:: Article

Dead Letter Office

By Max Dunbar.


Dear Granny Smith: A Letter From Your Postman, Roy Mayall, Short Books 2009

There is grandeur in a worm’s-eye view of life. I remember getting up at 5am to do a weekend shift in a call centre, walking through South Manchester’s dark and empty streets with no hangover, seeing the odd piece of the night’s debris – a half-full pint of beer, a single stilletto littering the pavement – and knowing that there were eight hours on the phones ahead of me but feeling no less exalted for that.

Postmen are the laureates of the silly o’clock start and Roy Mayall’s postcard-sized book is full of lyrical passages about the times when shift workers own the streets. ‘That lovely, soft golden light of the early morning, listening to the birds singing, the suburban gardens all bursting with flowers. And there’s just you, the milkman, a few dog-walkers, and the occasional late-night reveller who’s winding his way home from the night before… It’s like the whole earth has grown bigger, like it has taken in a breath and expanded itself, is stretching itself to shake off the night.’

Yes, there is grandeur in this view of life; but the resistible rise of the manager class means that Mayall’s job is turning from a public service into a business, compromised by bullying jobsworths, arcane corporate-speak and Taylorist working practices. The bulk of his deliveries now consist of mailsort; pizza flyers, charity leaflets with direct debit forms, offers of credit at crippling APRs; about as far from the romantic ideal of the epistolary form (the wax-sealed envelope, the smell of ink, the lover’s hand) as it is possible to get. Mayall estimates that two thirds of what is delivered today is mailsort; he can say with confidence that it is almost entirely unread. The postal service invests the greater part of its time and money in delivering unread post; a Catch-22 that benefits only management.

Another big change was in the move from contracted workers to temporary and casual labour. During the postal strike recruitment agencies supplied temps as strike-breakers in a low move of dubious legality. Most agency staff have to claim tax credits to get by. They don’t have the same duty of care to their customers; on a derisory wage with alternating routes, why should they? Mayall introduces us to a typical modern worker: ‘He hasn’t had a holiday in years. He has no social life – he can’t afford it – and the job is so exhausting he hardly has a family life either. By 7:30 he’s falling asleep, and by 9:00 he’s in bed.’ This is capitalism’s New Man: someone who works and sleeps and does nothing else.

You might wonder why I concentrate so much on professional memoir, and it’s because I believe, like Harry Flashman, that no time is wasted listening to someone who’s good at their job. Dear Granny Smith is written with warmth, wit and care; it’s a quietly dignified judgement against a management class that would sacrifice humanity for efficiency and end up with neither humanity nor efficiency.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 22nd, 2010.