The postman who calls at 30 Able Road may be a new urban myth but, as myths do, he tells a story. The people at number 30 found that they were getting post for 30 Baker Street, 30 Charlie Avenue, 30 Dog Mews, 30 Easy Street and so on. When they compared notes, they worked out that this postman could read Arabic numerals but was still at sea with English street-names. Disbanding the old guard and taking on helpers like this under contract must have given a boost, however temporary, to the Post Office’s finances. This week its omnipresent chairman, Allan Leighton, will take some time off from stalking Sainsbury’s to announce a modest profit, and to claim that it is meeting its targets for the delivery of letters. These targets, I imagine, have the blessing of Mark Thomson, the Post Office’s director for sales and customer service. Earlier this year he sent out what I described at the time as a smoochy letter of his own, announcing his plans to abolish the second daily delivery, which for most of his customers had vanished long ago. What he abolished was, of course, the first delivery. The post, or someone else’s post, is now delivered in the afternoon, so that those who leave home in the mornings — for instance, to go to work — find that an extra day has been built into the timetable. On those terms, the mailcoaches need never have lost the contract to the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Seventy years later — that is, a century ago — when the Mawddwy Railway was in difficulty, it still got the post to remote Dinas Mawddwy twice a day on a hand-operated trolley. That is not Mr Thomson’s idea of customer service.
I wonder how Gordon Brown rates the Post Office’s hedonics. The study of the measurement of happiness must be on his mind just now. It appears to have caught his attention when the Office for National Statistics told us that the public sector was becoming less productive — that each of the numberless pounds he was spending bought less than the pound he had spent before it. This would never do. The ONS was told to do its sums again and make the arithmetic more hedonistic. The Warden of Nuffield was asked to re-assess the output of the National Health Service, making due allowances for technical and medical advances. It would take a truly ingenious economist to show that the Post Office has been increasing its contribution to the sum of human happiness, but some ambitious professor with an underfunded department to feed would surely feel happier for trying.
Sing along with Robin
What counts with statistics is not to make them look good but to make them look better. Better than what? Better than whatever index suits your purpose. Robin Angus, the Bard of Charlotte Square, told this truth in his Rentanindex Song, applying it to investment trusts — but for official statistics, it goes double:
I’ve indices galore, and you can see the choice proliferate — By changing round the currencies (for that I charge a stiffer rate)The simplest-seeming markets can be shown in really dotty terms —Imagine, say, the Nikkei Dow expressed in Polish zloty terms...The Goddess Truth she need not blush (I haven’t quite forgotten her),Your figures may be rotten, but I’ll find an index rottener,So don’t forget this wise advice — for trust men always treasure it — It isn’t what you measure, it’s the way in which you measure it.
The Chancellor changed his chosen index of inflation, leaving out housing costs when they were rocketing, and is getting ready to put them back in. He must have been singing along with the Bard.
A paperwork offensive is now raging through the City, whose regulators insist that no firm can sell a service without demonstrating that it knows its customer. Show us your passport and your gas-bill, please, and now sit down and fill in this weighty form. Question Umpteen: ‘Please specify the original source of funds.’ A friend of mine was going through this rigmarole with a firm where he had been known for half a century. In answer to Question Umpteen, he wrote: ‘Almost entirely from 46 years of extremely hard work.’ In fact, any answer would have done, for the form will be filed and forgotten. The regulators just want it filled in.
Tell them, Peter
I could count on Sir Peter Tapsell to introduce me to the finance minister of Madagascar: ‘Do you know Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo?’ At the International Monetary Fund’s annual soirée for 3,000 bankers and ministers, he reckoned to be on familiar terms with two thirds of those present. Some of them he would have met when selling British government stock to the world on behalf of James Capel, his firm in the City. His work deserved an exporter’s award, but he will be happy to settle for The Spectator’s accolade as Parliamentarian of the Year. His economic ideas — a card-carrying Keynesian, he called for Geoffrey Howe’s resignation as Chancellor — kept him out of office in the Thatcher era, but his financial knowledge and experience brought something to the House which is becoming rarer. He harried today’s Chancellor for selling half the nation’s gold reserves at a knock-down price. Just now he is harrying Nikko for scuttling home to Japan and reneging on the pensions promised to its City staff. Public life needs vocal and well-informed septuagenarians. Keep at it, Peter.
Now, Master Stephen, that wasn’t very clever of you, was it? Writing all those rude words on the wall of your shop? When you can’t even spell them? No wonder your friends won’t come in and your sums don’t work out and there’s a hole in your pocket. What do you mean, it was only a set of initials? French Connection United Kingdom? Now go straight upstairs and wash your mouth out with soap and then we’ll think of a nice new name. How about the one you were born with, eh — Marks? That’s not a nice name in retailing, these days? Nanny knows best, dear.
Christopher Fildes’s book, A City Spectator, is published by Nicholas Brealey (£12.99).