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Icon of the month: The Royal Mail

Catherine von Ruhland

Iconmail.jpg I can walk to a local post office within 500 yards of my home, and for less than a quid send a slim paperback book and covering letter to any address in Britain.  Less than half the price without the book.  By any standards, that's a bargain - it takes a lot of emails to pay off the cost of the computer you're writing on, its power source and the internet access.

However, it's not simply the basic consumer economics that give our national mail network a value, a value that tends to be ignored in the slashing of the number of Post Offices and the disputes between the Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union.

Without wishing to get all Larkrise to Candleford about things, a respected postal service runs deep in our national culture. Take literature: Bram Stoker's Dracula is a paean to letter-writing; Sherlock Holmes could not have cracked many of his cases without the five-times-a-day (count 'em!) deliveries; and John Keats and Fanny Brawne's romance would have stalled - and the beautiful poetry with it - without the to-ing and fro-ing of their love letters. (Does anyone even write and keep proper love letters anymore? If not that's a shame, not least because the invention of the post box led to a new independence for women - the ability to communicate with other people undetected.)  In cinema I defy anyone to look up Night Mail (1936) on YouTube and not be gripped by momentum of the system, as well as W.H Auden's rattling lyrics.  Or not feel the plaintive weight of his final stanza: 'None will hear the postman's knock without a quickening of the heart, for who can bear to feel himself forgotten?'

Perhaps it is that personal door-to-door delivery service that makes being a postal worker a noble profession.  The personal counts elsewhere too. Given that what lands on the doormat (at no set time) tends to consist mostly of junk mail, personal handwritten letters and postcards have, by their increasing rarity, more significance than ever before. As it happens, the aforementioned booksending - in this instance a collection of meditations - is a little postal ministry God has given me, and I've been  moved by the letters I've received in return.

Mail carriers also command a visible presence. They develop a street knowledge of their community that is at least equal to the local police officer or church minister.  Wherever you live they've probably either lugged or trolleyed the mail to you on foot.  By the trail of red elastic bands shall ye know them.

Deliveries are made by bicycle too. While the US Postal Service has won the Tour de France - albeit only as sponsor - British posties on their trusty red English Pashleys cut a different kind of dash.

(While we're talking down-to-earth images of the Royal Mail, have you seen Postman Pat's latest appearance in the TV ad for Specsavers? The mis-delivery of mail is just the beginning. The satirical metaphor continues with a mail van swerving off the road to demonstrate a service going in the wrong direction. When poor Pat flattens his spectacles you just know that someone is telling you that the Royal Mail has lost sight of the service it should be offering.)

Since the late 19th century the attempt to streamline the system has seen manual jobs replaced by machines. Ironically, though, the more online our lives, the more we demand parcels through our doors. In the ongoing drive for efficiency, however, the Royal Mail has had its core value chipped away. 

Once its respected and respectful local service made it a truly personal operation, whether that be the familiar face at the door or at the Post Office counter. Just as important was the trust that this happened countrywide. The Royal Mail and its regal red livery represented a reliable and dependable institution that would take care of our most individual needs.  As it forgets that, those increasingly redundant solid red pillar boxes on our street corners should stand as a timely warning to that other ageing street level institution, the church. What counts most are the people.