Right now, and for the next 22 days, you can read my latest novel The Fountain in the Forest in synch with the French Republican Calendar. Conversion between the Republican and Gregorian Calendars is imprecise, but by common reckoning today’s date Monday 9 March 2020 converts to Decadi 20 Ventôse CCXXVIII in the Revolutionary Calendar. Factoring in Fabre d’Eglantine’s system of everyday rural imagery, 20 Ventôse 228 and Chapter 8 of the novel are dedicated to Twine.
Q. What does that have to do with this photo of a pair of ‘vintage farming or veterinary scissors very old’ that I just found on ebay?
In the 1990s when I worked for the Post Office, sorting post at the London NW1 mail centre on St. Pancras Way in Camden, and later the N1 mail centre on Upper Street, Islington, I learned how to tie-up a bundle of letters using a kind of yellow nylon twine that was threaded through a hole on each sorting desk from large bobbins that slotted onto spindles beneath the work stations. The knot in question – the ‘Postman’s knot’? – was a kind of one-way slip-knot, with a loop that you’d pull to tighten the twine around the bundle, so that the letters wouldn’t come lose in the rough and tumble of the mail bag. The knot seemed archaic at the time, and was something that only the old-timers, the ‘senior men’, generally used. But one of them taught it to me, and it came in handy when, periodically, the sorting office ran out of rubber bands. Mail bags too were tied with twine, but of a heavier-gauge, which came in pre-cut lengths that you fastened in a certain way before the pinching the string with a ‘bag-seal’, a hinged piece of die-stamped metal that clamped both knot and bag label in place.
In fact the ‘veterinary scissors’ being auctioned have nothing at all to do with animal health and husbandry. They’re Royal Mail, standard issue, bag- and bundle-opening shears. So shaped that the lower blade is shallow enough to slip under a tightly-knotted round of twine.
If you look closely you can just about see the letters ‘GPO’ stamped into the metal near the hinge.
Although the early 1990s was a period of rapid mechanisation in the Royal Mail, the workplace that I joined was in many respects little-changed from the one illustrated in this ancient British Movieone News public information film about using the correct postage. And right at the beginning of the film you can see a pair of these shears in use, snipping the twine to open a bundle of letters (at about 00:08).
(ICYMI Some of my own experiences of working for the Post Office found their way into my 2012 novella Missorts Volume II, published by Situatons in Bristol, which is set in and around the abandoned sorting office, the former South West mail centre, at Bristol Temple Meads.)
Even in the early 1990s, Post Office workers, postmen and postwomen, were still being issued with a pair of these strange looking bag-opening shears. ‘Borrow your scissors?’ colleagues would ask. So of course I lost mine on the job pretty quickly, and – sad to say – having left the Post Office in 1997 I’ve long-since forgotten how to tie that special ‘Postman’s knot’.
If I could still remember how to tie it, I would of course – in honour of the revolutionary day of twine – have given you a quick demo here.
If anyone can remind me how to do it, do please let me know!
Download a free copy of Tony White’s Post Office novella Missorts Volume II (Situations, 2012) in ebook and PDF formats from the Missorts web archive
Read Richard Marshall’s review of Missorts Volume II by Tony White on 3am Magazine
Buy The Fountain in the Forest from the Waterstones site, to ‘click and collect’ from your local branch
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