Watching the charming remake of Lassie, I realised — stifling a sob — how easy it was to suspend my disbelief that a soulful collie could make a solo journey from the Highlands via Glasgow to a village in Yorkshire, arriving home just in time for Christmas. But I find it much harder to believe that a Christmas card posted in Sloane Street on 21 December could have taken until 8 February — almost seven weeks — to reach me in Yorkshire. Had the card, like Lassie, been impounded by pompous officials en route but bravely outwitted them? Had it tagged along with a good-hearted travelling showman in a caravan? That sounds far-fetched, I know, but no more so than the fact that the Royal Mail has just been fined £11.7 million by the regulator, Postcomm, for allowing 14.6 million letters to be ‘lost, stolen, damaged or interfered with’ last year. And that number can only be an optimistic guess, because Postcomm cannot possibly know how many letters are still out there like Lassie on a lonely hilltop, howling for their addressees.
If I have anything important to send these days, I pay the Post Office a minimum of £3.80 for ‘guaranteed next-day delivery’ because I no longer trust a first-class stamp to get it there on time, or at all. I bet you do the same. This loss of public faith in the Post Office’s ability to perform its basic function is one more rip in the cloth of civilised life, and can only get worse as Royal Mail staggers on, crippled for lack of investment and besieged both by private-sector operators nibbling at its business and union leaders doing their utmost to halt positive change. Some months ago Sir George Bain, former head of London Business School, was appointed to advise ministers on the future structure and ownership of Royal Mail. It would astonish me if he came up with any proposal other than eventual full-scale privatisation — as has been triumphantly achieved by the Dutch and the Germans, whose post offices have turned themselves into efficient, competitive international businesses without any loss of service at home. Indeed, if I were Sir George, I would suggest that Deutsche Post and TNT of Holland be invited forthwith to bid for a contract to take over the management of Royal Mail, before it deteriorates any further.
But we may never know what Sir George has in mind, because the laughably titled Under Secretary of State for Competitiveness at the DTI, Barry Gardiner, told the House of Commons in December that ‘there are no plans to publish Sir George’s advice’. Meanwhile, thank goodness for email, and for soulful, long-distance dogs that can be trained to carry parcels.
I came across Michael Heath, our cartoons editor, reading aloud to himself from the small ads in the Daily Mirror. ‘Unsecured loans up to £25,000, arrears and county court judgments accepted, no bank account needed, same day pay-out, no fee! … Blacklisted? Poor credit history? Refused a loan? Stop, look no further!’ ‘How does that work?’ Michael asked me. ‘They just come round and break your legs if you don’t pay, or what?’
His curiosity was — I’m sure — that of an acute social observer rather than a man in need of urgent cash. But he had hit upon an extraordinarily vivid illustration of our shop-now-pay-later-who-gives-a-xxxx economy, in which personal debt is rocketing towards £1,200 billion at a rate of a million pounds every four minutes. ‘You may require cash for a wedding, holidays, home improvements, etc., or wish to purchase a car or a motorcycle,’ says the website of Jodrell Finance of Knutsford; and you’d be mad to save up for any of them, it might have added, because only a loser would bother to do that these days. On average, every British adult has £4,125 of credit card and other unsecured debts and £21,000 worth of mortgages. And there’s no shame if you can’t repay, because you’ve got plenty of company: 67,500 of us went bust last year, and alongside the instant-loan ads are insolvency practitioners offering ‘voluntary arrangements’ which wipe out nine tenths of your unsecured debts and allow you five years to pay off the balance.
I rang a couple of the advertisers, and they offered nothing but sweetness, at annual interest rates ranging from nine to 45 per cent. In fact the girl at Portfield Financial Services in Rotherham sounded so nice that I nearly gave her my personal details there and then for a quick decision on £25,000 — a motorcycle, a wedding, who cares, if everyone else is having one, I might as well help myself. Society has lost any sense that debt is an embarrassing burden or a moral commitment, and while conditions remain benign we will go on loading up with it as if (as Bill Bonner wrote here recently about America’s debt addiction) tomorrow never comes. But you can be sure it will come one day, when asset prices collapse and interest rates rise and there’s a shaven-headed bloke with a baseball bat at the door, asking for his loan back.
Incidentally, some of the ads for ‘debt management services’ entice customers by asking: ‘Afraid to open the post?’ No, I’m just happy it arrives at all; and if I owe you any money, I popped the cheque in the post seven weeks ago.
‘I do hope the Telegraph isn’t going to go tabloid,’ ventured the woman next to me at Sunday lunch. Not as far as I know, I responded — with a look designed to suggest that I’m the sort of chap who might know but isn’t at liberty to say — but the latest circulation figures are jolly interesting, what with the Observer adding more than 25 per cent to its sales in the first month since it followed the Guardian into the sexy Berliner format, while the jury’s still out on whether going ‘compact’ has really done much good in the longer run for the Independent and the Times, whose January figures were almost exactly the same as a year earlier. And it may all be to do with marketing rather than size anyway, not to mention the free DVDs. But my lunch companion’s eyes had glazed over. ‘It’ll a be great pity if they do change the Telegraph,’ she said wistfully. ‘Tell them from me, it’s a perfect size for plucking pheasants on.’