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Tuesday, 19 December, 2000, 11:31 GMT
Will it be safe in the post?

With the final deadline for posting your Christmas letters and parcels fast approaching, can we be sure everything we mail will arrive on time?

Address it properly, put enough first class stamps on it, and make sure it's in the post before Thursday and your mail will reach its destination in time for Christmas, the Post Office has promised.

Jeremy Paxman receives the stolen Enigma code machine
"No return address. It's an enigma."
In the face of rail chaos and industrial action by postal workers, the Royal Mail has drafted in aircraft from across Europe to ensure the 30 million extra items posted at Christmas get through.

However, you have to play by the Post Office's rules. The Royal Mail, like Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music, likes brown paper packages tied up with string (or sturdy sticky tape).

A mail pursuit

A network of about 50 "mail artists" around the UK, and hundreds more throughout the world, regularly test the patience of the postal service by sending unwrapped objects

Nigel Bents, of Chelsea College of Art and Design, has published a guide to his successful deliveries, such as a crab's claw clutching a postage stamp, a white feather and a teddy bear.

Deputy PM John Prescott and a crab
"Dear John... "
The earliest mail artist is thought to be Reginald Bray, who began posting incongruous objects to himself in 1898, such as a bowler hat, a bicycle pump, and a turnip with the address carved into its flesh.

You may be surprised by the things the postie will deliver if the parcel is properly wrapped and marked. Live bees, locusts and silkworms can all go first class.

Perishable foods are accepted, provided they can withstand two days in transit and are securely packaged. However, at least one naked orange has made it through the sorting process intact.

If there is one thing the Post Office cannot stand, it's a shoddy address label.

Return to sender

The National Return Letter Service in Belfast handles 50 million wrongly addressed items of mail every year.

More often than not, there is no return address on the envelope, and sorters work their way through the contents for clues to the sender's whereabouts.

Postal worker empties post box
"More locusts."
One young man laid up in hospital with a broken leg tried to send his grandmother a note and photograph.

By scrutinising the snapshot, sorters managed to work out not only which hospital the patient was in, but which ward and bed. He was still in traction when staff returned the letter to him.

Last week, posties in Manchester discovered an undelivered letter that had been sent in 1978.

The envelope was unearthed behind an old sorting frame, but has been returned to sender - Amtac Laboratories - because the addressee company no longer exists.

Each December, Santa Claus gets sackloads of letters from all the good little boys and girls. Yet confusion reigns over his whereabouts.

Clausing confusion

The Royal Mail opts for the rather esoteric (and geographically questionable): Santa's Grotto, Reindeerland, SAN TA1.

"No, this letter must be for another S Claus."
But in many people's minds Father Christmas will always be a resident of the North Pole. The trouble is the US post office currently recognises three North Poles - one in upstate New York, another in Colorado, and a third in Alaska.

At the latter, a remote rural station, residents offer to send replies that will be postmarked "North Pole" - but for a fee.

The US is not alone in this postmark madness. Last year, about 5,000 people made a pilgrimage to the post office in Bethlehem, Wales, to get their Christmas cards franked.

But going to the post office in person does not always ensure your mail will be sent safely.

Train strain

In 1998, a Moscow post office took the unusual step of advising customers that letters were no longer accepted.

The mail trains were running, but the rail ministry was refusing to deliver until the communications ministry paid off its debts of some 240m roubles [10m at the time].

Russian train
"Driver, how much to deliver this orange?"
"We don't have any money and your letter will never get there," the postmaster told one hapless customer. "Buy a train ticket and go there yourself if you have the money."

But for enterprising railway workers, the dispute offered a chance to make a bit of extra cash on the side.

For a fee, conductors and train drivers delivered parcels and letters to people waiting at stations along the route.

Considering the state of Britain's railways, trusting the post box still looks a better option.

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01 Dec 00 | Business
Return to 50m senders
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