The case of the missing letterbox

Or  “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace”.

Our new cottage has no letterbox, and our mail is going astray.

One postman, trained by the previous occupant, delivers our letters to Mary, who lives in the cottage next door. He can do this because Mary’s front door is equipped with a functioning letterbox, fashioned from aluminium and faded, like Mary, from many seasons on the hill. This could be a satisfactory arrangement, were it not for Mary’s habit of filing her post, un-inspected, in a random drawer in whichever room she happens to be living in at the time.

Another postman, recently recruited and lacking the benefit of training from our predecessor, appears to have taken it upon himself to deliver our letters to the Observatory nearby. This is not a satisfactory arrangement, because we have no access to the Observatory, and no relationship to its denizens, nor they to each other.  There our letters will lie, on a table in the hallway, or the floor beneath the table, until such time as one denizen is taken by the urge to clear the common area, and our letters find their way to the re-cycling bin, the rubbish bin, or perhaps back to the Delivery Office marked “Not Known At This Address”.

On one occasion, an employee of Scottish Power hit upon the novel idea of sliding a we-came-to-read-the-meter-but-you-were-out card underneath our door. It is entirely possible that a future generation of postman might re-discover this ingenious solution.

We devised a cunning strategy to address the problem of missing mail. Let us call this Plan A. Plan A proceeds as follows:

  1. install a letterbox in the front door of the cottage
  2. lay in wait until a postman appears on his rounds
  3. greet the postman warmly, introduce him to the new letterbox, and instruct him in its operation
  4. repeat 2-3 until the estimated fraction of undelivered mail becomes acceptably small.

One technique for estimating the fraction of undelivered mail is to address a large number of letters to oneself, and to count those that arrive within say two weeks of despatch. Although the algorithm (2-4) is not guaranteed to converge monotonically or even in a finite number of iterations, it should be good enough for our purposes.

The real problem is step (1). You see, our cottage is a Grade II Listed Building.

It is a criminal offence to do works affecting the significance of a Listed Building without Listed Building Consent. Presumably, it is OK to do works on a Listed Building that don’t affect its significance. It is also legal to do works on a listed building and subsequently apply for Listed Building Consent. A PhD in Quantum Field Theory does not prepare the mind sufficiently to comprehend the implications of this convoluted logic. It seems to me that if you get the Consent everything’s fine and has been fine all along, but if you don’t, then not only have you committed a Criminal Act, you’ve also dobbed yourself in. Is this the legislative equivalent of quantum superposition?

Everything seems to turn on the interpretation of significance. The System is designed on the principle that the owner or developer of the listed building is not to be trusted. It vests the authority to determine the question of significance in public servants known as Local Planning Officers. These are busy people (our Borough has 1900 listed buildings managed by one Senior Conservation Officer and an assistant). Consequently the System places a heavy burden of preparing evidence on the owner or developer.

So, although our front door bears little resemblance to the original door, being clad in a metal (presumed steel) sheet, fitted recently and certainly some 100 years after the cottage was built, and although a front door to a Victorian cottage clearly deserves a letterbox, it is not for us to presume to install one without Listed Buildings Consent. Obtaining Listed Buildings Consent is not a trivial matter; the lengthy checklist involves a freshly-prepared Ordnance Survey Map of the site. a 1:200 scale plan of the building, 1:20 scale drawing(s) of the feature(s) affected, statements of impact and significance, and much more. At least it’s free, that is, if you don’t count the architect’s fees, map license fees, and your time. Once you’ve got your plans prepared, and your application lodged, you have only a minimum of 8 weeks to wait while the whole sad business is weighed and considered by the council, your neighbours, local pressure groups and the general public. You have to be on your best behaviour.

In the meantime, you still don’t have a letterbox, so any correspondence concerning the progress of the application is likely to go astray. But there’s a solution for this! You simply appoint an agent to act on your behalf, and all the correspondence goes to him or her.

But three months or more is a long time to be without mail. Perhaps that venerable institution Royal Mail can help? I decided to investigate.

It’s easy enough to find their web site – a level one wizard can do this. Level two skills are required to find descriptions of relevant services.

One could take a Post Office Box. These are not cheap, and there might be a waiting list, but the real problem is that you don’t have a letterbox, not that you don’t have an address. And sometimes a Post Office Box just won’t do.

What about mail redirection? As we won’t complete the move to the cottage until we sell our current house, we can consider redirecting mail from the new dwelling to the old one. Although the service is really designed to redirect mail from the old house to the new,  we might just be able to produce the documentation necessary to set it up. On the downside, the service is not free, and more importantly, the solution would only work until the old house is sold.

We could then redirect mail from the old house to the new, and let the mail circulate between the two addresses for a while. When the Listed Building Consent finally comes through, and the letterbox is installed, we simply cancel one of the redirections, and all our mail will suddenly appear at the cottage. Like that scene in Harry Potter.

Maybe Mail Redirection isn’t the perfect solution, after all.

What about Mail Collect (TM)? This service is has the virtue of being free. The idea is that your mail, instead of being delivered to your address, is held at the local Delivery Office, and you collect it from there at your leisure (but at least once a month). You need to be a Level 3 wizard to navigate the Royal Mail website to find the application form and guidance notes. But it can be done, with perseverance.

Level 4 expertise is required to locate your nearest delivery office. Here’s how I did it. Do not set out to locate the delivery office, Instead, prepare a list of completely different questions to which you want answers. This list should include:

  1. Does the Royal Mail have a recommended way of getting mail delivered when you don’t have a letter box?
  2. Does this work if you’re moving into the place instead of out of it?
  3. How should a person with two surnames, such as a married woman who gets mail addressed to both her married name and maiden name, complete the application form for Mail Collect (TM)?  Should she commit the minor fraud of submitting two applications as different people, each authorizing her alter ego to collect mail on her behalf?
  4. Why does an application for Mail Collect (TM) not require proof of residence at the address in question? Isn’t that opening a loophole for mail theft?
  5. Or is proof of identification really meant to include proof of residence at the address in question?
  6. If so, how should I obtain such proof? After all, my utilities bills are going astray, because I haven’t got a letter box…
  7. The guidance notes say that on receipt of my application, I should expect an acknowledgment, the return of the original documents evidencing my identification, and eventually a little white card that I should take with me when I go to collect my mail from my local Delivery Office. These items will be sent — you guessed it — by post to the address on the application. Yes, to the cottage with no letterbox. How is this supposed to work?

With these goals in mind, you set off on your quest. First you see a clue suggesting that there’s a way of contacting Royal Mail by email. Following this clue as far as it leads, you encounter a Sphinx who asks you a riddle about the nature of your question. It doesn’t matter how you reply, because all answers lead to the Labyrinth of Frequently Asked Questions, which you are required to search exhaustively. Only then will the angel Sarah, Your On-Line Digital Assistant, manifest herself to you. You may ask Sarah any question you like. Sarah will recognise any of the Frequently Asked Questions, and NO others.

At this point, you may like to add:

  • How do I ask a question that is not Frequently Asked?

to your list. Needless to say, this Question is not a Frequently Asked one.

Now it is necessary to re-trace your steps to the FAQ. This is not difficult, as all roads lead back there eventually. From here you can see a sign pointing towards Customer Service. Follow it. You should discover a Telephone Number beginning with the prefix 0845. Calls to 0845 numbers cost 10.22 New Pence per minute for Virgin customers. Dial this number. Again, you are challenged with a series of questions which you are expected to answer by typing numbers on the numeric keypad of your telephone. There are many possible sequences of questions and answers. If you chance upon a certain sequence, you will unlock a secret door which leads to the Find-Your-Local-Delivery-Office demon.

The demon FYLDO has the Power of Speech Recognition. She will ask you for your postcode, which you should recite aloud into the mouthpiece of your telephone. If you speak clearly, in a controlled accent, she may repeat it back to you correctly. This is good! You should say “Yes” when she asks you. I don’t know what happens if you can’t say “Yes” honestly. Perhaps she eats you.

Now, the demon asks “Road name”? My heart leaped into my mouth at this point, but your experience may be different to mine from here on.

You see, our cottage is on an un-named road. There is no road name in our address.

Trusting to a greater power, I replied, in a firm and steady voice. “None”, I said.

“I don’t understand that”, quoth the demon.

“None”, I replied, with false conviction.

The demon paused for a disconcertingly long time, then announced “You local Delivery Office is at …” ,  supplying address and opening hours.

Our next adventure will be to make a pilgrimage to our Local Delivery Office, in search of a Wise Man or Woman who can answer our questions.

I never did discover the mythical email address for Royal Mail.

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