Can you download it to me – in an envelope with a stamp?

Email got easier. Ordinary mail got worse

which way

Something for the Weekend, Sir? I was only trying to collect a package from the counter. No, officer, I don't know why the post office is littered with broken glass. And teeth.

Yes, officer, it might help if I start from the beginning. Let's have a look back on how it all started...

… a look back… look back… back… [SFX: rippling video, sweeping of harp strings in overlapping and increasingly rising tones]

In 1993 I took a year off from my job on a computer magazine to live in the south of France. Within a couple of months I found myself at the centre of my own little remote-working project, doing what we used to call "desktop publishing" on what we used to call an "Applemac". This was pretty much what I was doing before I quit full-time employment but now I could do it dressed in nothing but budgie-smugglers while crouched in a converted agricultural shed in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

The big challenge was file transfer. Email in those days was for messaging only. CompuServe supported file uploads and CIX had a command-line FTP gateway, but these demanded fiddly manual file compression, encoding and decoding, and sending or receiving via my 1,200-baud modem was slow and fraught with dropped connections.

Does anyone here remember the tedious regularity of having to persuade your terminal software to pick up an interrupted upload/download from where it left off rather than starting it all over again from the beginning?


Quick Q: How many FLOPPIES do I need for 16 MILLION image files?


I would paste my articles into email messages and hope the sub-editors didn't mind stripping out all the carriage returns and doing a search-and-replace for characters such as "å" and "Æ", which the fledgling internet gods used to sprinkle randomly into ASCII just to keep us on our toes. But binary files such as screenshots, graphic files and executables were out of the question: it was quicker and much much more reliable to send these "over the air".

By this, I mean I would save them to 3.5in floppy disks, stuff them in a padded envelope and air-mail it marked "Prioritaire" from a city centre post office. Arguably, this data transfer method was faster than using a modem anyway. Remember my old colleague who, by posting ZIP disks to me in this way some years later, managed to outrun ISDN?

It was a few months afterwards that I invested several thousand francs in a state-of-the-art 9,600-baud modem. That meant I could FTP as many as three screenshots if I left it running overnight. Such joy…

… joy … joy …

[SFX: rippling video, sweeping harp strings etc]

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Sorry officer, I was lost in memories for a moment. No need to slap me again. No really, please don't.

Well, here I am once again trying to make a go of it in the south of France. This time I have the internet and all of my work transactions are conducted online, including real-time training and sharing terabyte data files.

Unfortunately, some people have continued to send me things by post; things such as disposable contact lenses, insurance renewal confirmations, cheques (oh yes indeed), unsolicited adverts for stair-lifts and walk-in baths, and those illegible notices printed in 4pt text that banks send out to all their customers at least 17 times every month to inform them of the latest changes to their terms and conditions.

I thought I'd be clever and arrange my physical post in the UK to be collected and then once a fortnight stuffed into a padded envelope and sent down to me at my current Airbnb lodgings. Unfortunately, it's not 1993 any more and this simple action is proving to be a challenge beyond the means of modern postal networks.

Since my temporary Airbnb apartment has a lockable mailbox and the key is held by the owner, currently in the Alps, getting stuff delivered here is inadvisable. So I approach local business centres to enquire about their mailbox rental offers. No problem, they assure me, just give us your current address so we can send you the forms.

Well, er, you can't send me things in the post, I tell them. That's why I need a rented mailbox.

Non, non, they insist: it is not possible to let me rent a mailbox unless I have a fixed address.

Mais si, si, I plead: if I had a fixed address, I wouldn't need to rent the mailbox.

I try an alternative: have the package delivered by international courier. That way, they have to hand it to me personally and get a signature. I know, I know, obvious mistake. When the courier arrived brandishing my package at the block's security gate, he inexplicably decided not to press the buzzer for the flat or to call my mobile number; instead, he contacted directory enquiries or the town hall or something nutso like that, eventually found a number for the legal owner of the flat (in the Alps, remember) and phoned her to announce he had a delivery for me.

The second time, I insisted the package was tracked throughout the process. I watched the courier's website in fascination as my package sat on the floor of the dispatch warehouse in Croydon for two days, followed by another day in a similar warehouse in Marseille, then loaded onto a delivery van which set off the next morning, only to return straight back to the warehouse an hour later, where it remained without moving for a further five days. It was eventually delivered to a collection point… 2km away from the one I had requested.

They say humans prefer to be replaced by a robot than by another human. Naturally, losing your job to someone else (or indeed to no one else) is insulting to your professional self-worth. But being made redundant by the introduction of automation has a smack of impersonal inevitability about it.

Well sod that. The sooner they replace living, breathing French DHL couriers with robots in autonomous vans, the better for us all. And I mean that very personally.

Anyway, at this point, un petit oiseau m'a dit that it is possible to send personal mail by conventional post from anywhere in the world to a specific French post office of your choice. As long as it bears your full name and the legend Poste Restante at the top, you can just turn up with ID and collect it for no extra charge.

That's when things really kicked off, er, officer.

I walk in and announce that I have come to collect a Poste Restante in my name. The post office assistant looks up tiredly, grumbling: "What's the reference number?"

Oh, I respond, I have no idea. I don't think it has one.

"Then I can't help you."


What is this reference number, I ask. "All post is sent with a reference number," he claims, implausibly.

Er, no it doesn't. It's not a courier delivery, just ordinary post.

"There are thousands of letters back there," the man complains, indicating behind him with a thumb, "and you're asking me to look through them all?" He paints a picture of the tiny box room as if it was that warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

No need for that. Perhaps you could look at those beginning with D. Or maybe there's a pigeonhole back there labelled "No reference number". Or if you've taken the Poste Restante letters that don't have reference numbers and put them all in the bin, have a look in the bin: it'll be there. Maybe it's been shoved up your…

Mme D prods me in the ribs and whispers: "Don't get angry." She doesn't like it when I get angry.

"It's a massive task you're asking me to do and I'm so busy," whines the post office man, waving expansively to impress upon me the sheer emptiness of the room and utter absence of other customers or indeed anything else for him to do.

My face is turning green. My contact lenses have little white circles in them.


Huffing and sighing, he wanders off to the back room and keeps us waiting all of, ooh I dunno, six seconds before ambling back, swinging my Poste Restante package in his free hand.


Before he hands me my package or returns my passport, however, he insists how lucky I am that he found the package for me so quickly despite the enormity of the task I had landed upon him.


If anyone else had been on duty, he says, it would have been quite impossible and furthermore…


And there we have it. I don't remember what happened next.

Lying amid the rubble and scrambling from under the girders is the post office man, certainly a human ripe for replacement by a robot. Even the crappest robot will do. Come to think of it, forget engineering to replace him: I could have got better service from a chewed ballpoint pen cap.

Sorry about the glass and teeth, officer, except I seem to have torn my trousers and split my trainers. And has anyone seen my shirt?

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He dreads the day when he has to make a return visit to the aforementioned post office, once it is rebuilt. Who knows, maybe someone needs to send me a fax? @alidabbs

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