Throwing the frame is the act of sorting the mail before you leave the office to deliver it. The modular frame is configured in much the same way that you would bolt together pieces of Meccano. Some frames even have wings, which give them the appearance of an altar triptych. Each row is divided up by a series of curved green plastic separators which form a series of narrow channels, the thickness of one of your fingers, and high enough to accommodate the largest A4 sized envelopes, or ‘flats’ as they are known. Red separators provide a visual indication of a change in street. A numbered strip runs underneath the channels. These are the individual addresses on the walk – for your information it’s called a ‘walk’ not a ‘round’. On top of the frame there’s a shelf for packets, and to jog your memory while you’re out on delivery you write a P on one of the letters for that particular address so that you will know when to take the packet out of your bag.
At first glance the sheer scale of the whole thing dumbfounds you. How on earth can you possibly remember the exact location of over five hundred addresses, not forgetting the complicating factor of the alternating odd and even street numbers, which meander in and out from one section of the frame to another? Like any skilled activity, it’s all about repetition. Soon the movement of your hand is so attuned that you could find the right slot with your eyes shut, like a Zen archer hitting the bull’s-eye on a target. Attaining this level of proficiency takes months of practice.
You are expected to throw thirty items per minute. After a while one of the delivery office managers will position himself near the frame and time you. Once you’ve removed the red rubber band from the bundle of mail the clock is ticking. It’s easier throwing into an empty frame so you would ideally do this at the start of your shift. If you make a mistake no one will be any the wiser. The manager never checks. If you wanted to you could put them all in the wrong slots. Even so, throwing the frame properly takes real skill. Two seconds per item – imagine that!
Royal Mail took me on in November 2004, and after my two-day induction at Tyneside Mail Centre on the Team Valley Trading Estate in Gateshead I was deployed at Darlington Delivery Office. Here I was issued with my first items of uniform, and I have to admit it felt pretty much like being conscripted into the army. Those pale blue cotton shirts and long-sleeved fleeces were probably sourced from the same Government supplier who kitted out members of the armed forces, the prison service and the police. The shoes, it has to be said, were uncomfortable and it was a surprise to see anyone actually wearing them. Trainers were the footwear of choice, so I bought my own comfy pair. Although there was the occasional footwear crackdown by management, it tended to meet with too much resistance and would be quietly rescinded.
A 24-hour per week contract was the norm since full-time posts were no longer available. Although it was called Royal Mail – hence the crown on my gold-coloured name badge – I should explain that I’m no fan of the royals. As far as I’m concerned we had the right idea in 1649. No, what appealed to me was the fact that the company was still publically owned at the time. So, as far as the customers were concerned – and that’s all that really mattered – I was a uniformed public servant who could be identified from my badge as Mike DL 160.
I shadowed Phil on the Carmel walk since he was going to be off over Christmas – the jammy bugger – and for a shortarse like me his stride pattern was a struggle to keep up with. It came as no surprise to learn that the middle class got more mail than the working class. This was brought home to me one Saturday when I covered a walk in a predominantly working-class area. On the frame was a single bundle of mech mail – this is mail that bears a legible postcode and which can therefore be read and sorted by a machine.
‘Where’s the rest?’ I asked the postman standing at the next frame.
His laugh told me that I had asked a particularly stupid question.
‘That’s all there is.’
The postman whose walk I was covering was one of the old timers who affectionately remembered the days of the second delivery and how that might equate to only one bundle of mail – yes, you read that right. Once that bundle had been delivered he’d walk back into the town centre and sit down to breakfast at the Three Squares café in Skinnergate. Thirty years later, proper letters were a rarity. Instead it was three door-to-doors to be delivered each week, together with all the junk mail shite and the ever-growing numbers of Amazon packets.
It was certainly an odd feeling grafting at a time when most people were still fast asleep. Despite the obvious drawbacks, there were positives as well. Finishing work at one o’clock was definitely one of them. In addition you got a day off every week to make up for the fact that you worked Saturdays. However, when your Saturday and Monday off coincided you enjoyed what’s known in the business as a long weekend.
The delivery office was an overwhelmingly masculine environment with only a few women to be seen on the delivery side. Each morning you could almost taste the testosterone hanging in the air – it was about as pungent as Kilgore’s smell of napalm. But there was a real sense of camaraderie as well. Above all, not taking any shit from management was your number one priority. On one occasion, for example, a postman had witnessed one of the managers crossing out his docket. The postman simply went back to the logbook, looked the manager in the eyes and re-entered his overtime claim, adding an extra hour for good measure.
In line with health and safety, there were weight limits for your bags. The theory was that they got lighter as you reached the end of your delivery. Theory is all well and good, but it often conflicts with reality. As you are probably aware, paper is an inherently heavy material, so imagine carrying a bag on your shoulder filled with around thirty paperbacks. My first bag in the run up to that Christmas period was grossly overweight. In fact, not only was it overweight I couldn’t even fit everything inside it. I had no other option but to carry two bundles under my arm plus a hefty packet. Although there were scales in the delivery office for weighing your bags, in all my time as a postman I never actually saw anyone using them. What’s more, if you happened to injure yourself carrying an overweight bag then it was your own damned fault.
That first morning Carmel Road seemed to go on forever, and to make matters worse these were mainly detached houses in the affluent West End with interminable driveways. The householders were the sort of people who earned more in a week than I earned in a month. At each address I ended up having to put the bag down. That hampered me no end. In fact it took me three quarters of an hour just to deliver that first bag. There were still five more to go.
Tuesdays were a time for union meetings, the dissemination of information and training. Consequently, the managers deliberately held back some of the mailsort items so that we wouldn’t be unnecessarily burdened. It therefore followed that Wednesdays were a heavy day.
When I came in that morning I knew right from the off that there was no way I was going to be able to complete my delivery by one o’clock. There were already sixteen bundles of mech mail piled up on my frame. The typical amount would be ten. The thing is, no one can force you to work beyond your allotted finishing time. What’s more, the extra volume of mail would mean that I’d be late tying up my bags for the van. Not only that, if I wasn’t ready the driver would leave me and my bags behind. If you don’t make the van you’re left kicking your heels out on the dock, waiting for another driver to come back to the office and take you out. There’s a whole knock-on effect in other words.
I decided to approach one of the managers and explain the situation. He was one of those eager-to-impress graduates who’d probably never thrown a frame in his life. In over two and a half years I’d never dropped a bag – this meant leaving a bag behind in the office for someone else to deliver later. It happened regularly and was inevitable given the way in which the full-time walks had been downgraded to part-time duties.
‘I won’t be able to complete my delivery today so I’ll be dropping a bag’, I said. I made it sound like a fait accompli because in my mind that's what it was.
‘But it’s a light day,’ replied the manager.
As soon as I heard that I knew this was going to be hard work. He was clearly a clever cunt who would argue that shit smelt of roses.
I pointed to the bundles lying on the frame.
‘What the fuck’s all that then?
He turned instead towards the pigeonholes where postmen were sorting the mail that the machine couldn’t read.
‘Well there isn’t much in the sorting area. So you’re not dropping a bag.’
You didn’t need a degree to work out that if the volume of mech mail was much higher than usual there’d be more in the sorting area, more flats and more packets. More of everything.
‘Fair enough. I’ll just have a word with my union rep.’
I walked over to the CWU rep and spelled out my position. His response was that if I felt that I was unable to finish by one o’clock I’d be perfectly within my rights to drop a bag. So I went back and informed the manager of this conversation.
‘I don’t care what your union rep has said. As far as I’m concerned you’re not dropping a bag and that’s that.’
By this time the outcome was almost predetermined.
‘All right then. I won’t drop a bag. What I’ll do instead is drop the whole fucking lot. Get someone else to deliver it.’
With that I shouldered my empty bag and marched off to the exit, accompanied by laughter, cheers and a round of applause. Two weeks later I handed in my notice.