Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Weighty Matters

If you live in the US and don’t get a Christmas card from me this year, it won’t be because I don’t cherish your friendship (even if it is merely a Facebook occasionally-click-on-your-Like-button type of friendship); it will be because the Royal Mail won’t sell me any postage. Allow me to explain:

I went to the post office yesterday. The reason I went to the post office yesterday and not Saturday is because the government shut down about 95% of the local post offices. Granted, they didn’t shut the one in our town center down, but they shut down every other branch in the county, so anyone who needs to mail anything has to travel to our post office on Saturday morning to do it. (Soon, we are going to have a single, national post office located in Leeds where everyone in Britain will have to go to get their mail. This is one of the main reasons Scotland wants independence; they don’t want to go to Leeds, they would rather go to Edinburgh. But I digress.)

Proposed sorting office in Leeds.

For the time being, however, we are blessed with a regional postal center here in Horsham and slackers like me with a part time (and soon to be no) job can avoid the hassle of getting up at 5 AM to join the queue in hopes of being served by noon, and simply go on a weekday when the crowds have thinned out somewhat.

And so, armed with the knowledge that I needed World-Wide postage stamps, I joined the queue and started making my calculations. This is something I do to pass the time: try to calculate which clerk is going to serve me, and adjust my expectations accordingly. There were four windows open: one was staffed by a blonde woman who I know to be competent, knowledgeable and courteous. Next to her was a matronly woman I had never been served by but who, nonetheless, radiated confidence and appeared efficient. I gave her a 7 out of 10 and put her down as my second choice. On the other side of the blonde was the Money Lady, who is supposed to wait on postal customers when no one is at her window exchanging Euros for Australian Outbacks (or whatever they call their money). She was free now, but was busy arranging bills into neat stacks.

At the far end was a young bloke whose dress and demeanor screamed, “Temporary Help;” I gave him a “1” and prayed for favorable odds.

"Don't make me think!"

The Temp was waiting on an elderly woman when I joined the queue. The blonde and the matron finished their transactions and called up two more people. The Money Lady started filing her nails.

The Temp was pointing at a document, explaining something to the elderly woman who was nodding her head and clearly not understanding a word he said. Two more customers went to the blonde and the matron. The Money Lady was reading War and Peace.

The Temp slid some documents to the woman, who smiled and began rooting through her cavernous handbag for her purse. Two more customers left the queue. The Money Lady was working on a cross-stitch of The Last Supper.

The woman found her purse and began counting out her money—slowly and deliberately—in pennies. Two more people left the queue. The Money Lady was updating her Facebook status.

Transaction complete, the woman was thanking (and thanking and thanking) the Temp. Two more people left the queue. The Money Lady was taking up oil painting.

The woman finally stepped away from the Temp’s window; it was my turn. The Money Lady was signing up for a correspondence course in home laser surgery. I had no choice; I went to the Temp.

“I need world-wide stamps,” I told him.

He stared at me. “What kind?”

“Um, the kind for sending letters. To the US.”

“It depends on the weight.”

Handy, if you know how much a gram weighs.

“They are for standard letters, a sheet of paper in an envelope, how much would that be?”

“Depends on the weight.”

“They all weight the same and they are all just average Christmas cards.”

“Depends on the weight.”

“But they aren’t anything special; they are the same as any other card you get, how much do they cost to mail?”

“Depends on the weight.”

“I’ve never had this much trouble buying stamps before,” I told him. “I just say it’s for a standard letter and they give me stamps.”

“I can sell you some stamps, but if they are the wrong kind, you won’t be able to use them.”

“Then what would be the right kind?”

“Depends on the weight.”

And so, I left, without my stamps. We now have a pile of Christmas cards that my wife has signed, addressed and assembled but we have no way of mailing them. I suppose I could take them all down to the Temp and make him weight each and every one individually, but I suspect he might enjoy that. The only thing I can do is wait for my next day off, go back to the post office, join the queue and hope I end up with the Blonde or the Matron. Or that the Money Lady has finished her correspondence course.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Quintessentially British Experience

 Over the years I have had many British experiences—such as going to a Pantomime, being put on an NHS waiting list and watching Midsomer Murders—but none of these compares to the quintessential Britishness of being Made Redundant.

In America, I would have simply been “laid off” or, even worse, “downsized” whereas here I am redundant, which, if you take it literally, means “superfluous, unnecessary and outmoded.” Compared to that, I might prefer the old fashioned “fired,” but being declared superfluous in Britain is not an insult, it’s just—especially these days—an annoying fact of life, like the Council deciding to resurface the high street on the day of the village fete.

The biggest problem with being made redundant in Britain—at least where I live—is that there are no hot air vents to sleep on. Also, being a Welfare State, you have to get on a council waiting list for a spot under a bridge. Fortunately, like all good, corrupt governments, the right amount of money in the right hands got us on the short list for this baby:

 It’s in an ideal location—close to shops and right off a bus line—and it has bags of character. We’re sharing the left end with a family of four from Nigeria but there is still plenty of room for me to have a study, which we can use as a guest bedroom when we have company.

All right, now before you start feeling too sorry for me (but after you have felt sorry enough to buy multiple copies of all my books) let me explain how this all went down:

What happened was, I was offered VR, which is also uniquely British and which stands for “Voluntary Redundancy.” How this works is, your manager walks you to the edge of a cliff and, as you stare over the precipice at the craggy rocks below, says, “You can jump, or you can stand here until I decide to push you off; your choice. However, if you choose to jump, I’ll give you a couple of mattresses to soften your landing.”

I didn’t exactly get a golden handshake (it was more like a brass one), but it was better than a sharp stick in the eye. More to the point—and here’s the bit that will help you stop feeling sorry for me (you did buy my books, though, didn’t you?)—it was also what I wanted.
After getting the offer, I went home to discuss it with my wife and was pleasantly surprised to find that, even after ten years, she remains so blinded by love that I can still talk her into making some truly dubious decisions. I am, therefore, not going to seek another job but instead will look upon this as a promotion to full-time writer. Even in my office I am telling people I opted for early retirement instead of saying that I took VR, and right now (I still have three more weeks to go) I am the happiest person in the company.

It had always been my intention to retire early and devote myself fully to my writing; this is a great opportunity—perhaps my only one—and I intend to make the most of it. Lee Child made it work, so there’s no reason I can’t.

Just in case, though, if you happen to know of any hot air vents that are free, keep me in mind.

About the Book:

I want to thank all of you who bought Finding Rachel Davenport. That was really nice of you; thanks ever so much. Now I have another favor to ask: could you put a review on Amazon?

Reviews, I am told, boost a book’s visibility and, thereby, increase its sales potential. Having just lost my job (violins, please) I don’t have enough money to buy any decent reviews, and I lack the guile and organizational skills necessary to create “sock puppet” reviews, so I am falling back on the last resort—actual, real reviews from actual, real readers telling what they actually, really think about the book. And, yes, that means if you didn’t like it, say so; the only bad review is one that isn't posted.

No Sock Puppets!

 So if you could do me that favor, I would really, really appreciate it.

Thanks again.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

David Sedaris is Stalking Me

For those of you who don’t know, David Sedaris is a very funny man whose work I have long admired. I have known for some time that he is, like me, an expat, but that was hardly notable; there are a lot of expats around these days.

What I did not know was that Mr. Sedaris had a series of shows on BBC Radio 4, where he would read selected essays to a live audience. I accidentally bumped into these broadcasts during an ironing marathon one Sunday afternoon back in May and have been a keen listener every since.

David Sedaris, comedian, writer, stalker

During this weekend’s episode, however, Mr. Sedaris tipped his hand: becoming a fan and finding his show were not merely pleasant accidents, he has been stalking me.

Mr. Sedaris (or, should I call him “Dave,” as we seem to be intimately connected) was born just about two years after me, in Binghamton, New York, so his stalking started early, with him literally following me into the world. And now, some (pick a number—a large one) years later, after the two of us move to the other side of the world, it turns out we’re neighbors. In his essay “Rubbish” Dave tells how he and his partner came to live in a little Sussex village just down the road from me. Coincidence? I think not.

Okay, maybe is just a fluke, but at least this gives me another opportunity to talk about the shameful state of Britain’s roads, and the endemic insouciance the British have concerning litter. I’ve banged on about this before, but Dave does a truly marvelous and hysterical job of shining a light on this nefarious activity. So go have a listen; you’ll be glad you did.

And stop throwing your crap all over this beautiful country; you should be ashamed of yourselves!

Britain the beautiful