Monday, 14 February 2011


I've never had a problem with the Royal Mail. I've always used their services with minimal fuss before, and I've always found myself sympathising with the postal staff when whatever smarmy dick in government cuts their funding, criticises them and generally hamstrings their ability to provide a decent service in what appears to be a rather transparent effort to force the Royal Mail into privatisation.

However, something happened recently as a result of a postal service employee that I can't actually overlook, and have decided that I really must lodge a complaint about it. Of course, I don’t expect anything to be done as a result of my complaining, so I thought I'd share it with the general public (or the select few who actually read this guff), so that at least the incident will be known about.

Here's my complaint, in all its dweeby glory.

"Dear Sir/Madam

Although I have never before had any particular grievance with the Royal Mail that ranks above a moderate irritation, I am sad to say that this is no longer the case. I am writing to you to register a serious complaint regarding a recent delivery I received at my Cardiff Bay address. The rather complex and surprisingly verbose guide to making a complain found on the Royal mail website states that, when submitting a complaint in writing, I should be as detailed as possible. I shall warn you now that, in this case, that may have been an ill-judged request on your part. So, here goes.

Last week I was away for a 5 day period, from the 7th to the 11th of February. My wife and I, who also lives at the same address for obvious reasons, went to Rome as part of her 30th Birthday celebrations. Yes, we had a very nice time, thanks for asking. One restaurant we visited had run out of mussels for the dish I wanted, and my wife did step in some particularly pungent dog 'mess' one evening (suggesting that Italian pet food is also much richer and varied than typical British offerings, but this one encounter provided insufficient data for such a generalisation), but apart from these incidents it was a very enjoyable time.

We returned to the UK at around 2pm on Friday the 11th, landing at Bristol and making our way back to Cardiff. After navigating the baffling route from this low-key airport, encountering numerous delays offered by Friday afternoon traffic along the seemingly perpetual but constantly unoccupied road works on the M4 between Newport and Cardiff, and stopping at a nearby Asda to stock up on perishables that weren't readily available in Italy and/or suitable for transporting via suitcases in the hold of a passenger jet (e.g. Bread, semi-skimmed milk, explosive materials), we arrived back at our address around 3.30pm.

As we live in a multi-story block of flats, our mailbox is located at the rear of our building, in the car park by the back entrance. As a result, we always check our relatively low-capacity mailbox before entering the building. In this case, we were encumbered by 3 suitcases (one of which weighed over 20 kg, according to the Easyjet check-in desk in the Roman airport) and 5 bags of shopping, which we had to carry up 3 flights of stairs. I had also just spent nearly 3 hours driving after a 2.5 hour flight, so was in a rather 'frazzled' state, shall we say. So perhaps you can appreciate that my reaction to what I found in the mailbox was remarkably restrained in the circumstances.

As I said, we had been away for several days, and it was the week of my wife's 30th Birthday. As a result, the mailbox was relatively full. It was mostly birthday cards, several bills, some official correspondence from my wife's workplace, and general flyers and advertising material from local businesses (coincidentally, regarding our recent holiday destination, the latter were mostly from Pizza delivery outlets).

However, among this predictable collection of mail, there was a large, stiff card-backed envelope wedged to one side. Here is what it looked like (minus the other mail, for clarity)

It doesn't look great, I'll admit, but if it won't fit I guess there is no alternative but to force it in and hope for the best (although I would suggest you avoid using this phrase as a defence in court, just so you know).

However, a closer inspection proved to be a very infuriating experience. Here is a clear view of the front of the envelope.

In case of any problems with the hosting or formatting of these images, I'll describe the envelope in detail so we both know what I'm referring to. The top left corner features a label with the return address, which is the registry office of Cardiff University. Under this, in slightly faint red letters, are stamped the words 'First class'. I'm not sure the expense of first class is meant to rule out the 'jam it in a too-small space and hope for the best' style of delivery, so I won't question that. Just above the centre is a smaller label with my name and home address on it. The most prominent feature of the envelope is to the bottom left, where the words 'Please do not bend' are stamped in large, clear red letters. This phrase is, in this context, quite ironic, being as it is quite visibly presented below a blatant large fold right across the centre of the envelope, which undeniably results from the envelope having been severely bent in order to get it into the mailbox, when it was delivered by someone whose job it is to deliver mail safely and correctly.

The photo also features my left hand, my mailbox and those of my neighbours, and part of the building car park. I believe these details are irrelevant.

This 'Do not bend' envelope that had been bent was alarming and frustrating. Despite the fact that a large and reputable institution like Cardiff University had gone to the effort of sending whatever this was in via first class in a hard-backed envelope (as is made clear by even the most cursory inspection of it), I could only hope that it was something unimportant.

Here is what was inside it.

In case it's not made clear by the picture, the envelope contained a certificate. Specifically, it contained my PhD certificate, the legal document which states that, after 5 years of research, study, writing and infuriating delays, I am now officially a doctor. I need this document to prove to the passport office, my bank, the DVLA and numerous other students that my title is has now, by law, changed from, or 'Mr.' to 'Dr.' (or 'Mister' to 'Doctor' if, as 'the Dude' said in 'The Big Lebowski', you're not into the whole brevity thing).

My PhD has been subjected to many delays, resulting from lab shutdowns, numerous re-writes, questionable decisions by external examiners, and other factors. As a result, I have effectively been waiting for this document for over 18 months. To finally receive it, but have it treated with such blatant disdain and lack of care by a member of the postal service was quite galling (although I had to admit it was rather ironically symbolic of the way my PhD efforts have been treated by external agencies, but that's another matter)

As said, this certificate is an important document legally. I've not heard back from my enquiries about how much it would cost to get a replacement, but it's not likely to be cheap. A replacement birth certificate costs to replace, and those are far more common, and my PhD certificate took a lot more work to obtain than my birth certificate (although my mother may dispute this conclusion).

I have struggled to come up with a logical explanation for why a postal employee would actively damage an extremely important piece of mail that did not belong to them in clear contradiction of the blatant instructions presented on the package itself, and have failed to do so. I have come up with and ruled out several options. These are listed here, as are my reasons for dismissing them. If you feel I have made a logical error then please feel free to correct me.

So, why would they do this?

1: The Postman felt the package was too urgent to take back to the depot? Although a potentially well-intended action, this doesn't really excuse the damage to my document. If the postman was forward thinking enough to predict I would require the document with some urgency, he would presumably have had the wherewithal to notice that there were several other pieces of mail already in the mailbox from previous deliveries (this delivery is postmarked 10-02-2011, the day before we returned home). I appreciate that he may have considered this delivery important enough to risk damaging in spite of the obvious instructions, and in spite of the fact that I clearly wasn't collecting my mail at present, but that's not his decision to make.

2: The Postman felt that taking the package back to the depot was a bit excessive and unnecessarily costly? Again, potentially well meant, but not really his decision to make, even if it was for my benefit. And in all honesty, this would run contrary to previous experiences I've had with packages from Royal Mail. Most recently I received a 'failed to deliver' card, and was made to drive to the main depot and pay the excess on what was declared 'a package'. What it was was a small envelope with a thank you card from a friend based in Oxford whom I had recently done a talk for. She sent me the card, but it was deemed too big to be considered a letter because it contained the cap from my USB stick which I had mistakenly left behind. The cap had the dimensions and weight of a slightly-thicker-than-average thumbnail, but this was still considered too big to be delivered. So you can hopefully understand my being sceptical of a postman willing to deliver something which is clearly much larger than the hole it has to go into.

3: The postman was angry with me for some reason: The damaged delivery may have been due to malicious intent. Admittedly, there have been several times before when a delivery has been too big for my letterbox and the postman has contacted me via the building intercom, and there is usually a delay between me answering and arriving at the letterbox, but this is because I live on the 3rd floor and we don't have a lift. If this relatively minor delay is deemed sufficient reason to damage my property, then I'm somewhat stuck as, aside from bodily hurling myself down the 3 flights of stairs, I can't see a way to get down there faster than I already do. Even if I did do that, I doubt I'd be in any fit state to sign for packages by the time I got to the bottom. I suppose it's possible that it's traditional to tip postmen at Christmas as is the norm with dustmen, but as I rarely ever encounter the postmen I have no idea how I would go about doing this, and it still isn't really an excuse to damage my documents.

4: The postman responsible can't actually read: It's feasible that the postman who delivered the document damaged it because he couldn't read the instructions telling him not to. However, if this is the case, then he would also have been unable to read the much smaller and less clear information regarding the address, so usually just guesses which items should be delivered where. In this situation, the fact that I actually received the document addressed to me at all should be considered an occurrence so unlikely that it actually constitutes a miracle. If you find the postman in question, can you ask him for a guess regarding this week's lottery numbers? At the very least, contact the Vatican so he can be canonised after he dies.

5: The postman is blind and could not see the letterbox: If this is the case, the argument from the previous possibility is just as valid, if not more so. But it begs the question of how he knew to fold it to fit into the smaller hole, if he is blind? I can only hope that he wasn't the one driving the van if this possibility turns out to be correct.

In summary, I received a highly important, legally essential and long overdue (but the latter was nothing to do with you) document that was specifically labelled with instructions to treat with care and specifically not to bend, which was treated with no apparent care, bent rather severely and inserted into an already rather full mailbox.

The certificate is, after all this, intact. I could feasibly leave it under some heavy books or iron it in some way and it would be usable, but I shouldn't have to do this and it is quite scuffed after the delivery. This certificate, which took me an incredible amount of time, effort and expense to obtain, would usually be displayed quite prominently in my home (or, as is more likely, my mother's home) for the for the rest of my life, but it was damaged before I even saw it thanks to the manner in which it was delivered.

I don't really anticipate much being done about this, but I felt it necessary to lodge a formal complaint in case it happens again. I have several friends who work in medicine, and if they were to be sent important but delicate patient scans which were damaged in this manner, it could cost some their life.

Actually, I can't think of any circumstance where crucial patient scans would be sent to a doctors home via Royal mail, so please ignore that previous attempt to introduce some gravitas to this complaint.

I sincerely doubt anything will actually come of this complaint beyond someone being told not to do it again. But I feel I should let you know that this has also been posted to my bizarrely popular blog so that people know it is something that can occur when they send potentially important packages. It's a final, bitter irony that, as a result, it's almost certain that more people will read this complaint than will ever read the thesis that got me the PhD (and subsequently the certificate) in the first place.

Yours sincerely

Dean Burnett"


Gary said...

By the way, you don't need that certificate to change your title at your bank, DVLA, passport, etc. If they ask for it, there's something dodgy going on. "Doctor" isn't a title with any legal status in the UK. Anyone can title themselves "Dr" if they want.

Dean Burnett, Neuroscientist said...

Although I'm sure you know this via your own experience, I tried to renew my passport recently, and couldn't change my title unless I provided official supporting documents. Driving license ditto.

Wales said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alice said...

(oops, typing as me now rather than as Cardiff Skeptics) - are you sure, Gary? I thought chiropractors, for example, weren't allowed to style themselves "Doctor" . . .

Anonymous said...

Way too much time on ur hands!

ptah said...

Too long, didn't read.

Pinkpoppop said...

Why the hell was it not sent via registered post? You should complain to the University sending important documentation this way. Idiots.

beckysmummy said...

awesome epistle Dude, I mean Mister, I mean Sir, I mean Doctor!!!!

Anonymous said...

I feel I should read your thesis now.

EvoDivas said...

10 seconds of research have informed me that you need a PhD in order to be titled 'Doctor'. It isn't like 'nutritionist'.

I feel i have wasted my time because of your misinformation, Gary. I demand 10 seconds of your life in return.

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