connected that way, isn’t that right?” said a builder who was towards the back.
By now everyone seemed to have forgotten about the length of the wait for stamps and parcel posting and passport forms and cash withdrawals and all the important things we need to go to post offices for and, hopefully, despite the terrible privatisation of The Royal Mail, will continue to be able to do so. For how we hold close to our British hearts the red postbox. The post office. And the postmaster – whether he was this gentleman from Delhi or Sandy at the Spar in Rogart, which is easily the nicest post office in the world.
Wherever you find yourself, village or town, red box or a post-it slot through the wall, postmaster or postmistress, postal services are key. Part of a community. Part of the wider discussion, I think, about who we are, what makes us human. Pray that post offices stay open down the length and breadth of Britain and that there’s always a person, not a machine, to give you stamps and talk to you about how long the parcel will take to reach New Zealand.
More than anything, to my mind, these services involving people getting together in a relatively small space, standing in a queue to wait to be served, in discussion with each other about the weather or the price of electricity... represent an idea of society that is not based on convenience and commodification and technical ease but is, rather, shaped around values like communication and sensitivity towards others in our interactions and a kind of... care, I could even describe it as. A code of ethics that might well be articulated in those stickers you see on brown manila packages: Fragile. This way up. Do not bend. For we all have our own ways of getting our messages across, doing things the way we do them; it’s a case of respecting the differences.
In a post-referendum Scotland, post offices are even more important for keeping conversation live and convivial and interesting and empathetic, as well as being places for a jolly good general chat and a bit of a laugh. The “bants” as my younger daughter Katherine calls it. Having a banter about this, that and the other. Having some fun while discussing the situation that exists between England and Scotland with regard to the future of those two countries after Brexit and a reframed Britain.
“I was dead relieved you wanted to stay with us” a younger woman confided as I went to leave the queue in London to carry on with my afternoon. By then the whole line had been in discussion about the outcome of the 2014 and ’16 plebiscites, voicing anxieties that Nicola Sturgeon was going to promote another referendum and what would happen with us all as far as Europe was concerned if she got her way.
It occurred to me then how much my own up and down life, and that of all of us who are up here and also down there, puts us in a key position for gauging English/Scottish sentiment around national matters.
Tabloids and broadsheets both, south of the Border, could do with an injection of some Scotsman thinking into their pages, it seems to me – just to keep their readers up to date with the country’s view of how things stand.
And we could do with a bit of English point-of-view here, too, that’s not clouded by notions of entitlement or Westminster’ishness. As it is, I fear, a lot of readers down South are under the impression we’re all held in line by Sturgeon and her party, railing disconsolately against our English neighbours and just itching to bust out and sing “Flower of Scotland” while rattling cabers.
It seems that most ordinary English people think Scotland is not happy with them, somehow, while not quite knowing why. I feel there’s a job for a journalist from this paper to start pinging out missives from the north on a weekly basis, letting people know down there that a very different side of the story exists to the one being put about us so effectively by the SNP.
In fact, the kind of reporter I have in mind, this bringer of news... I’m just starting to think he or she could well begin by filing copy from a neighbourhood post office near you.