Mail must stay in public hands

THE letter, from a former pupil, was addressed simply: Mr Semmens, the headmaster, England.

Aidan Semmens

THE letter, from a former pupil, was addressed simply: Mr Semmens, the headmaster, England. It landed on my father's desk in north London just three days after it was posted in Sierra Leone, west Africa.

This glowing example of efficiency actually occurred 40 years ago. But I wouldn't rule out the possibility of something like it happening today.

Modern automation might militate against the degree of initiative involved. But I still wouldn't bet against a similar display of postal chutzpah.

But what if today's 30 per cent proves to be just the thin end - well, more like the middle - of the wedge? What if the Royal Mail, a few deliveries down the road, is delivered entirely into private hands?

Will we still get such sparkling service then? Will we still be able to post a letter in Ipswich today and expect it to reach Carlisle, Penzance, Belfast or Inverness tomorrow - and for just 36p?

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In a way, the troubles of the mail are a consequence of its own success.

Nobody alive today can remember a time when it wasn't there to be relied on. We've all grown up with it, so we tend to take it for granted.

After all, it's a public service. But now the service is under threat.

In the post-Thatcher world the old Post Office has lost the telephone system - which might by now have made it a highly profitable source of national income.

It has lost the post office branches - the closure of so many of which is a national disgrace.

And what is left has to compete in an unfair market. Rival delivery companies cherry-pick the lucrative jobs without the Mail's commitment to reach every home six days a week.

No wonder, as Peter Mandelson says, the Royal Mail “cannot survive in its present form”.

This is precisely because successive governments, including his, have for the past 28 years bullied it and butchered it, forced it to fight with tied hands.

Almost all that's left is the commitment to provide a service. Which it still does, mostly brilliantly. But for how much longer?

If the government was true to Labour principles - instead of Thatcherite ones - Mandelson would today be saving the service, not kicking it while it's down.

He would be re-nationalising all the bits that have been scandalously sold off or given away, not selling off more.

He would be putting the old Post Office back together. And he would be committing the government to keeping it going as an efficient, reliable national service.

It would cost a lot, of course. Maybe as much as a tenth of what the government has handed out to failed bankers.

(OK, that figure is a complete guess, picked out of the air almost at random. But isn't that what bankers - and governments - do with their big figures?)

It's perfectly possible. Merely unthinkable for a government that has lost all touch with its roots.

But isn't maintaining the post - along with water, power and railways - an essential part of what a government is for?

A FUSE blew and all the lights went out. But the band simply went on playing. It must have been, if you'll pardon me, an electrifying moment.

But then the whole performance was electrifying anyway. I know, because although I wasn't at the Roundhouse in London I did see the band the next night. And they were something very, very special indeed.

I couldn't make the Moishe's Bagel gig at the Manor Ballroom last Friday. I caught them instead the night before in the unlikely surroundings of Garboldisham village hall, just over the border in Norfolk.

And they proved to be everything I'd hoped and more.

If you caught them in Ipswich you'll know what I mean. If you didn't, I'd urge you to look out for them next time they pass this way.

They're not quite like any other group, the Bagels.

I can't really describe the sound better than their website puts it: “Rip-roaring, foot-stomping, jazz-inflected klezmer and Balkan music from some of Scotland's finest musicians. An intoxicating, life-affirming mix of Eastern European dance music, Middle Eastern rhythms and virtuoso performances.”

Sadly - foolishly, in my opinion - the organisers of the Cambridge Folk Festival thought the jazz element too strong to include them on the bill.

The players' backgrounds also bring classical, bossa nova and Indian elements to the mix. But it's the traditional Jewish flavour of Pete Garnett's accordion and Greg Lawson's intense violin-playing that really defines the Moishe's Bagel sound.

Perhaps at this point I should confess a personal interest. Greg is one of my oldest friends.

But last time I saw him play in public it was as leader of the Scottish Opera orchestra about 15 years ago. That was good, but this was something else.

Only one member of the band is actually Jewish. The rest just love the music.

The one is sparkling pianist Phil Alexander, whose mother put on the Garboldisham show and admitted she was “kvelling” - a Yiddish word meaning “gushing with family pride”.

If you can extend that from family to friends, the whole performance had me really kvelling up.


IN FULL SWING: Moishe's Bagel with Phil Alexander on piano, Guy Nicholson percussion, Pete Garnett accordion, Greg Lawson violin and Mario Caribe double bass.

INTENSELY TALENTED: Violinist Greg Lawson

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