Tuesday 26 February 2008

Sorry To Have Missed You

I have been a bit slack with the blogging for a couple of months. I have been busy with Christmas and the new house and my dramatically changing body shape. The blogs have been brewing on all these topics, and this blog may well open the flood gates. So stay tuned.

Let me restart with the curious subject of how impressed I am with the post code system in the UK. The codes here mix digits and letters to clearly indicate your social-economic demographic through exact geographic positioning. The first half of the code tells the curious which county and then which town or suburb within it. This is great for snobs, insurance companies and real estate agents.

The second part of the code goes even further towards explicit disclosure; it picks out which precise street you live on and even which end of the street, sometimes which side. This is a bit startling. If someone knows your postcode it wouldn’t take much to stalk you or steal your identity. But, hey, the up side is that it is nifty for home services and deliveries.

Every delivery company asks you first your postcode and then the number of your house and then click, they have you locked in their sights. On websites you can enter your postcode and pick your house from a drop down list. My new cleaner asked for my postcode which she could pop into her car’s satnav. The postcode system was clearly anticipating the age of the database. I know I am easily impressed, but I marvel at the forethought.

In contrast my home town in Australia has four digits for a postcode used by all 45,000 plus people living there. Hong Kong is even more shocking, they have no postcodes at all. This used to cause problems for some international online shopping orders where they demanded a postcode in their forms and wouldn’t process the order until I put in zeros or x’s to satisfy them.

My hat is off to the HK post office. I have no idea how they can cope with a mail system for 6 million people without any codes, especially as they deal with mail addressed in handwritten in Chinese, English and Pilipino.

And yet it somehow works (well, at least I never had a problem). In fact, I once sent a postcard to a new Hong Kong friend from a hotel in Vietnam when I knew only her first name and that she worked in a distinctive tall building in Central district on Hong Kong Island. She has kept the card to this day, impressed as much as I was that it somehow got to her mailbox.

I don’t know how Hong Kong as a former British colony, and one that embraced British bureaucracy enthusiastically in so many quarters, failed to institute a postcode system. It is even more astounding that it works for them while over here with a deadly accurate system I have had no end of problems with my mail.

Christmas was a nightmare when it came to receiving parcels. I can readily appreciate that the postal system is overloaded at Christmas time, but nevertheless not one of my anticipated parcels arrived without some sort of protracted bother.

Some of this should be laid at my own door. I did get a bit overenthusiastic with my online shopping in the mistaken belief that it would save me from the hassle of real, physical shopping. I ordered bits and bobs from a half dozen different companies over the net, fretting the whole while about credit card security when the real problem was with delivery.

I prefer to start work late and end work late which suits my sleep/work pattern but does not seem to suit the postman at all. I never know whether to opt for parcels to be delivered to work where I will be most of the day or to the house where I drag out my breakfast until mid-morning. I have tried self-posting to both options and whichever way I go I always manage to miss the parcel and get one of those delightful Sorry We Missed You cards where the scribbled time can occasionally be deciphered so that I can ruefully note I was just ten minutes too late.

When I get those cards two days in a row it has me beating my head against the bricks because I know what will follow. First I first have to call one of those numbers where a recorded voice tells me to press three then one then some 10 digit code on the card which fails to compute meaning I get through to a human, usually on a different continent, who informs me I am about to take a demoralizing car trip to one of Manchester’s dreariest industrial parks to a depot to retrieve the parcel.

Ooh, I hate those cards; but much worse than getting the card is getting no card. This happened over Christmas where parcels sent by my mother 8 weeks previously had still not shown up by end of January. Despite the much admired postcode being clearly and legibly written on them in my Mum’s best school teacher writing, they still managed to get lost in the system.

The people in the system were very polite and were trying to be genuinely helpful. After speaking to the postman, the depot, and finally some help centre online, and thanks to the fact that Mum kept the receipt in Australia which preserved some precious 10 digit codes, the final two parcels were eventually located.

One had been held at a post office a couple of miles away, for some strange reason, instead of my local. That one was easily retrieved (helpfully they gave me the post office’s postcode so I could pop it into Google Maps and plot a satnav course to find it); but the other parcel took a bit more sleuthing.

The parcel was apparently signed for by someone called ‘F. Sidebottom’. I pondered this for a bit, did it mean ‘the front side bottom’? Did that mean they left it somewhere under a rock at the side or the bottom of a wheelie bin and given me a cryptic clue ala The Da Vinci Code?

I asked my boyfriend and he told me there was a local comedic character with an act where he insisted his name Frank Sidebottom was pronounced ‘Frank Sid-ee-bott-om’. He suggested someone somewhere must have signed for it with this joke name. Chances are I would never see the parcel again.

I was psyching myself up to start a door knocking / letter campaign to get to know the immediate neighbours when my email correspondent from the post office suggested I try Flat 4 next door.

That very night I buzzed Flat 4, and lo and behold the guy is in, he trips down the stairwell with my parcel and finally I had it in my little hot hands! I was so grateful that I decided not to berate the guy for having kept it for four long weeks without bothering to knock on my door to return it to me. But I guess he didn’t know I hadn’t received my Sorry To Have Missed You Card and what’s more he probably thought me rude for not showing proper gratitude. (Proper gratitude is very important here.)

Upon reflection, I could have called back around and thanked him for adding to my little store of local knowledge by introducing me to the legend of Frank Sidebottom, but instead I celebrated by opening my Christmas presents a month late.

It is pretty weird to open Christmas presents long after the tree has been put away again for another year and all the silliness has been processed and you wondered why you were so worked up about it all. Besides, there was something anti-climatic about opening presents when Mum had already told me what was inside, thinking they were lost in the ether of the great postal neverland.

Not that I want to sound ungrateful, it was just that the epic tracking of the parcel had eclipsed the contents. After everything was unwrapped I found inside the box a note from Mum telling me to expect more parcels for my birthday in February. Oh no, not more parcels! The merry-go-round starts again.