After arriving back in England from Germany in 1982 I started looking for a job and an opening immediately offered itself. Actually 15 openings at once! In my small town all the postmen had been found to be secretly stashing the mail bags containing the mail of the second delivery of the day. They would then merge this next morning’s mail, thereby obviating the need for a second delivery and allowing them to finish work around 11am. It turned out that this had been going on for so long that locals just assumed the post office had discontinued a second post years ago. All the postmen involved had been sacked and our local post office therefore needed 15 new workers all at once. I applied and got the job.
Being a postman is, or at least was, an enjoyable job. I got up at about 4.20am, had breakfast and then cycled to the post office to help unload the early morning van of mail bags. We cut the strings that tied the bags closed, tipped the bundles of letters out onto the sorting tables, took off the rubber bands and began sorting the letters into the 16 or so different delivery areas in the sorting frame. This generally took about an hour. Then we would each collect the mail for our own deliveries from the sorting frames, go to our desks and further sort the letters into streets, after which we put them in the right order and bundled them up again with rubber bands. These bundles we would put into our bags which in turn were put onto the front carriers of our post office issue bicycles and off into the morning we would ride. In winter it is generally still dark when you go out onto the streets. When it rains you cover the bag with a big, tough plastic bag to keep the letters dry. Sometimes you are on parcel duty rather than letters in which case you drive a van. If you are going to far-flung farms you generally offer to take the letters too, so that the postman or postwoman doesn’t have to cycle all the way there.
We worked 6 days a week with two deliveries from Monday to Friday and just one delivery on Saturday. I would generally be finished around 1pm or 10am on Saturdays. After work I would go home, have something to eat and go to bed for a few hours. Some time during the afternoon I would get up, read a book or watch TV and then go to bed at around 11pm.
One day as I was about to put a letter through a door it suddenly opened and there was a housewife wearing a bikini. She said that she had taken the windows of her bedroom out to clean them but was now having trouble putting them back in. Could I come up an help her? So I took my shoes off, went upstairs, picked up one end of the window while she picked up the other end and together we slid it back into place. She thanked me and we went back downstairs, I put my shoes on and carried on with my delivery. It was only later that it struck me how odd it was that she had been cleaning the windows in a bikini. Maybe I had been a bit naive.
One of the new postmen played for a local football team and he invited me to join his team and soon I was playing for them every Saturday afternoon. We also trained once a week. One or two of the players also played on Sunday mornings and they invited me to join their team. The Leicester post office also had a team that played on Thursday afternoons and played for them too until in the end I was playing three times a week and training on Wednesday evenings. The post office team played against teams that were free in the afternoons: the army, the police, the fruit and veg market stall holders and the inmates of a young offenders centre. The latter generally had one or two warders on their team and whenever an inmate wanted the warden to pass they would shout, ‘Sir! Sir! Over here!’
For some reason games against the police were often bad tempered affairs, either because the police were rough or because many players just didn’t like them. Also games against mainly black or Asian teams would get a bit vicious.
I joined the local snooker club with another postman and we regularly played snooker and darts after work. On Friday lunchtimes after finishing work several of us would go to the pub and occasionally go to someone’s house to continue drinking after the pub closed.
We formed a post office darts team that played every Tuesday night against local pub teams. Our team was a mixture of men and women, young and old and it was great fun. After the matches there would be traditional pub food like faggots, chips and mushy peas that was laid on by the pub. I was our team captain and I was really enjoying my new life back in England.
Since being back I had been living in my mother’s house though she had since moved out to a friend’s house to free up rooms for my German friends who soon started to visit me. After they had gone back my mother decided she wanted to buy a new house, which would mean her first selling the one I was living in. After some umming and ahhing I decided, rather than look around the area for a flat to rent within cycling distance of our post office, that the easiest thing would be for me to buy the house off her. So at 23 I took on a mortgage which my weekly wages just about covered. To supplement my income I worked extra hours at the main sorting office in Leicester a couple of evenings a week. I had almost paid off the mortgage when I sold my house 20 years later.
Sometimes in summer I would visit my friends in Berlin but I was always a bit shocked at the chaos of their lives and how un-bourgeois their lives were compared to mine. One summer a German friend and I, along with two German girls, rented a camper van and drove all the way from Berlin to a camp site in Catalonia. The only things I remember from this trip were the Salvador Dali museum, a scirrocco wind that suddenly arrived and drove us from the beach one afternoon and the argumentative nature of my friend. He had never been that difficult to get on with before and I was relieved when we finally got back to Berlin where we had other friends to mingle with. It turned out he was suffering from depression and a year later he jumped out of a 7-storey building and landed on a roof, broke his legs and some ribs, fractured his skull and is now permanently disabled. A few years after this one of the two girls who came with us to Catalonia committed suicide and was found by her daughter when she came home from school. There is something about modern city life that just isn’t good for some of us.
Back in Leicester my life as a postman was pretty much care-free, what with the football, the snooker, the darts evenings and I also had a girlfriend. Then my annus horribilis arrived. For a couple of years I had been seeing one of the post ladies but one day we had an acrimonious row and split up. In the wake of this she left the post office, never to return. After that things were never quite the same for me. I no longer looked forward to getting to work as I had used to. I missed having someone to laugh and joke with.
A few months later during a football match I ruptured my anterior cruciate ligament, damaged the posterior cruciate and tore my cartilage, all of which put paid to my footballing days.
Until then football and my girlfriend had been the whole of my social life and now with both gone I started to spend far too much time on my own. I would get home from work and either go to bed or read novels by Dostoievsky and Jean Paul Sartre, imagining that writers with foreign names must be deeper than those with English names. I read them not so much for enjoyment as in the hope that they might contain some secret to life. In this spirit of looking for something I re-read Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I had read for first when I was about 19. I enjoyed it again but found I still couldn’t grasp what he was saying about ‘quality’. And strangely no one at the post office wanted to talk about Dostoievsky, Sartre, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or any of the foreign films I watched late at night on the newly established Channel 4.
I felt lonely and gradually became very self-conscious in a way I never had before. This new nervousness grew from a vague sense of unease among large groups of people to pretty much any situation involving people, including just going to the shops. Then it morphed into a general sense of foreboding that was always with me, even when I awoke, and sometimes made my blood feel like it was buzzing in my veins. I had lost all my confidence and even today I have not really regained it.
A postmen I was friendly with asked me to be the best man at his wedding but after several weeks of worrying about the best man’s speech I would have to give I told him I couldn’t do it. Whether I explained my reasons clearly or not I can’t remember. Maybe he thought I was saying I couldn’t attend. Either way he just crossed me off the wedding list and I wasn’t invited.
As a way of getting out of this rut I enrolled in two evening classes at our local high school, both ‘O’ Level courses, one in English Literature and the other in Sociology. ‘O’ Levels were the exams I had failed at 16.
For my Sociology project I chose to analyse newspapers. I learned that small newspapers are called tabloids and big ones are called broadsheets and the latter are more serious, less colourful and have fewer pictures than the former. Some have a conservative slant which is bad, while others are more left-wing which is good. Someone told me that because selling newspapers is a business they tend to be pro-capitalist, and therefore have a right-wing slant. I think I incorporated this gem of wisdom into my final essay. It only occurred to me later that if your public is mostly left-wing then it makes sense to publish a left-wing orientated newspaper, regardless of whether you are involved in a capitalist venture or not.
I found analysing newspapers difficult and in the end I just asked my older brother, who had recently moved in with me, what he thought of them. Unlike me he had always read newspapers, usually the Guardian, and I based my admittedly rubbish final essay on the 5-minute talk he gave me.
My brother had come down from Sheffield and had started working as a milkman in Leicester. Both of us were out of the house by 5am and were home again by lunchtime which meant we had a lot of time our hands in the afternoons. Sometimes we played darts in the living room while listening to pop music. When autumn came around he suggested we take the German ‘A’ Level course together that was being offered at our old High School in the next village. Prior to coming to Leicester he had completed the first year of an ‘A’ Level German course in Sheffield and since I already spoke German we thought it shouldn’t be difficult for me to join an ‘A’ Level course halfway through.
The course was held during normal school hours and we found ourselves in a class with a lone 16-year-old boy, who would otherwise been on his own. Whether he was happy to have two adult men sitting alongside him or would have preferred one-on-one classes with the teacher, I can’t say. Either way it was very odd to be back at our old school. Nothing had really changed: schoolboys still ran up and down the stairs shouting and pushing each other out of the way. Pupils suddenly went quiet and stared at us as we walked past, probably wondering what two men were doing in their school.
My mother also wanted to study something so we decided to take an ‘A’ Level English Literature course at a college in Leicester. That course provided me with my first real contact with lefties. I must have seen such people before on TV but had never actually met any. Now I shared a class with Peter Ponytail, a handsome young man with totally up-to-date views on everything. One or two of the younger women dressed like proto- Social Justice Warriors and no doubt read books from a feminist or socialist perspective. One man was devoutly Christian and saw references to Jesus and the bible in everything we read. Our teacher, however, was having none of it and challenged the Christian man to show us precisely where and how a passage referred to Christian salvation or the Resurrection. He soon stopped coming.
We went on trips to watch Shakespeare plays and I got my first taste of secondary literature explaining such books as The Canterbury Tales in layman’s terms. We also studied some poetry though I couldn’t really see the point in it. The point in poetry that is, not studying it. If you have something to say, why not just say it in a way that people can understand rather than dressing it up in flowery language? Even so, I did quite like some of Philip Larkin’s poems and I do now appreciate that words that rhyme and scan well just sound nicer, are more memorable and have more resonance.
It’s strange but the only area in which I can distinguish good performance from bad without someone at my elbow prompting me is sport, where success and failure are blindingly obvious. In almost everything else I have needed someone to inform me what is good. Would I have known that Shakespeare was a better writer than Jeffery Archer if someone hadn’t told me? That Hemingway’s short, clipped, repetitive sentences are good rather than bad? That Jack Kerouac’s writing, despite lacking structure, is real literature? That James Joyce’s is ‘great’ as opposed to impenetrable? I’m sure I wouldn’t. Even my personal tastes, as opposed to what is objectively good, have been largely influenced by my society. It’s depressing. I sometimes wish that taste in literature, art and music were less arbitrary, less culturally determined and more like our ideas about female beauty, where we can all agree that Jenna Coleman is prettier than Donatella Versace. Yet there are people who actually like the cultural equivalents of Donatella Versace: crappy modern poetry, the art of Tracey Emin, Death Metal and Drill music. And I have no doubt that for some classical music lovers listening to XTC is the aural equivalent of looking at Donatella Versace yet I can’t help liking them since, unfortunately, I’m just a child of my time.
At the end of the year I got an ‘A’ in German and a ‘B’ in English Literature and my English teacher suggested I go to university. I told him I couldn’t because I had a job and a mortgage to pay but he said that the government would pay for both my studies and my mortgage. I couldn’t believe it. He also said most universities welcome mature students as a kind of counter-balance to all the fresh-faced 18-year-olds. Though I had missed the deadline for applying to university I still had a couple of days before the final ultimate no, no it really is too late deadline so I quickly applied to Leicester University – there wouldn’t have been enough time for me to rent out my house and find digs in another city – and was accepted onto a 3-year Combined Arts course in English Literature, German and History (just two years).
The course was due to start in September 1989 and during my last week at work as a postman the post master asked me what going-away present would be useful for me in my new life as a student. Maybe a rubber desk mat, I suggested. Just like people who are rubbish at sport sometimes think having a good tracksuit will help, I imagined a rubber desk mat might turn me into a good student. It didn’t and I never used it after my first week at university.