maandag 6 augustus 2012

Jane Austen, Thomas De Quincey, George Mackay Brown [Postman Pat in Ye Olde Days]

Portrait of Postman Joseph Rolin (1888) by Vincent van Gogh

"Pat feels he's a really happy man" but his happiness will have to overcome some heavy blows when the British Mail will be forced to drastically reorganize itself as the volume of post keeps diminishing.  Here in NL, where the postal service has been privatized as far back as 1989, the service has been competing against companies who could choose to deliver bulk mail only while the postal service was bounded by law to maintain a full 6-day per week delivery service. Unfair competition in combination with dropping volumes (from 5562 billion in 2001 to 4359 billion in 2009, source) and hedge fund pressure to break up the company into two separate companies for post and parcel handling in 2011 conspired against it. The more profitable parcel division was sold to UPS in March 2012, as was the plan all along (source) and the mail division needed to respond with radical new policy to survive and it did so with rigour. 4500 Postal workers are being made redundant and their work is taken over by part timers working for half the wage (source). People like me. Their has been a lot of uproar about this and the trade unions have rightly tried to save as many jobs as possible but in this case I understand that the company needs to survive a dire situation. Alternative to austerity do perhaps exist. The Belgian counterpart Bpost, also privatized, with their current trial is trying to save the traditional service by taking on the secondary job of delivering meals to the elderly (source). But in NL this was deemed financially impossible. In the end the company is merely following prevailing economic logic, and it is, I think, the inevitable outcome of the political decision to liberalize the market. It is just another example of proper jobs being turned into MacJobs, it is just another example of a process in which (unskilled) labourers are marginalized, stripped from their social securities and a chance to make a decent living. This will have long-term consequences to society. Now, having said that, let's look at three historic sources that show to what degree the postal system has lost its importance to society. Quoted are Jane Austen, Thomas de Quincey and George Mackay Brown.   

The English Mail-Coach (1849) by Thomas de Quincey is of course the greatest elegy on the early 19th century postal service, it's also the best illustration to the demise of the postal service as a thing that sparks the imagination. What was "a spiritualized and glorified object to an impassioned heart" is now snail mail.   
These mail-coaches, as organized by Mr. Palmer, are entitled to a circumstantial notice from myself–having had so large a share in developing the anarchies of my subsequent dreams, an agency which they accomplished, first, through velocity, at that time unprecedented; they first revealed the glory of motion: suggesting, at the same time, an under-sense, not unpleasurable, of possible though indefinite danger; secondly, through grand effects for the eye between lamp-light and the darkness upon solitary roads; thirdly, through animal beauty and power so often displayed in the class of horses selected for this mail service; fourthly, through the conscious presence of a central intellect, that, in the midst of vast distances, of storms, of darkness, of night, overruled all obstacles into one steady co√∂peration in a national result. To my own feeling, this post-office service recalled some mighty orchestra, where a thousand instruments, all disregarding each other, and so far in danger of discord, yet all obedient as slaves to the supreme baton of some great leader, terminate in a perfection of harmony like that of heart, veins, and arteries, in a healthy animal organization. But, finally, that particular element in this whole combination which most impressed myself, and through which it is that to this hour Mr. Palmer’s mail-coach system tyrannizes by terror and terrific beauty over my dreams, lay in the awful political mission which at that time it fulfilled. The mail-coaches it was that distributed over the face of the land, like the opening of apocalyptic vials, the heart-shaking news of Trafalgar, of Salamanca, of Vittoria, of Waterloo.
Today most post is sorted by machines, and they do make mistakes. Indeed: while the postal system has modernized the complaints about it have always remained consistently vocal and derogative. But Postman Pat knows that Jane Austen is a fan of his work, as she assures us in Emma (1815):
"The post-office is a wonderful establishment!" said she.—"The regularity and despatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!"
"It is certainly very well regulated."
"So seldom that any negligence or blunder appears! So seldom that a letter, among the thousands that are constantly passing about the kingdom, is even carried wrong—and not one in a million, I suppose, actually lost! And when one considers the variety of hands, and of bad hands too, that are to be deciphered, it increases the wonder."
George Mackay Brown with his father (c 1926) in his work clothes. GMB's own cloths were made of old postman suits.
The poet and writer George Mackay Brown is best known for his 'Orkney Tapestry' one of my favourite evocations of place. As it happens his father was a postman, in Orkney, and in the following poem first published somewhere in the 1950ties he commemorates him. To the topic of Postman Pat Psychogeographix this is a welcome addition as Mackay Brown here shows how the postal round can be used as a narrative device by making use of the unique, fleeting insights the job gives onto the social fabric of the city. The poem follows his father on his rounds through Stromness and, as he slowly progresses through the streets, the poem keeps incorporating stories and sights into a amalgam of images, a psychogeography. 
Hamnavoe
My father passed with his penny letters
Through closes opening and shutting like legends
      When barbarous with gulls
      Hamnavoe's morning broke

On the salt and tar steps. Herring boats,
Puffing red sails, the tillers
     Of cold horizons, leaned
     Down the gull-gaunt tide

And threw dark nets on sudden silver harvests.
A stallion at the sweet fountain
     Dredged water, and touched
     Fire from steel-kissed cobbles.

Hard on noon four bearded merchants
Past the pipe-spitting pier-head strolled,
    Holy with greed, chanting
    Their slow grave jargon.

A tinker keen like a tartan gull
At cuithe-hung doors. A crofter lass
    Trudged through the lavish dung
    In a dream of corn-stalks and milk.

In the Arctic Whaler three blue elbows fell,
Regular as waves, from beards spumy with porter,
    Till the amber day ebbed out
    To its black dregs.

The boats drove furrows homeward, like ploughmen
In blizzards of gulls. Gaelic fisher-girls
     Flashed knife and dirge
     Over drifts of herring.

And boys with penny wands lured gleams
From tangled veins of the flood. Houses went blind
     Up one steep close, for a
     Grief by the shrouded nets.

The kirk, in a gale of psalms, went heaving through
A tumult of roofs, freighted for heaven. And lovers
     Unblessed by steeples lay under
     The buttered bannock of the moon.

He quenched his lantern, leaving the last door.
Because of his gay poverty that kept
     my seapink innocence
     From the worm and black wind;

And because, under equality's sun,
All things wear now to a common soiling,
     In the fire of images
     Gladly I put my hand
     To save that day for him.

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