Stamping Out Capitalism

Banning things in Britain has its antecedents. The Puritans banned Christmas for thirteen years. By the end of the seventeenth century festive parties were back with a swing. The peasants, that’s us, have always known how to have a good time. A Christmas Song, 1695, lays the scene: ‘Now thrice welcome, Christmas, which brings us good cheer, minc’d-pies and plum-porridge, good ale and strong beer; with pig, goose and capon, the best that may be, so well doth the weather and our stomachs agree’. Bad as things may get they’re nowhere near as bad as in eighteenth century Scotland: pity the poor inhabitants of Bannshire where it is recorded that they have, ‘no pastimes or holidays, except dancing on Christmas and New Year’s Day’ (Statistical Account of Scotland, Sir John Sinclair, 1792).

It’s all become a bit of a cliché hasn’t it? The encouragement to consumerism that starts earlier every year. There’s the accoutrements and ‘tranklements’ one has to have to provide a ‘real’ Christmas. Although with the announcement by a major social media player that life in the future will be lived in virtual reality perhaps a lot of Christmas stress and trauma could be removed by everyone just staying in bed with headsets and viewers glued to their faces. Apologies, that sentence was meant to read, a lot of stress and trauma could be removed if capitalism was replaced. For those of a gambling bent there has been the ‘will it’, ‘won’t it’ spectacle of politicians playing good cop, bad cop as they mess up people’s minds with the prospect of cancelling Christmas completely. Or not. When reflecting upon the events of 2021 the lesson that politicians are merely the errand boys/girls of global capitalism will, hopefully, be learnt and absorbed.

A frisson of uncertainty has however been introduced. With the supply chains disrupted and the possibility that the Chinese-made toys requiring a second mortgage to buy are still in a container somewhere on the high seas, the question is: will said commodity find its way onto the vehicle of an overworked haulage driver and then appear at a toy superstore near you? Many who express discontent with the Christmas experience will nevertheless justify their continued surrender to it with the words, ‘It’s for the kids really’ and ‘It’s tradition, isn’t it?’

Traditions. The Urban Dictionary has some interesting takes on what a tradition is: ‘peer pressure from dead people’ and ‘reason for doing something for no apparent reason’. Also defined as something that is carried on because people can’t be bothered or aren’t able to work out for themselves that it might not be a good thing to continue with. How long does it take before a tradition becomes a tradition? We do Christmas because it’s culturally ingrained. Certain things have to be done, because, tradition. Should you tip at Christmastide? Plenty of mainstream media articles are giving advice on that.

‘Etiquette specialists Debrett have drawn up an official guide to Christmas tipping, suggesting that nannies, au-pairs and cleaners should all receive at least a week’s extra wages, while a £5 gift would be appropriate as a thank-you for milk and post deliveries or refuse collectors’ (East Anglian Daily Times). Tipping of the milkman, postman, dustman, paper delivery boy/girl, coal delivery man was once widespread because these were all regular household visitors and were known personally. Whilst non-East Anglia residents may have missed this particular item, readers of the Standard will no doubt be extra generous in their appreciation of the service categories listed by Debrett’s. Why no mention of the butler, one wonders? Does management at all levels still acquire a haul of expensive alcoholic beverages at this time of year from salesmen and company reps? The ‘shop floor’, if lucky, might be given a bottle of whisky by the management to share amongst themselves (or sherry if the shop floor is mainly female).
‘The term “Christmas box” dates back to the 17th century… In Britain, it was a custom for tradesmen to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This custom is linked to an older British tradition where the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families since they would have had to serve their masters on Christmas Day. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses, and sometimes leftover food’ (Wikipedia).
In 1843 the first Christmas card for the masses sold at a price of over four pounds in today’s money. More affordable cards were produced from 1860 onwards. Rowland Hill’s postal services for the masses had begun with the issue of the Penny Black in 1840. In 1830 there were 98 miles of railway tracks in Britain, in 1840 there were 1,498 miles, and in 1860, 10,433 miles of railways. Mail was first moved by railways in 1830 and in 1838 Travelling Post Offices (TPOs) were operating. By the 1870s the cost of postage for a Christmas card (envelope unsealed) was half a penny (pre-decimal).
In 2003, to save Royal Mail ten million pounds a year, TPOs were taken out of service. The last TPO service ran on the night of 9 January 2004.
In 2018 it is estimated that UK sales of single and boxed Christmas cards was £384 million, very nice for that part of the capitalist class investing in the greetings card sector. Up to 150 million Christmas cards are expected to be delivered. One billion seasonal cards are thought to be sold annually in the UK. COP26 neglected among other things to make the decision to ban printed greeting cards. One tree is needed to make three thousand cards, or enough to service the needs of 176 people (GWP Group).

‘Stamp collecting! It had started on day one. And then ballooned like some huge… thing, running on strange mad rules. Was there any other field where flaws made things worth more?’ (Making Money, Terry Pratchett).

Without the postage stamp we would have been bereft of Postman Pat and his black and white cat, or of Cliff Clavin, the hapless mail deliverer and habitué of a Boston tavern in TV’s Cheers. The adventures of Moist von Lipwig and his efforts to resuscitate the postal services of Discworld’s Ankh-Morpork would be denied us too.

It might be debated whether Rowland Hill, the advocate for a cheaper postal service than was in existence in the middle of the nineteenth century, was being completely altruistic in his ultimately successful attempts to persuade the government to allow the population access to a cheaper means of sending mail. Hill made the case that if letters were cheaper to send, people including the poorer classes would send more of them, thus eventually raising profits. The use of adhesive, pre-paid stamps was seized upon by the capital class of various countries, and twenty years after their British debut stamps were being used in ninety countries. In 1840 the Penny Black doubled the number of letters sent.

In 1971 the cost of a Royal Mail first class stamp was 3p and a second class stamp was 2 ½p. Grumblies of a particular generation who accost others in the Post Office queue mumbling ‘I remember when you could buy a stamp for sixpence’ (old pennies, pre-decimalisation) don’t usually complain about the social system that makes them pay for a postal service in the first place. A little-known law states that comments of this nature must be accompanied by the codicil ‘And you could purchase various items for a ridiculously low price too!’ Five or ten shillings being the favourite amount quoted. For the majority still it’s the cost of living in a capitalist society that enrages, not the system itself. The cost of a first class postage stamp in 2021 is 85 pence. Riddle… why is the working class like postage stamps and railway carriages? Because they’re still second class in the society they keep moving every day.

‘In socialism posting will be free and rare stamps won’t have any value as an asset,’ a socialist will tell you. Both observations are decidedly true. In a future socialist society, will the practice of sending greetings cards continue? Will e-cards completely supersede the tree-birthed card? Wouldn’t it be much more positive for the environment to reduce the billions of cards currently produced? What would happen to postage stamps in a moneyless society? Would the hobby of philately grow stronger or die out? There’s a world of knowledge in postage stamps.

W.H. Auden’s poem, ‘Night Mail’, written to accompany the 1936 documentary film of the same name, describes the myriad types of letters sent and received: ‘Written on paper of every hue, The pink, the violet, the white and the blue, The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring, The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring, Clever, stupid, short and long, The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.’ Even in this age of instantaneous electronic communication there is still a thrill to receive through the letterbox a missive which is not junk mail or a bill. Auden captured perfectly the delight which accompanied the rattle of the letterbox. ‘But shall wake soon and hope for letters, And none will hear the postman’s knock Without a quickening of the heart, For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?’

Note to the ruling class: it isn’t the Christmas elves who are chopping down the trees, producing cards, designing stamps and running the printing presses, driving trains, delivering post all over the country, and keeping the wheels of capitalism turning.


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