Post Office [Warning: a long and sorry tale]

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I now remember why I can't remember when I last visited a Post Office, if you see what I mean. If you don't, then read on; you will.

At lunchtime today I wasted 45 minutes of my life trying to do what should have been the simplest of things. All I needed to do was to buy two envelopes and some stamps. Those nice people at Panasonic have offered to send me three free Blu-Ray DVDs for the cost of a stamped, self-addressed envelope, so I took the opportunity to visit the Post Office while Westminster was looking like a scene from 28 Days Later (without the Rage) due to the Tube strike, in the hope of being served before the offer expires at the end of this month.

The initial signs on arrival at Post Office were promising; the usual throng of customers – which often used to snake outside and down the road before they introduced the new queuing system – was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was light peppering of maybe ten or twelve lost-looking souls waiting to be served at the counters, while the shop area was virtually empty. Step one of my mission, selecting the two envelopes, was quickly accomplished in the stationery section. A "size 4" padded envelope (to which I would need to add my own address and £2.24 in postage) and a slightly smaller, strong A4 manilla envelope in which I would send the padded one off to Panasonic.

There was just one customer ahead of me at the shop till, so I imagined I'd be on my way within a matter of minutes. I was wrong. The person in front was looking to send an oddly-shaped package to Toronto, which involved weighing it and then discussing the various carriage options with the cashier, who sounded exactly like June Brown and looked like she might have been her younger sister. After what seemed like a five-minute conversation about the various benefits of different levels of postal insurance, the customer deciding "Oh, just go for the best one, the company's paying anyway." Then the form-filling began; I have never seen anyone fill in a customs declaration so slowly. Eventually, the package was handed over to Ms Brownalike, who proceeded to enter the delivery address from the package into her computer at a snail’s pace, before carefully peeling off a couple of self-adhesive bar codes and placing them with millimetric precision onto the customs form. Then came the payment, which to be fair was handled with aplomb, but just seemed to extend the torture of waiting to be served. By now, there were three people queuing behind me, and while I’d been waiting a further two had given up and left.

But joy of joys, it was now my turn to speak to Ms Brownalike. I decided against remarking on her resemblance to Albert Square’s resident God-botherer lest she take offence and render my seemingly interminable wait fruitless. I handed over the two envelopes, explained that I also needed £2.24 in stamps to apply to the padded one, and asked how much it would cost to send that first class as a self-addressed envelope, inside the manila one.

Then it started. "Well, I can't tell you 'ow much it will cost to send it, 'cos you 'aven't put anythin' in it yet, 'ave you?" I explained again that the padded envelope was just being sent as an SAE, so it wouldn’t have anything in it. I offered to put the two envelopes on the nearby postal scales so she could tell me what it would cost. "It don’t work like that for first class," she informed me, "it's about 'ow big it is." I counted to ten and asked politely what this it would cost to send an envelope of that size, with the padded one inside. "Well, you won’t get one inside the other, they’re about the same size to start with. And that padded one's too big for first class on its own – it says on it: 'PACKET'." She then produced a plastic template with a letter-box sized slot in it, and declared helpfully, "It's got to fit through there to go as a letter, and that padded one won't." I smiled wryly, and explained my cunning plan: I would fold the padded one in half, allowing it to fit easily inside the manila one. "Oh, I see. Well it's goin' to be too thick for the slot if you do that."

Steadily losing the will to live, I persevered in trying to helpful, while offering an embarrassed apology to growing queue of people behind me. I actually took the padded envelope (for which I hadn't even yet paid), folded it in two, and placed it inside the manila one, then proceed to demonstrate to Ms Brownalike the ease with which it was capable of passing through her blessed slot. "Yes, but you're pushing it through. It’s bound to go through if you push it." I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. Enough is enough, I thought, and decided I needed to be firm with her. "Look, it clearly fits through – how much does it cost to send it as a large letter first class?" "66p." Just getting to this stage felt like a minor victory. "But I don’t reckon it's right," she added mournfully.

"I'll take the chance," I replied, "and I also need £2.24 in stamps to put on the padded envelope." Her eyes lit up as she exclaimed, "'Ow do you know that, then?" "I'm sorry?" "That's goin' to be packet rate. 'Ow do you know 'ow much – there ain't anything in it yet." Frantically searching my rapidly depleting ****nal of expressions of mild exasperation, I alighted on 'the deep breath'. I explained that the company I was sending it to had requested I attached that amount of postage, and I was happy to take their word for it as they knew what they'd be sending me by return. "Oh," she said, "well, I don't sell stamps in them odd amounts. You'll have to use the machine." While her inability to sell me the stamps I needed didn't really surprise me at this point, the notion of being able to get them from a vending machine (for which there was also a small queue) seemed implausible. "Can I really get £2.24's worth of stamps from the machine?" I asked. "Oh, I dunno, probably not come to think of it. You'll have to go to the counter." I managed to stop short of rolling my eyes, stamping my feet and having a full-blown tantrum there and then.

Determined that dignity would prevail, I calmly handed over a fiver to pay for the two envelopes and the first class stamp, took my change and apologised again to the lady who'd been waiting patiently behind me throughout. I actually admired her pluck: she knew by now exactly what she was in for, yet she hadn’t decided to turn tail. It’s that kind of dauntless resolve in the face of adversity that won us the war, y'know. I, on the other hand, was now about to face my next battle. I did consider just beating a hasty retreat, but the fact that the queue for the main counters had not grown during my Kafka-esque episode at the stationery desk persuaded me otherwise.

In order to get to the counters, you first need to arm yourself with a numbered ticket – an idea they've clearly lifted from the supermarket deli counter. Did I say 'arm yourself'? That's not quite right. No, it seems the Post Office employs its very own 'armourer', a liveried gentleman whose sole task it is to enquire as to which queue you require (general, foreign exchange, and something else) and then issue you with the appropriate ticket. I couldn't decide whether this was charming, bizarre or just a monumental waste of money, so I suspect all three boxes could be ticked without demur.

Anyway, ticket number 90 in hand, I progressed to the array of red banquettes to await my calling, somewhat reassured to see that there were four positions open and, if the numbers were to be believed, only ten people ahead of me. In fact, as the figures on the LED displays climbed ever closer to mine, I decided to see if I could predict who was about to respond to the next number. It wasn’t much of a game, to be honest. The man sitting opposite me constantly looked like he was on edge, so each time I wrongly assumed it would be him. Numbers 85 and 87 had no takers, although the cashiers had clearly been trained to look forlornly around the room for at least half a minute to see whether the holder of the lucky ticket had maybe dozed off, or was just shuffling vaguely in the direction of the counter. But no, these two had clearly absconded – or perhaps they'd eloped with each other in a case love at first sight; who knows...

Eventually the numbers ticked around to 89, and the edgy man I'd flunked all my bets on finally got to his feet. And then it was my turn to head to counter 6. As I stood up, I noticed a dapper but frail-looking chap in a linen jacket and boater was standing there already. I checked my ticket – it definitely said 90. I checked the display above the counter – that said 90, too. So who was this interloper? I held back a little to see how the cashier would handle the matter. Turned out that the chap was just asking for some advice and, no doubt hailing from an era when customer service was not governed by a ticket machine, he had simply sauntered up to the counter. By this time I was past caring, and in any case I'd never be so churlish as to assert myself over an elderly gentleman.

In a trice, the cashier had dealt with his enquiry and explained that she had a customer waiting, and the man offered an unnecessary apology and departed. I assumed my position at the counter and said, "I need stamps to the value of £2.24, please." It must be 10 years or more since I last bought stamps at a Post Office counter, but it was somehow reassuring to see that they were still extracted from a big, board-bound book stuffed with sheets of stamps of different hues and values. While the cerise £1 ones came with the new-fangled self-adhesive backing, the 20p and 2p ones, in different shades of green, still had the traditional gummed backing, affording me the pleasure of licking the back of the Queen’s head for the first time in ages.

So there you have it: a cautionary tale of how to waste 45 minutes and the best part of a fiver in the pursuit of three 'free' DVDs. Not even sure I wanted them in the first place, now...

That really did make me chuckle. :thumb::D
You could have simply printed the postage online youself and saved yourself all the hassle it is much easier. No need to go to the PO unless you need to send recorded, special delivery etc but you can still print the postage for them at home yourself.

I'm intrigued ...... please tell me more ......
I'm intrigued ...... please tell me more ......

Pop onto the Royal Mail site - you'll want personal as opposed to business services...

Once in there, you can set up an account and load it up with some funds (or you can pay directly per transaction if it's above a certain amount). Select what service you want, check the size/weight, put in the address, print out onto a label or direct onto the envelope.

Once you've done it a couple of times it's a piece of cake. Doesn't work so well for SAEs as the "stamp" needs to be used within a certain time, but for sending stuff out it's great.

If you need a proof of posting, or it's recorded/special delivery then you still need to go to the post office but all the donkey work has been done and so it's pretty straightforward.
What a fantastic post Mocas, the bare-boned futility of it all was expressed so vividly, and echoes my experiences at that PO. Many an afternoon I have spent perched on the red leatherette, eying the counters and lamenting the senseless, dim drones (that applies equally to staff and customers). During the summer, they made use of a hired industrial fan to shift the air around in that room of dread, and I couldn't help but wonder why, during its recent refurbishment, the A/C wasn't recommissioned.

Some light relief I think is in order:

Monty Python Fish License Sketch
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