Friday, 23 October 2015

Complication Neurosis

Following on from my post on Wednesday; the funny poem I wrote when I first started working at the Post Office, here's another amusing P O related post.

A regular customer of mine handed me a very funny book "Golden Oddlies" by Paul Jennings around the time of my second Christmas stint. As you can imagine, it was pretty manic, but the Chapter "Psychological Grading" gave me great cause for comfort - and chuckles.

"Golden Oddlies" is the best of Jennings "Oddly Enough" column that he wrote for the Observer. If you've ever worked in a Post Office, stood in a Post Office queue, or worked in Customer Service, you will relate to his musings...


All British sociologists will welcome the Report of the Royal Commission for Psychological Grading in Busy Places, published this week for the Ministry of Development and Printing, for it represents the first real official attempt to cope with the problem in modern society of complication-neurosis.
This is a condition which can best be explained to the layman by actual examples. Let us imagine a suburban branch Post Office, with, say, six positions - Stamps, Savings, Money Orders, Position Closed, Pensions and Allowances, and Telegrams. An ordinary customer (in the sociologists' jargon, a neutral counter-unit, or N.C.U.) such as the reader or the writer of this article - a person, therefore, entirely free from complication-neurosis - goes in to buy a book of stamps. He is preceded in the queue by a complication-neurotic who, perhaps, wishes to send a parcel to the Virgin Isles, a possession of the U.S.A. The clerk looks dubious, then calls someone from an inner office with a glass door. They fetch down a big book - the Post Office Guide. They find the section on the Virgin Isles.
'Ah,' murmurs the First Clerk, 'Customs Declaration "A".'
They are not quite sure what this is, so they flip rather aimlessly through the pages until it occurs to Clerk Two to look up 'Customs' in the Index. They find it and Clerk One reads, in an unsure sort of voice, 'Two kinds of customs declaration form are in use, namely an adhesive form to be affixed to the parcel (mainly for Empire use), and a non-adhesive form (for most foreign countries). Two or more copies of the latter form may be required, see pp. 110-209.'
But pp. 110-209 are merely the alphabetical section covering the world's countries, containing the bit about the Virgin Isles where Clerk One started. We are in a vicious circle. But this is only the beginning. When they have finally decided about the Customs, Clerk Two says, 'What's in the parcel?'
'Well, it's a kind of model I made,' says the woman helplessly, 'and a few potatoes.'
'Potatoes, eh?' says Clerk One doubtfully. More page flicking, then, 'I'm afraid we can't accept it, ma'am.' For under 'Prohibited Articles' it says, for the Virgin Isles:

Letters, cotton seed, cotton and cotton seed products (except oil, manufactured cotton and cotton waste; see below); feathers and skins of wild birds (except ostrich feathers) unless for educational purposes; films or pictorial representations of prize fights; intoxicating liquors; potatoes...

And so on, while all the normal person or N.C.U. wants is this book of stamps. Not only Post Office are affected by the spread of complication-neurosis. Evidence submitted to the Commission shows that most of the people who want a simple second-class return to Birmingham in a hurry are preceded by the sort of man who wants to go on an obscure place in the Hebrides. He has voluminous inquiries about sailing tickets and seat places and insurance. His ticket, instead of being issued quickly with a metallic thump from a machine, has to be laboriously written out on a duplicate form with long footnotes about 'Messrs MacBrayne's Services'. In a bank, an N.C.U. who merely wishes to cash a cheque for £5, will be preceded by someone with a battered attache case full of little blue bags full of pennies and complicated company accounts.
The Commission's Report recommends a revolutionary technique of psychological grading, to be tried out experimentally at first in Post Offices.

We are in entire agreement with the experts who have given evidence (it says) that the present division of Post Offices into operational functions is arbitrary and inefficient. We therefore recommend a form of Psychological Grading. In a Six-Position Post Office two of the positions should be labelled 'SIMPLE'. The remaining four should be labelled 'COMPLICATED'. Counter units should be met at the door of the Post Office by a trained psychologist who by the answer given to some such question as 'Good morning sir (or madam); what do you require?' would be able to deduce the degree, if any, of complication-neurosis, and direct the counter-unit accordingly.

I need hardly point out the effect on our social life if the Report is acted upon. Normal people like the reader, or the writer, of this article will be able to pop quickly in and out of the Post Office, even at the busiest times. Complication-neurotics will have a special part of the Post Office all to themselves, screened off with trellis and artificial roses, there will be little tables where they can discuss their problems with fellow-spirits all day long over a cup of Post Office coffee.
The realignment of staff will mean an overall increase in Functionary Time (F.T.) without the corresponding increase in Functionary Units which sociologists previously thought this must involve. The Report, recognising the existing shortage of psychologists, outlines a scheme for Regional Training Colleges giving a special one-year course. In the Report's concluding words,

the initial expense should soon be repaid, since from Post Offices it is a short step to railway booking offices, banks, and shops. and we may therefore look forward confidently to an efficient rationalisation of the whole of our public life.