It was in September 1974 that two Post Office investigators arrived at my office in the City of London.
Published: 16 January 2024
I had long ago buried the memory.
But watching the heart-rending TV series “Mr Bates versus the Post Office” last week brought it all back. It reminded me how upset I was, how inflexible and impenetrable the system had been and why there had been no real choice except resignation.
What happened to me was very minor compared to the appalling injustice visited later upon those hundreds of sub-postmasters and their families by the ineptitude, arrogance and greed of the organisation, and the behaviour of Fujitsu, suppliers of Horizon, the IT accounting system, but it was very unpleasant.
I had worked in the Data Communications Division for almost four years and had recently been promoted to a chief sales superintendent.
Our primary product was a modem that, if I remember correctly, was available for rent only, had a waiting list of at least two years, had been built to last for two decades and was already lagging behind its international competitors.
However the Post Office had the monopoly, so our customers were stymied.
As I had learned, in so far as personnel gave much thought to finding the right jobs for the right people, there seemed to be an in-built assumption that in any three tiers of hierarchy, one would be useless.
So in my new job, finding myself with a thoroughly competent boss and deputy, there was nothing for me to do unless I meddled pointlessly. No one in the badly managed sclerotic bureaucracy would contemplate getting rid of a post.
I was stuck, so I concentrated my energies on getting on with the biography of Patrick Pearse I was writing in the evenings.
And then the investigators arrived and accused me of contravening impenetrable rules about expenses.
I am by temperament a swings-and-roundabouts person who had never minded working extra hours unpaid, when, for instance, running conferences. I couldn’t understand half the incredibly dense expenses rules, but took advice from experienced colleagues about finding a way through anomalies and absurdities.
I found unethical the practice of some colleagues who found excuses for futile visits to customers hundreds of miles away.
However, being entitled by my grade to travel first class, I didn’t see anything wrong with the common practice of eschewing luxury and travelling second on a first class PO warrant.
What I had not taken into account was the deep rage felt by a few of my colleagues towards the tiny number of fast-stream graduate entrants who had passed the promotion board.
As a humanities graduate and a woman in a world of men with an engineering background, I was to some an insult.
I learned afterwards who had tipped off Investigation Division, known never to give up once they had begun. He was the cross man who used to glower in the corner of our open plan office.
They found a few trivial irregularities in their crawl through dozens of forms, but then I explained that I had been given an OK on the travel dodge. They demanded names that I wouldn’t give.
So that was that. I was suspended, told that the Post Office might prosecute me for criminal fraud and colleagues were warned that to speak to me would be a disciplinary offence. I resigned, and ultimately they wrote to say they wouldn’t be proceeding proceeding with the matter.
My weeks of insomnia and inordinate feelings of shame gave way to a determination to pick myself up. After a few months, during which I lived with my parents in Ireland and finished researching and writing the Pearse book, I applied to become a direct entry principal in the Civil Service: after days of exams and interviews, I was asked at the final hurdle what had happened with the Post Office. I began the brief explanation by mentioning Kafka. “That’s the Post Office for you”, said one of them, several other people on the board laughed, and I was offered the job.
The acknowledgements in my book end: “Lastly, I give thanks to those of my ex-colleagues in the British Post Office without whose efforts on my behalf I might never have had the time to write this book.”