I once had a holiday job sorting postcards in Weymouth Post Office. It was wearing work. They sat you on a high stool in front of a 12×12-slot sorting frame which had names like Bromsgrove, Kidderminster and Coventry printed on tags in metal holders beneath each mahogany cubby hole. Then they brought you a solid three-foot long slab of postcards for sorting. You could tell which of the great factories in the midlands and all stations north were closed for the week by the way the cards quickly stacked up in certain slots in the sorting frame.
At first the job looked dead easy but after ten minutes your arms started to drop off. Glasgow was bad enough on the top row but worst of all was reaching up to Aberdeen in the far top right-hand corner. Towards the end of a six-hour shift you were inclined to mis-sort Scotland to Rugby and let them sort it out. A pint of Devenish’s in the Golden Lion or the Boot was never as good as after one of those soporific sessions. As sorters we were not supposed to read the cards but the saucy ones made a welcome break from all those the ‘wish you were here’ lies.
Weymouth in those days still displayed a Victorian swish that sat well on the long sweep of fine sand that arced around the bay. The blues and whites of the Georgian houses along the esplanade matched the hair rinses of the ladies who took up temporary abode there. A fine, decorated Victorian Jubilee clock stood proudly on the promenade, overlooking the spot at which sand castle competitions were held. Underneath the clock was where you made your date with one of the many French girls with which the town was blessed thanks to a flourishing student exchange scheme. From the clock it was but a few minutes’ walk to the King George statue—not that many people bothered with the history lesson they might have read there. Had they taken an interest, they would have learnt that the town owed its development to King George III, who thought the waters of Weymouth bay were beneficial to his ills.
None of the French girls were fans of that particular George; they preferred a certain Mr Harrison. However, there was something else in the vicinity that they liked just as much as the Beatles, something which they could not find in Paris or Deauville. But I’ll come to that in a minute.
In the sorting office, someone had found a threatening letter addressed to the Her Majesty the Queen. They had special procedures in place to deal with such cases and old Charlie was well aware of them. In those days, Royal Mail collection vans were red Morris Minors. They looked like ladybirds with no spots. When they came in, the routine was for the posties to tip their bags out into a tray bigger than a full-size billiard table. Postmen stood around this table and did a first rough sort. At the sight of the hate letter, complete with lewd drawings and scrawled messages, the first thing old Charlie did was to yell “don’t touch it!”. Then he cleared a big space around it. By rights the next step was to call the fire brigade but old Charlie had seen plenty of these nut-case missives in his time so he slipped his monocle out of the top pocket of his uniform and screwed it to his eye. That was, I think, the only time I ever saw anyone use a monocle. “Let’s’ave a gander at this”. The others drew back in unison like a shoal of sardines taking evasive action from a predator.
“Zis is, ow you say? Zee knees of ze bees!” French girls were not interested in spotty Weymouth youths with their ruddy scrubbed faces and slow-witted ways. They were not, however, averse to leading them on in order to get themselves taken to the place of their dreams: an ice-cream parlour that served that most divine of seaside delights, a cornet of Italian ice-cream with a Cadbury’s Flake poked deep inside. “Mmm, zis is so good…” and the spotty youths, with jaws dropped to their knees, watching the girls’ lips close about the chocolate bar… then at times, if they were lucky, seeing a tongue flick to lick up a stray dribble of ice-cream tricking along the cornet… “what eez it zat you are looking at?”
Meanwhile, back at the GPO, a surly voice was saying to old Charlie, “follow the procedure, old man, call the fire service…” Charlie was at the end of his shift, the Golden Lion beckoned, he’d seen it all before, this one was no different. “Nah, no need for that. There’ll be nothing inside”. He was right, of course, the poison pen merchants knew their letters would never reach their destination, so they concentrated their bile on the outside of the envelopes.
So Charlie laid his peaked cap over the letter and mouthed ‘bang’ at the surly voice. And that was the last we saw of the letter. Charlie took it home and burnt it, like he always did. “Wouldn’t want to bother ma’am with such things, no need for ‘er to see them”. He was a kind man was old Charlie. The same could not be said of the owner of the surly voice.
Bromsgrove, Kidderminster, Bristol, Glasgow … the postcards flew into their cubby-holes. After a while you developed the knack of flicking them with just the right impetus for them to nestle in their destination with the minimum of effort. Occasionally, there would be no address on a card. People would write home with careful instructions not to forget to feed the goldfish, issue plaintive pleas to go and get Grandma’s pills that she kept in a Typhoo tea tin on her kitchen dresser, give details of when the works train would be arriving in Liverpool…. All to no avail because they had forgotten to write an address on the card. Those were the sort of people who gave Royal Mail a bad name with their snide comments: “they take on students to do men’s jobs…”, “in the old days you could post a card in the evening and you knew it would arrive the following morning…”
Then old Charlie got hauled up in front of the postmaster. Forty years in her majesty’s service and proud of it. He protected her, he wouldn’t have complained had a booby-trapped letter blown off a finger or two; he would have considered it his duty and an honour. He loved the Post Office. He didn’t deserve to lose his job in the way he did.
The fun went out of sorting after that. Mind you, the surly voice did end up in Radipole Lake. It seems those Morris Minor vans had dodgy brakes, at least the one he drove did. It was rather silly of him to park by the edge of the water like that.
Whether or not old Charlie got reinstated I couldn’t tell you. I must confess that at the time the lure of French lips was more enticing.