Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 22, 2010

Going postal

Envelopes, Harriet Russell (2005), Random House, 89 pp.

The New Yorker used to run little space-fillers under the heading, “There will always be an England.” Stories of quirky happenings on the eastern end of the Atlantic–strange food, disdain for queue-jumping yobbos, funny-sounding village names. This book would have been summarized in that category as “English art student challenges Royal Mail with nearly indecipherable addresses, but the RM pulls through.”

I love that there’s a note from the Royal Mail, right after the title page:

This book highlights how the Royal Mail’s postmen and women often go beyond the call of duty to deliver poorly addressed mail. Each week they successfully deliver 15 million badly addressed letters, and our Return Letter Centre–where items are opened with the hope of finding a return address–handles a further 72 million undeliverable items a year. To help us deliver your post, can we remind you to clearly and correctly address items being posted. Thank you.

You understand this plea, once you’ve begun to look at the 75 envelopes that Russell sent to herself at various addresses in England and Scotland, starting with the one written in mirror-reverse, including the instructions to “Please postmark here” with an arrow pointing to the stamp in the upper left corner.

Russell’s addresses are anagrammed, rebused, circled on hand-drawn maps, hidden on menus or airplane boarding passes. There are even some mailed from the U.S. A two-envelope graphic-novel shows a witless Brit trying to get a NYC cabbie to drive her to London. “Oh,” she says in one pane, “Is there not a bridge?” The address is in the text of the story.

Black ink on a black background, red dots in a field of green dots (“colour blindness test”), a drawing with the instructions “Please deliver to the house pictured” (post code included as a hint), a connect-the-dots address (with 169 as the last number). They get more and more devious, and the postal workers freely mark the envelopes, solving Russell’s puzzles to help discover the address.

But here’s the best part–all the envelopes pictured here made it. Each one of them is postmarked, meaning it got delivered to Russell through the Royal Mail.

Appropriately, she includes this statement in her acknowledgments:

I’d like to thank the postal service in the U.K. and the U.S., as well as the Royal Mail. A special mention must go to the postal employees in Glasgow, especially the ones who delivered to 17 Montague Street. Without their dedication and hard work, this book would not exist.

So, the next time you have a hard time at your local post office, remember those 2+million pieces of badly addressed mail the Royal Mail must contend with each day. And please, write clearly.

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