Richard Herring finds it’s bedlam at the post office
Friday 9 May 2014
In Victorian times, Londoners could pay a penny to visit Bedlam and laugh at the antics of the mentally ill. Luckily, we live in more enlightened times and now you can get the same service for free by visiting your local Post Office (it makes its money on the mark-up on the stamp).
Shepherd’s Bush Post Office is a particularly entertaining performance. On my last visit, the queue was predictably long and languorous but the customers were waiting with only mild impatience. If we weren’t going to complain when the government sold off the Post Office’s back-end service, the Royal Mail, cheaply to their mates, then we’re not going to moan about being treated like cattle on the way to the slaughter. Take our cash and dehumanise us. And then, for a laugh, lose and misdeliver all our parcels. You won’t hear a peep!
But a champion against injustice was about to arrive. Unlike most superheroes, he was quite drunk and slightly unhinged. He had hollow cheeks and white hair and an incongruous red baseball cap. He stumbled into the building, took a look at the queue and started loudly heckling the world in general: ‘Look at this. What’s going on?’
The rest of us smiled; like all the best social commentators, he was saying what we were all thinking. He sang an adagissimo rendition of Why Are We Waiting? The Post Office employees, relatively safe behind their glass screen, ignored him. We smiled uneasily for fear things might turn nasty.
‘You need to put more staff on,’ he observed. ‘The queue’s too long.’ He had certainly nailed the problem. Dizzy with the success of his satire, he inexplicably started up a rousing verse of Humpty Dumpty. Perhaps realising this had little relevance, he ad-libbed a new last line: ‘All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men, couldn’t be bothered to help and just sat in their chairs doing nothing.’ He was prouder of this than he should have been. It barely even scanned. He was no Michael McIntyre.
‘What’s happened to this country?’ he moaned and I feared that this ethnically mixed group of citizens was about to be subjected to a slightly less insane version of a Ukip candidate’s Twitter feed. But he was drunk, not racist. ‘There aren’t even any chairs!’ Perhaps in the past people in queues were provided with sumptuous sofas.
‘Where’s the toilet?’ he suddenly screamed. ‘I am going to p*** myself.’ Then he ominously threatened: ‘I’ll just go here.’ Now everyone looked properly worried, especially those, like me, within the splash zone. ‘I am going to s*** myself,’ he continued. ‘Oops! I’ve done it already!’ He laughed so it was probably a joke. But like all the best jokes it smacked of potential truth and I awaited the pungent punchline.
An employee, finally moved into action by the threat of effluent, came to assist him. I do not envy Post Office staff their job. I find it terrifying being in this place for 30 minutes, so they deserve a medal for going in every day. None of this is their fault.
‘I just want to pick up my money and get to the bloody pub,’ he yelled. He was asked to stop swearing. ‘I apologise for swearing, everyone,’ he shouted. ‘But I might swear again in a minute for which I am also sorry.’ He was pathetic but in an endearing way and no more pathetic than the rest of us, who stoically accepted our ridiculous lot.
If Victorians were paying to watch this, which of us would they be laughing at the most?